The Power to Grieve: Wisdom from a West African Elder

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Before I applied to graduate school, I volunteered at a crisis call center. During our orientation, we watched a documentary on grieving. I can’t remember the name of the documentary, but I do remember the gist of it: our culture doesn’t make enough space for grieving, while many indigenous cultures have complex grieving rituals. These communities would often dance, play music, and support each other in honoring and expressing the pain of sudden disconnection from a deceased loved one. In contrast, the documentary showed a drive-through funeral parlor in America.

Dr. Malidoma Patrice Somé Phd., a West African elder whose name means “be friend to the stranger,” travels to the West to share ancient wisdom of the Dagara people. In addition to being an initiated shaman in Burkina Faso, he’s an author and holds three Master’s and two Doctorate degrees. In his book Ritual: Power, Healing and Community, he writes about the vital importance of grief and ritual:

“A non-Westerner arriving in this country for the first time is struck by how little attention is given to human emotion in general.” Mourning is sometimes treated as an inconvenience and those bereaving are expected to get back to work ASAP. According to Malidoma, our jobs and tasks of daily living are not our only responsibilities: “We have to grieve. It is a duty like any other duty in life.”

People who do not know the power of shedding their tears together are like a time bomb, dangerous to themselves and to the world around them.

Why is grief such a responsibility? He writes, “People who do not know the power of shedding their tears together are like a time bomb, dangerous to themselves and to the world around them. The Dagara understand the expression of emotion as a process of self-rekindling or calming, which not only helps in handling death but also resets or repairs the feeling within the person.” According to the Dagara cosmology, people also must express grief in a sincere way in order to free the spirit of the deceased.

Grief restores balance and equilibrium. Malidoma writes, “For the Dagara, grief is seen as food for the psyche. Just as the body needs food, the psyche needs to maintain its own healthy balance….An agitated and prolonged expression of grief exhausts the body to the point where rest is needed….It helps relieve the person who is in sorrow and leads him or her toward acceptance of the phenomenon of death, separation and love.” An animal in the wild has a process of discharging physical energy after there’s been a threat to its life. Humans need to do the same when we’ve experienced a trauma, including the loss of someone meaningful to us.

There’s no single way to express grief. Malidoma writes, “There are countless ways of expressing emotion because countless ways are needed. No one is supposed to suppress emotion. If death disturbs the living, it offers a unique opportunity to unleash one of the strongest emotions we have: the power to grieve.” Our grief lets us know what’s sacred to us.

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