Grief is the gateway emotion into releasing and becoming fully expressive. The expression of grief helps us to open up our lives in many other ways. We can only experience joy to the extent that we are also able to experience grief.
The Dagara are a small tribe who live in Burkina Faso, in West Africa. The Dagara tribe have rituals for all parts of life. The traditional rituals of the Dagara were brought to Western culture in large part by the tribal member Malidoma Patrice Some. Malidoma was stolen away from the tribe by Jesuit priests attempting to convert the indigenous population of Burkina Faso to Catholicism. Malidoma eventually became a bridge between his tribe and the West, bringing with him the teachings and practices of his tribe.
Most significantly for our purposes here today, the Dagara have a community ritual for grief. This is very different than how grief is treated in our western culture. For the most part, grief is not expressed except for very limited times immediately after the death of a loved one. There is no community based ritual for the expression of grief outside of a funeral situation.
But as an example of how the Dagara have rituals for all occasions, we can see how a marital dispute is handled.
Claire Schrader gives a good account of how problems in a marriage are handled by the Dagara community. “Emotional disharmony between married partners is not hidden away behind closed doors, but restored through ritual in full view of the whole village. An ash circle is cast: a traditional part of an Dagara ritual, creating an arena of protection in which the ceremony can safely take place, without any unhealthy spirit entering and disrupting the process. It also means that no other person can enter the ash circle, other than those who are directly involved in the ritual. However, any member of the community, including children, may view the ritual since the presence of others can assist in the healing efficacy of the ritual. This means that unlike the Western practice of ‘not in front of the children’, Dagara children see their parents openly expressing strong emotion to each other and resolving it in a safe, ritual container. This not only communicates that strong emotion often surfaces in relationships, but expressing this emotion is no threat to the stability of the family, if anything, it guarantees it (Some and Some 1994).”
“In the ritual the husband and wife stand some distance apart, in which there is clear agreement that they will not touch one another in violence. Then husband and wife will both synonymously express whatever grievances they hold against the other, and they are encouraged to do this with full emotion until ‘tears come’ (Some and Some 1994). This enables each partner to witness the emotion of the other, without taking it on, enabling any build-up of negative emotion to be discharged safely so that the partners can reconnect with the love that exists between them, and resolve any differences that brought about the imbalance.”
Claire Schrader goes on to write that she has used an adaptation of this Dagara ritual very successfully with couples when there has been a build-up of anger and resentment. She also notes that this ritual is a natural part of living in a Dagara village.
Grieving is a lost art. It is important to have practices which provide an acknowledgment and outlet for grief. Not having a practice that allows us to move through grief keeps our life small.
Psychotherapist Francis Weller calls grief a “threshold emotion”. “When we step across that threshold and enter the room of grief, it has a way of opening up the rest of our life. We enter the hall of community and joy. William Blake said that ‘the deeper the sorrow, the greater the joy.'”
“When we compress the terrain of grief, we also compress the territory of joy. And we end up living in a flatline culture. Which is where we are right now. When you live in a flatline culture, you rely upon stimulation and stimulants to give you some sense of being alive. Because we are not experiencing genuine joy. Nor are we expressing genuine grief. So these practices become what I call soul hygiene.”
“We forgot about the hygiene of the soul. And to clear out the soul regularly with a practice of grief is an absolute necessity.”
We have grief about lost love relationships. We have grief about family members who have died.
More subtle is that we have grief about experiences in early childhood. For example, I am exploring grief that I have in my body around a family incident when I was ten years old. When I was approximately ten years old, I was babysitting my two younger brothers and my sister. My father was taking my mother out for dinner. I recall in particular that one of the new heavy kitchen table chairs had fallen over backward and was seriously cracked. That was the kind of thing that you might get the belt for. I can’t quite remember if my father was still pulling out the belt for that kind of thing or not; but he probably later did. Certainly the fear of my father finding out about the chair was still there.
Slightly more strange and not quite digestible to my ten year old mind is that a red headed woman came to the door to see my father. Actually, she asked to see both my father and my mother. I said that they weren’t here. She said that, then, she would sit in one of those kitchen chairs – the broken one at the head of the table – and wait for him. She didn’t ask permission. Permission wasn’t really a topic. Her skin complexion was reddish like her hair.
She might have sat there and waited a full hour for my father and mother to return, while we played around and watched TV and generally paid no attention to the unknown woman. I don’t recall her presence occupying my mind much at the time. She probably sat there quietly and without interacting with any of us.
My parents did come home. I don’t know what happened next. We must have been sent off to bed. I do not recall hearing any of the conversation.
My father did ask the next day why I “let” her into the house. I don’t remember there being any “letting” or asking for permission.
The next day, while my dad was at work, my mother pulled me aside to be her confidant. This is something that she would do over the years as her oldest son and, in particular, when there was something really difficult going on for which she needed someone to talk to.
My mother explained that the woman was a girlfriend of my father. She came over to talk to them both about my father leaving my mother to be with her.
My mother was somewhat upset by the situation and “just needed someone to talk to”.
But also she had a very specific plan in mind. The plan that she devised and wanted me to participate in was this. If that woman ever showed up again, my mother would tell me to untie the dog. Then I was to take a kitchen knife and stab it into one of the tires of the woman’s car. Then my mother would call the police on the woman.
Fortunately, the plan never needed to be carried out. But never-the-less, the details of that experience are still very vivid in my mind and in my body. The only body sensations that I can connect with at the moment are that it felt a little awkward and weird to have to carry out the requested plan of action. I was worried – and I still have that worry in my body – about what if I am unable to actually puncture the tire with the knife. “What if I can’t carry out the plan? What if I am not man enough?”
According to mainstream culture, I should just man up, forget about this incident and move on. But what if I have unexpressed grief within my body right now from that incident? What if that incident, unconsciously, shapes my beliefs about men and my beliefs about women? What if the unexpressed emotion from that “past” incident is shaping my life today?
I am beginning to access and process out that grief now. Some of that grief continues to live inside of my own body today.
And what about the constant state of war that the United States has been in since I was born? Isn’t it possible that I experience grief over the ongoing invasions, plunder, and occupation of other people’s land in my name?
And what about the environment? They say that half of all the animals on the planet have been wiped out in the past forty years. What will the planet look like for my daughter in forty years? Don’t you think that there might be some hidden grief that I am carrying around about the state of the environment and the way that I am leaving the planet for my daughter?
Dig deep. Even if you are not in touch with the feeling of it, or even if you are, what are some things for you in your life which just might be some unexpressed grief floating around in your body?
Some people will tell you not to talk about the past. But I say that the past isn’t the past until it is the past. Emotional grief stored in your body makes the past your present. Until you feel it, you can’t heal it. I don’t care how many positive affirmations you post on facebook or how many hours per day you meditate. Until you feel it, you don’t heal it. And, no, drinking heavily on Friday night is not a form of “healing”.
The invitation today and every day is to find safe ritual containers in your life and in your community within which to express your grief. Once you begin to feel it, then you can begin to heal it.
Tell your story.