Listening Circles: Supporting Grief Online

The challenges of our current times are revealing an uncomfortable and ever-present companion much more clearly among us: Grief. It is in the air, shimmering in the socially-distanced spaces between us.

We have come into connection with Grief through our daily lived experiences during the Covid-19 crisis. The slower pace of life, which has given us time to reflect, has been coupled with:

  • An awareness of many people falling ill and dying among us and around the world;
  • Separation from those we love and feel concern for – we have not been able to meet people, to hug, cry and process grief together;
  • The loss of touch and connection;
  • The restrictions on choice and freedom;
  • An awareness our planet has been and continues to be horrifically exploited, so much so that a pandemic was unleashed upon our species;
  • An awareness that it has taken an enormous crisis to put a halt to our continued exploitation of the earth and other creatures.

For generations, Grief has been deeply othered by the death-phobic culture most of us have grown up within and as a consequence people have not been able to engage with Grief or process what it is they are feeling. In the absence of Grief what appears instead is grievance; something to be “gotten through”, “gotten over”, “gotten on the other side of”. Grief asks of us, requires us to give of ourselves, whilst grievance whispers in our ears that we deserve better than we’re getting. For us to connect with our Grief, it is vital for us to slow down and to cultivate a sense of welcome and gratitude for the ways that life is living itself through us.

For the moment, however, we are driven to online connections. Though a shadowy substitute for the comfort of solid physical presence, it is for now all many of us have access to.

How to hold online spaces which allow people to process Grief can bring up many thoughts and feelings: fear of the unknown, thoughts that there might be a “right way” or a “wrong way” to share or respond when Grief appears. This document has drawn on the experience and wisdom of many to offer suggestions on how to support those who are stepping forward to hold spaces in which people can address Grief and be heard.

Prepare to Welcome

  • Ensure you are familiar with zoom beforehand. Advice and tutorials can be accessed here.
  • Give yourself 15 minutes or so to create a sense of welcome before the call begins. If you are pairing with another to help facilitate, connect in with your partner at this point and share how you are preparing for the call.
  • Turn off all other distractions and devices. The quality of attention you bring to the call has an impact on those who join the room.
  • Ground yourself into calm with breathing practice and any other techniques which you know support you.
  • Have fresh water and comfy seating.
  • Check the Zoom link is working and have all you need to hand.
  • Look at a poem or reading which speaks to Grief. (Link here)
  • If possible, light a candle – a restorative flame to stay lit for the call duration, and be blown out at the end.

Recognise that you have stopped travelling the regular, beaten path and have turned off into the overgrown thickets that are rarely visited. You are lighting a fire to welcome in all of the beings, seen and unseen, who bring themselves into the space you will host. The quality of the welcome you create before the call begins is the quality of welcome that will be experienced by those who join. Create a space filled with the quality of beauty you would want for your most beloved ancestors to come to, that they might hear the call.


  • Open the zoom room a few minutes early if you can.
  • Welcome people as they arrive. Notice how many are arriving by phone and be clear how you will engage them in discussions – by raising their hands in the chat window, or voicing their desire to talk with a word, such as stack or queue.
  • If desired, have some music playing as people arrive, or ask people to share where they are from or something memorable that has happened that day.
  • When you have given time for people to arrive or you have reached the comfortable number of participants (suggesting 12 for one facilitator/24 for 2), close the room. This is important as it can be uncomfortable to have new people arrive past a certain point, especially if there is vulnerability and Grief in the room.
  • If the group is large and are two facilitators, then create two breakout rooms so that each facilitator can create a Grief space.
  • Request people mute themselves when not speaking.
  • Request people make a visual sign if they wish to speak, and agree a way for callers on the phone to let you know when they have something to say.
  • Check to see if anyone has any accessibility needs to ensure inclusion (they may for example need visual or written prompts, or might be hard of hearing and need people to speak clearly, loudly and slowly).
  • Begin with a breathing practice to help people become present in their bodies. You can also use some of this quiet breathing time to introduce some agreements with participants that make it easier to be in full presence.
  • Welcome all the emotions that come up: the tender, the temper and the tears (especially the tears).
  • Make silence welcome also - offer the practice of a restorative pause for anyone who would like the whole group to take some deep breaths together in silence.
  • Let people know how you might hold space and what the structure of the circle will be – will people be invited to share and you will all listen? Will you be reflecting back what people have said by saying what you understood back to them? If so, model what this is like so people understand.
  • Explain how others will interact with what is shared. How might others offer reflections or curiosities – is this invited?
  • Think about how you might feel steady in the space you are holding and offer this – there is no ‘right’ is a gift to bear witness to what is and not many places to sit with things. Share if you feel uncertain or unsure and if you would welcome people to ask for a pause etc.
  • Invite people to check into the room. Begin yourself. Share name and prefered pronoun, where you are calling from and a little of the situation you are living with, or what brought you here. You might also choose to ask people to share a gratitude or a moment of awe or joy from their day. This is where you can begin to listen for meaning. Check in with people about the meaning you have understood from what you heard, in your own words.
  • Thank people when they have finished and invite them to choose to pass the check-in on to someone else, or do it yourself if they cannot see the other participants.
  • You might ask people to also connect with a physical sensation alive in their body at that moment. If doing this, you create time to reconnect with this later in the call, to check if things have shifted.

