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.

8 Ways to Cope With Loneliness

Check your beliefs. Often when we feel lonely, we attach beliefs to the feeling. I’m not good enough, not liked or worth loving. In reality, you would like to feel more love or closeness and you don’t right now. That’s all you know for sure. It’s painful and isolating, but it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. You want to feel love and belonging like everybody else.

Loneliness is proof that your innate search for connection is intact.

Martha Beck

Check your ruminating mind. I never feel better after rehashing regrets and mistakes from the past (it’s one thing to feel some guilt, learn from it and move on…and another thing to hammer ourselves flat with something that’s already happened…and believe me, I’ve been there). We’ve all made mistakes. When we stop making some of those same mistakes, we’re a little wiser. It’s healthy to grieve and seek compassionate support. It’s healthy to have some regrets that inform how we want to act now. And sometimes we’re just spinning our wheels in a well-worn rut. It takes some extra effort to steer ourselves out of the rut and gain traction again. You might need some support to do this, but first we must decide to take another route.

We are not mad. We are human. We want to love, and someone must forgive us for the paths we take to love, for the paths are many and dark, and we are ardent and cruel in our journey.

Leonard COhen

Find someone to talk to. Feelings of isolation grow in the dark. Take a class where you can share a common goal with others, join a support group, or get involved with a cause. Call a friend. If you don’t have anyone to call at the moment, talk with strangers. If small talk drains you, find a way to strike up a genuine conversation. Offer a true compliment, or ask about something you’re actually curious about. These small interactions can help keep you afloat, for now.

Embrace Solitude. When you’re in the throws of loneliness for any reason, it can drain your energy and the meaning out of all daily activities, including self-care routines. We need authentic, close relationships. But there can be power in acknowledging and then allowing your loneliness. Take time to notice your thoughts and fears; maybe some of those have made it extra hard to be by yourself or to open up to others. How can these fears be brought to light and transformed, with compassionate understanding?

Be aware of self-sabotage. Yesterday I was watching videos of therapy sessions by Peter Levine, a trauma/PTSD expert who developed Somatic Experiencing®, a way of treating trauma through physical movement and engaging the felt body sense. He was talking about the body’s self-sabotage structure: an unconscious process, rooted in our nervous system, of resisting moving forward in our lives that can result from early experiences of emotional abandonment. He claims the opposite of this tendency is to move toward our goals with healthy aggression. Pay attention to your body’s cues and find healthy ways to soothe yourself, while being aware of your fears. If this anxiety gets in the way of living your life, consider talking to a therapist.

Do some volunteer work. Being of service to others can help us feel purposeful, more compassionate, and less alone.

Keep a creativity journal. Jot down what you’d like to see happen in your life, a vision of the world as you’d like to see it, or whatever else makes you feel inspired. Sketch, paste, collage or just write. Don’t worry about what anything looks like. This is just to get your mind firing up, focusing on what matters to you.

Spend time in nature. Being in nature helps us remember that we belong to something bigger than ourselves. It reminds us that everything happens in cycles, every cycle has a function, and nothing lasts forever.

What is EMDR?

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EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is an evidence-based form of psychotherapy that uses eye movements to reduce the physical and emotional pain of traumatic memories. EMDR was developed by Francine Shapiro, who noticed that her eyes naturally moved back and forth when she thought about a painful memory.

What is Trauma?

Trauma is anything that overwhelms our ability to cope and causes lasting disruption to the nervous system. In some cases, trauma can develop into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (click here to read the diagnostic criteria for PTSD). This can happen months or even years after the traumatic situation occurred. Trauma is not exclusive to combat or other violent conflicts. Many people experience the effects of trauma from neglectful childhoods, major illnesses, unexpected losses, having been bullied, or any other profoundly disturbing situation. You do not need to meet the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD to experience effects of trauma or to benefit from EMDR.

What are Common Effects of Trauma?

Some experiences can’t be processed because they were too threatening or disturbing. When this occurs, our body doesn’t complete its natural stress responses and we get stuck experiencing the threat as if it were still happening. We can find ourselves swinging back and forth between a fight or flight response (feeling angry, afraid, irritable, impulsive, jumpy, hyper-alert) and feeling shut down, numb or disconnected from our surroundings and other people. If we didn’t receive social support, or if the trauma involved betrayal or victimization, then we can become more susceptible to developing these symptoms.

Trauma also causes problems with memory. During periods of intense stress, some regions of the brain that encode narrative memory can turn off while other regions that encode sensory or emotional memories remain active. This is why someone who’s gone through trauma might have disturbing emotional responses to sensory cues without knowing why.

Trauma can cause persistent beliefs that the world is unsafe, we are powerless, unlovable or unworthy, or that people—including ourselves and our own feelings—can’t be trusted.

How Does EMDR Help?

