The Power to Grieve: Wisdom from a West African Elder

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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?

Photo by Magoi on Pexels.com

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.

 

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

Photo by KieferPix

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.

Photo by STILLFX