Weave the Basket of Empathy for Grief to Show Up

  • Once everyone has checked in, it can be powerful to share a poem or reading. This could be something that is relevant to what is alive in you at that moment.
  • This reading can then become the beginning of a wondering aloud, that you might bring to the group to begin an empathetic dialogue. The following questions can help support this dialogue:
  1. What truths are proving too hard to talk about with those around you?
  2. What sort of anxieties are arising in people?
  3. Who have been the rocks in people’s lives – where are they now and what arises when you think of them?
  • These kinds of courageous conversations almost sustain themselves. As people start to engage with the dialogue, the facilitator can step back, thanking people when they have finished speaking and calling in the next person.
  • Sometimes, if there is more than one person waiting, you might invite Z and then T to share to help the conversation flow.
  • Welcome pauses between people speaking. This allows for people to breathe and lets what has been said land fully.
  • Pay attention to the conversation, and also, have some attention to others either waiting to speak or who are very quiet. If you see people being moved to tears you can call a restorative pause.
  • You might want to invite people to return to some breaths together in honour and validation. In this pause, remember to remind people that tears are normal and needed. They are a sign of life and emotions shifting and flowing, and are a very human communion with the element of water.
  • When all those who are willing to speak up, have had some time, create space for the quiet participants to have an opportunity to bring something to the conversation. Do not assume that because they have not indicated they want to talk, that they have nothing to say, but always make sure that saying nothing is welcome too.
  • Numbness also shows up in these spaces and it is ok to acknowledge and be with the numbness that may be appearing in participants. Numbness is as equally and valuable as Grief or any other emotional state. This may also be recognised as “not knowing” how I feel about something.

Keep an Eye on the Time

  • Around half way through the call, begin to listen out for a moment to connect with what's next. Perhaps it is an invite for people to share the type of self care they are finding supports them, or perhaps it is an invite for people to connect to what matters to them most in these times – something they might wish to maintain when the restrictions of this crisis are lifted.
  • You might also listen out for gratitude – What are the positives people are experiencing from the chance to foster deeper connections with themselves, the communities and the natural world? Often participants will share a song or a painting or some other beauty making – always find time for these. These are gifts that weave us into empathy and connection, and are greatly needed in these times of distancing and loneliness.

Closing the Call with Care

  • About 10 mins before the call ends, look for the opportunity to bring time to the attention of participants and see if anyone has a burning need to speak up to something before we begin check-outs.
  • For the check outs, invite people to share a gratitude about something on the call which has had an impact on them.
  • Try to be available for another fifteen mins after the call, in case, a participant has a need for more listening time before leaving the call. If someone on the call still looks very emotional or withdrawn, then you could send them a private chat message, offering for them to stay on the call with you after check outs.
  • Have a support call lined up for yourself after the call. Seek a supportive ear to help you deal with the impact of what you have held space for. This facilitation will have had very little time for what you think and feel, as the participants fill the space with dialogue. It is important to create time to connect to what has arisen for you during the call and after.

Deep Gratitude

To all those stepping up to hold these support calls in your community, we give a deep bow of gratitude and respect.

What Next?

Before you hold a Grief listening circle, we recommend that you consider some or all of the following, to deepen your practice and self-holding:

  • Take some time to ask yourself “why am I really considering offering to hold a listening space for others? In what ways does this serve my needs?”. Listen carefully to what comes up in you and share this with another person who can hear you non-judgmentally, to support your widening insight into what you are stepping in to and why.
  • Attend other listening circles to both support yourself and experience others holding them.
  • Speak with others who are holding listening circles, to gain further insights.
  • Ask others who are holding listening circles if you can support them when they hold a circle (i.e. being the second not first person holding the circle / the shallow rather than deep end first).
  • Ask another who you have supported to hold a circle to then come to support you when you hold your first circles.
  • Attend regular ‘Holding the Holders’ group sessions. These run each week and are offered as spaces for you to decompress, debrief with each other, learn and feel held. To find out more information contact _________

Supporting Information Around Trauma

It is important to have an awareness of how trauma can affect people. The conditions for psychological trauma are rife at the moment, so underlying traumatic events may break through much more easily. Many have lost access to their normal support networks, resources etc.

One person expressing anger/rage may trigger another person’s trauma history of being raged at. A person triggered into primal screams of pain/anguish may trigger other people’s early experiences of terror by, for example, witnessing domestic abuse as a powerless child.

Here is a chart about the stages of hyper-arousal in the nervous system that happen when one is in trauma and the dangers associated with it.

Please make sure you have lists of national helplines that you can put in the chat, and any other XR Grief/ Sharing circle offerings, including: