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.

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.

 

Novels That Heal

Sometimes I feel uncomfortable writing a post that might oversimplify any process of emotional or spiritual healing, or patronize readers with advice. We’re all on our own intricate path through life. What works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. Aside from a handful of books I like to recommend for understanding trauma and PTSD, when someone asks me for reading suggestions, I often think of novels. 

I recently read The Child Finder, by Rene Denfeld. This book had me in tears on the airplane. It’s about a child who’s gone missing in the Skookum National Forest. She starts to love and depend on the person she fears. As you read about her abductor, you can’t help but feel for him at times. The child finder, an intuitive private investigator working on missing children cases, spends her life rescuing other children while she herself fears being found—being loved as she is. It’s a hopeful story that deals with trauma and internalized shame in an honest and moving way. I think a good story holds power, especially when it’s written with as much compassion and understanding as this one. 

Another novel that stuck with me is Alice Hoffman’s Faithful. This novel also deals with shame. It’s about a woman who lost her friend in a car accident when they were both teenagers, and she survived but doesn’t believe she deserves her life. She rescues neglected dogs and through the help of people who care about her, one of whom sends anonymous postcards telling her to “do something” or “save something,” she learns to rescue herself.

I find it difficult to summarize novels (I’ve had a hard time trying to summarize my own!) but I thought these were worth mentioning. In a writing class I learned that it’s the specific that makes something universal. We relate to all the nuanced complexities of a character’s struggle, even if it doesn’t exactly match our own experience, because the humanity resonates. 

Finding Value in an Existential Crisis

When I was a freshman in high school I played Inez in the existential writer John Paul Sartre’s No Exit. As an angry but well-meaning goth kid, this was pretty much my dream role. The play is about three people who realize they’ve died and gone to hell, and that “hell is other people.” More accurately, hell is the consequence of their actions mirrored back to them by others who can see through their self-deception. They’re caught in a lust-triangle of seeking validation from one another to escape the truth of what they’ve done. Even when the truth comes out, they can’t accept responsibility for their behavior and endlessly torture each other as a result.

A little grim, right?

There actually is an exit, and Sartre believed that. If hell is a lack of awareness and responsibility, then that can be changed (no matter how discouraged we feel when we turn on the news).

He says that by choosing who we want to be, we are taking part in creating the world we live in. “Nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all. If….we will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves. Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole.”

No pressure! 

My simplified takeaway from this is to make choices that are good for me just as I’d want other people to make choices that are good for them. I want to recognize and own my shortcomings, and I hope others will do the same. All that I can control are my own choices. I thought about this during my middle school years when I became vegan. I wore T-shirts with factory farm footage on them because I thought the world would be a better place if people cared about the suffering of animals, though this wasn’t the best way to motivate people to think about their food choices! Part of me was a lost teenager who needed a cause, but the truer meaning is that it broke my heart to see such reckless disregard for the wellness of animals. I knew my personal choice to not eat meat wasn’t going to make a huge impact, but it felt right.

It’s not so easy to live with complete integrity. I’m not always at my 100 percent, but I try my best to release whatever gets in the way.

All my “new choices” for the “new year” started yesterday, which is how it goes sometimes. I’d just hauled a bunch of stuff to the dump, so it seemed like a good time to start. Also, we just had a lunar eclipse, or the Super Blood Wolf Moon. When the moon has that kind of title, we’d better do something! It was a good time for some clearing and change.

Most of my intentions involved starting up routines I’d let slide during the holidays. One routine is to meditate every day. When I sat down to do this, my stomach clenched up and I became aware of some stuff I’d been holding onto, which I thought I’d moved through already! That’s the thing with anxiety or other emotions: they inundate us when we least expect them. What we think about a situation doesn’t always match how we feel about it. That’s why I’ve never liked affirmations. A lot of people wonder what they’re doing wrong when they don’t feel better with positive thinking.  

Positive thinking absolutely has its time and place. If affirmations help you, please keep at it! If they don’t seem to help, there’s nothing wrong with you. Try telling yourself the kindest thing you can about whatever you’re going through. Simply acknowledge what you feel without resisting or analyzing it. See what happens when you stop trying to fix it or make it go away. 

It actually felt good to acknowledge some stuff during my turbulent meditation, and to make room for fear and whatever else was going on—being real with myself. I’m still struggling with this issue and maybe I will my whole life. Cool, I acknowledged it. I’m aware, so I can work on it.

I sat again today. (Actually, I like to lay down with an eye pillow when I meditate, as long as I’m not too sleepy). This time, there was no sadness or anxiety. I felt peaceful and grounded, and I know the next time will be different. I also did some strength training for dancing, and realized that after a month or two of barely doing anything, strength goes away. Imagine that! I didn’t feel discouraged, though (I would have in the past). If something is that important to us, we can work at it again. It should make us happy.

Our mind is also like a muscle that needs to be kept in shape. Good habits can become as second nature as any bad habits, such as getting down on ourselves or coping with anxiety in ways that feel good in the moment and are harmful in the long run (we’ve all been there—we want to feel better, and that’s not a bad motive).

Self-compassion takes vigilance! You are the only constant person in your life, so be mindful of how you’re treating yourself. We can start to build better habits by focusing on things that are in our control, and what we have gratitude for. We can also learn to hold space for our pain without shutting it down or plastering it with happy faces or gold stars.

Life happens, and there’s a lot about it that we can’t understand or control. Sometimes it drives us into the existential blues, and we lose purpose or direction in our lives. Maybe the choice we have to make is to accept that’s what’s up, for now. Then work on strengthening our relationships and becoming more present, defining our values. We can always start from wherever we’re at.

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. We can be at peace, feel more alive.

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. I think about that whenever I’m down. How do I make room for this dark space? What does it tell me about my values? And from that place of awareness, what gifts can I hang off my trees? What do I welcome into my life?

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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