The first goal of EMDR is to develop and enhance positive internal resources (such as happy memories or images that invoke a sense of peace or stability). We all have state-dependent memory, which basically means we tend to have worse memories when we feel bad. As you can guess, this becomes a vicious cycle: we feel bad, so we remember bad things happening and feel even worse. When there’s been trauma and we’re reminded of it, we might start to believe the emotional memory (for example, shame or self-blame) instead of our rational thoughts. Developing internal positive resources helps us switch our mental and emotional state to deal with stress. We can also learn to identify when our nervous system has been activated and in what ways, which allows us to organize and navigate chaotic and overwhelming feelings so they don’t take over.

During the next stages of EMDR we distill the core negative belief and emotion produced by the trauma and identify what memories we want to work on. The objective of EMDR is to reconsolidate these memories. Reconsolidating a memory involves putting it in context with other life experiences and creating new associations.

Once we can effectively manage high levels of stress and draw on positive resources, eye-movements are used to help desensitize us to the most painful aspect of a memory. This involves some exposure to the traumatic memory, checking in with how our bodies respond to it, and drawing on positive resources when they’re needed. It’s like twisting the cap on a shaken soda bottle, but not so much that the bottle explodes. This goes on until the memory no longer causes debilitating emotional or physical reactions. After this stage of therapy, people often say they have less nightmares or can think about something they used to avoid; they feel sad but not overwhelmed by it.  

Next, we let our mind roam freely so that other memories linked up with a disturbing base feeling or belief can be transformed as well. The eye movements seem to activate networks of associated memories and loosen other structures in the brain to allow new associations to form. Many people have sudden insight or gain new perspectives during this stage of EMDR, or they access feelings and memories that have been suppressed for a long time. This provides an opportunity to work through and transform these memories in a safe place. One of the final stages of EMDR is to install a new positive belief until it feels true.

Why Does EMDR Work?

Nobody really knows why EMDR works. Some scientists believe EMDR mimics the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep, theorized to be our brain’s way of consolidating memories and letting go of what it doesn’t need to store. EMDR seems to loosen up rutted beliefs, helping our brains make new connections. EMDR also seems to activate memories while providing a bit of a soothing distraction through them.

 

Healing Happens Through Relationship, Including the One You Have With Yourself

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People need each other, there’s no way around that. Betrayal, shame and isolation are some of the most painful feelings we can experience. To see an example of how an infant is affected when her mother won’t respond to her, click here. This study shows how we need to feel seen and heard as we’re developing our sense of self, safety and belonging in the world. 

Our nervous systems are designed for social engagement. We feel more relaxed around people who know and understand us, and we need to feel safe in order to make these connections. When we don’t receive support during times of overwhelming stress, our bodies kick into fight or flight mode, or we freeze up. This can cause prolonged anxiety and numbness (imagine how this affects a child who’s scared of a person they depend on for love).

When we’ve been hurt, it can be hard to trust others or want to be vulnerable again. We might avoid deep personal relationships that could trigger more painful feelings. When our needs for acceptance and belonging have gone unmet, we might focus too much on pleasing others. We might compromise our needs, seeking distractions instead. We might think we have to control or manipulate others to get our needs met. 

The existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom says, “Healing happens through relationship.” We need relationships where we can be our vulnerable, messy selves.

Healing also happens through strengthening the relationships that exist within ourselves—between our mind (logic, narrative memories, beliefs) and body (physical sensations, unconscious or sensory memories, feeling). When these parts of ourselves aren’t working in a unified way, it becomes hard to know what’s best for us. 

UCLA psychiatrist Dan Siegel came up with a field of study called interpersonal neurobiology, which describes a process of enabling higher functions of the brain such as insight, empathy, and intuition. His research suggests that the more “integrated” we are, the better able we are to empathize with others, while remaining our individuated selves. For me personally, I’ll experience warm chills throughout my body when a thought resonates with an internal sense of what’s right for me. 

To strengthen these connections within ourselves, we can start by paying attention to sensations happening in our bodies, without judgement. For example, often grief accompanies chest tightness. We feel as if our heart has literally broken as our bodies release stress hormones. There might be stomach tension or other pain and discomfort.

We might feel sadness, guilt or anger. When these feelings come up, they can seem like a part of us that has always been there and might never go away. However, we can ride all feelings out, just as we always have before. Feelings don’t define us. They always pass. They are often a testament to how much we value something or someone we’ve lost.

Every situation—even grief over a loss—presents a new opportunity to get clear about the kind of love we want, a chance to ask for what we need from the people in our lives who embody these qualities, step away from the people who don’t, and take good care of ourselves. 

We can also begin to take an honest inventory of all those split-off parts of ourselves that need attention because they once seemed not good enough, unacceptable, or even scary, then find a healthy way of acknowledging and expressing all of those parts.

Going through these difficult feelings deepens our understanding of what it means to be human. Acknowledging and tending to our pain doesn’t make us victims, or a burden. In fact, it empowers us to take better care of ourselves, which also helps us to become more open and available to others.

