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.

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.