“In indigenous Africa, one cannot conceive of a community that does not grieve. Until grief is restored in the West as the starting place where the modern man and woman might find peace, the culture will continue to abuse and ignore the (healing) power of water, and, in turn, will be fascinated by (the destructive forces of) fire.”
“Yet somewhere I know that to cry for someone who has died is to open the heart’s loneliest chamber so that they, no longer in bodily form, can enter. These deeper tears are the work, and the wage is that the person gone then lives within us.”
Mark Nepo, Inside the Miracle, 2015, p. 53.
“Get ready to weep tears of sorrow as bright as the brightest beads, and like the bright beads you string to wear round your throat at the burial, gather your tears and string them on a thread of your memory to wear round your heart, or its shattered fragments will never come whole again.”
Takwena Message of Death: Laurens van der Post, Flamingo Feather, 1955.
All humans suffer loss at many times in life including:
• the death of a parent, sibling, partner, child, friend, pet;
• loss of a pregnancy through miscarriage or abortion;
• loss of a relationship through divorce or separation;
• loss of a friendship;
• loss of family, language, culture as in the Indian Residential Schools;
• loss of homeland, family and support through emigrating to another country or forced relocation;
• the loss of a job, status, or significant position in society;
• death of a comrade or comrades in war;
• loss of safety through war and terrorism;
• loss of a home, through relocation or through job loss;
• amputation, hysterectomy, loss of a body organ.
Western culture has a poor record in supporting the natural grieving process inherent in the physiology of humans. Following the death of a close relationship, or another loss, family, friends and/or colleagues will often demand of the one who is grieving that they “get over it,” “get on with life,” “find something useful to do,” “suck it up,” not understanding that by going through the grieving process, which may take months to years depending on the intensity of the loss, the one grieving is opening up to new life. This lack of understanding is a result of not experiencing grief in a healthy way, in part because there has been no model of grieving. Those who are grieving will frequently not ask the support of parents, family, spouses, friends, because they believe their pain will be too much for the one they ask. And grieving is painful and needs the support of others at times.
Necessary grief when shunned or unattended can easily hide for years, even generations, in the skeletal structure of the family collective psyche. Like light, matter, sound, or energy, grief will eventually manifest even among those in the future who did not consciously experience loss.
Martin Prechtel, Grief and Praise, 2015, p. 4
Inhibited grief has profound consequences on family systems. For instance, when a child dies, and this includes miscarriage or abortion, and the parents do not grieve, a sibling or siblings of that child will take on the sadness and pain of one or more of the parents. This pain can then be transferred onto the following generation in a process of unresolved intergenerational grief. The pain in a surviving sibling may also manifest as a chronic illness, difficulty in relationship, or mental illness. This has been quite common in Canada where immigration and homesteading have placed the emphasis on survival rather than grief. When parents do not grieve together over the loss of a child, this will affect their relationship in a negative way. Conversely, when they are able to grieve together, this will enhance the depth of their relationship.
Unresolved trauma can complicate the process of grieving, adding to the pain of grief, and often leading to a shutdown of emotions and feelings. Addictive behaviours such as alcoholism, prescription and/or street drugs, gambling, workaholism may be used to keep the pain at bay, rather than reaching out for help and support. Early childhood experiences of abuse and/or neglect may set up a pattern of keeping emotions behind a protective wall and not reaching out for help. These are also intergenerational patterns that have been created through the traumatic isolation and abandonment of those who suffered through the Indian Residential School system, through the after effects of war when traumatized veterans return to the family and civil society, and through the loss of family and culture following immigration.
The consequences of inhibited grief may show up in chronic illnesses such as irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, cancer, autoimmune disorders; in damaged relationships; in addictive behaviours; and these may be passed on intergenerationally.
I once saw in a cemetery in India an old woman just sobbing away at the grave of her son who had been tortured by Tamil terrorists. She spread herself over the whole grave and sobbed. She held the grave with two hands and sobbed and sobbed. And I thought to myself and said to my companion, "I don't want to love if that is what love is," and he said, "Are you crazy? What she feels is so immeasurably beautiful because she grieves that much, she loves that much, and love lives on in her.
Andrew Harvey, The Way of Passion, 1994 p. 90
The loss of an important relationship such as a parent, spouse, child, close friend or war comrade can lead to the survivor consciously or unconsciously wanting to join the dead one in death. Again this can become transgenerational, with a member of the next generation also wanting to join the dead. Grieving the loss allows life and love to flow and move forward again, to find purpose and meaning in living a full life. As Martin Prechtel wrote in The Smell of Rain on Dust, “Grief has a sound, and it goes to the core. If the sound doesn’t go to the core, it’s not grief.” Grieving, crying, is a transformative action that brings the dead one into our heart:
Yet somewhere I know that to cry for someone who has died is to open the heart’s loneliest chamber so that they, no longer in bodily form, can enter. These deeper tears are the work, and the wage is that the person gone then lives within us.
Mark Nepo, Inside the Miracle, 2015, p. 53.
For myself, both with the death of my parents in 1983 and the suicide of my brother four years later, a deep whole body weeping that came in waves opened my heart to an enormous love for them that was almost overwhelming. Then, feeling this enormous love the wracking sobs would return. Love and grief, grief and love feed each other. And with that deep, open hearted loving, any judgment of them evaporated. I am very conscious of the fact that physically felt and expressed grief is healing.
Widows, as well as widowers, I think, need help. There comes a time when in spite of doing everything right – not turning to the bottle for solace, finding meaningful conversations with friends and family, doing meaningful work, getting the hands-on solace of massages, doing yoga, getting fresh air and sunshine, being spontaneous and so on, simply isn’t enough. Comes a time when you need an alternately dispassionate and compassionate ear.
Martha Brooks, Letters to Brian, 2015 p. 79
North American culture has subscribed to the belief of the individual as hero, independent, and needing no-one. However, humans are social animals and our biology and our emotions are naturally supported when shared with other humans who are able to be present with that pain.
Brian, I’ve dipped down so low this week – the ocean is deep. Here’s what I think. My grief for you is about love. It’s about a normally resilient and hopeful woman who has to ride this out, like giving birth – painful waves, but ultimately transforming. I’m giving birth to a new me. I think that each time I go down to the bottom of the ocean, when I come back up I’m a little stronger and things look a little better, just a little brighter.
Martha Brooks, Letters to Brian, 2015 p. 59
Grieving is painful and the support of others can help us move through the natural process of grieving. Grieving is a transformational process. We do not stay the same. We cannot have the life we had before, especially when we have lost an intimate other. We can have a new and vibrant life.