Solstice for the Mind

In ancient winter solstice celebrations, trees played a large role in ceremonies. Evergreens were brought inside as a symbol for life, and gifts were hung on their branches to encourage the sun to return.

As you probably know, this winter solstice also happens to coincide with a near full moon, which looks magical.

The moon reminds us that life happens in cycles, pulling us one way and then another. In some cultures it’s a symbol for the subconscious mind, going through all phases of illumination or illusion.

This can be a time to reflect: In what ways am I resisting change? What am I holding onto that doesn’t work for me anymore? What do I need to safely feel, so that I can begin to release it?

Our minds have what some neuroscientists call a default mode network. This is our wandering mind, running through all the thoughts and worries that we’re used to having, and which tend to make us pretty miserable. When we’re focused on just about anything else, we unlock our mind from its default mode.

This time of year also has me thinking about the value of some of my own struggles with mental health. Had I never felt stuck, needing to change something up, I wouldn’t have found most of the things that enrich my life, infuse it with meaning I wouldn’t have gone looking for otherwise.

If you need to be cheered up on this shortest day of the year, click here.

Hallucinations Across Cultures

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Tanya Luhrmann, a Stanford professor of anthropology, studied some cultural factors that seemed to influence the way people diagnosed with psychotic disorders experienced auditory hallucinations. She concluded that the way people relate to these voices may alter what the voices say.

In America, the voices were generally harsher, persecutory, and considered intrusive. In Africa and India, the voices were usually more benign, sometimes even perceived as playful, familial or spiritual.

Researchers believe this difference has to do with an individualistic versus a collectivist culture: “The Chennai (India) and Accra (Ghana) participants were more comfortable interpreting their voices as relationships and not as signs of a violated mind.”

These studies only address one subset of a very complex illness as it shows up in a few parts of the world, but the findings suggest that by helping people discover different ways of relating to their symptoms of psychosis, the pain and disruption produced by these symptoms can reduce. 

A man named Dick Russell wrote a beautiful article for the Washington Post about his son Frank, who suffers from schizophrenia and was helped by a West African shaman. Dick writes, “In the culture of his Dagara people, schizophrenics are not viewed pathologically, but often as mediums bringing messages to the community from the spirit world.”

In conjunction with taking psychiatric medication and living in a group home, connecting with a shaman and integrating meditative rituals into his life helped Frank to become more grounded, creative, and enthusiastic about life.

I’m glad for stories of hope like this one. Lives can be transformed despite such frightening setbacks when people have access to the right support and resources (often people don’t know they need help, or where to get it…here are some laws and statistics). Healing (in whatever form that takes) happens through acceptance and community rather than by treating something within ourselves or others as problems to fix in isolation.

Click here for a list of mental health crisis and addiction helplines in Washington State.

Click here to find a support group.

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Suicide Prevention and The Nine of Wands

Before I get into the heartbreaking topic of suicide—the tenth leading cause of death in the US—I want to talk about Tarot cards. Whatever your beliefs are, Tarot can be a fun way to gain insight and new perspectives.

I was shuffling my deck (the Rider-Waite deck, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith, an artist, stage designer and suffragist who was given little credit for her work), and this card dropped out: The Nine of Wands.

nine of wands

This card shows a person who is weary, barely hanging on to fight one more of many battles. It’s a card that says you’re fatigued, you’ve gone through too much, you’re feeling done. But you’re not done. You’re hanging on. There’s some part of you that wants to keep going. Underneath all of the pain, you are still there. And you’re about to push through.

Of course, when someone feels suicidal, they’re in too much pain to want to push through. They might feel isolated, mired in shame, believing they’re a burden. They might be coping with institutional prejudice. They might be clinically depressed or lacking the resources they need.

Often, they’re surviving trauma. “Psychological” trauma is a physical condition—it’s the result of anything which overwhelms our ability to cope and causes lasting dysregulation to the nervous system—which is why we can’t just “get over it,” so easily.

We’re all vulnerable to feeling this way. If you’re ever suicidal, you’re not alone. There are people who want to help. Social support soothes the nervous system, dissolves shame. There are people who have some knowledge and experience about what you’re going through. You are a part of this world.

Here are some helpful insights from people I’ve worked with, who are some of my best teachers and sources of inspiration.

        • Just because you were not shown love, does not make you unlovable (even when you feel that way, it simply isn’t true).
        • You’re not broken because you suffered. You now have that much more capacity for compassion.
        • It’s ok to acknowledge that you really don’t want to be here anymore, but no emotions are permanent. They all pass eventually.
        • You are not defined by what happened to you.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Line, available to anyone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1-800-273-TALK (8255). All calls are confidential.

For information on trauma and recovery, I recommend these books:

The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk

Waking the Tiger, by Peter Levine