“There is a deep longing among people in the West to connect with something bigger — with community and spirit.”
One of the foremost voices in African Spirituality
A version of this article was originally published in Alternatives Winter '06 Issue 40 .
For many people grief is an option. Looking at my own life, I realized it is a matter of life and death. In fact, throughout my life, grief has been an important theme from crying for food as a child to dealing with deep pain of losses as I grow older. My earliest memory of deep grieving was when I was a little girl, about 5 or 6-years old. One of my playmates died. I was so shocked and confused by the whole business especially when I am told I would never see him in a physical form again. I grieved for a long time and it just wouldn’t stick in my head that my friend had died. Every day I would try to go with the hope to play with him, but he wasn’t there. My community would gently say to me “do you remember that he died?,” and they supported me and grieved with me. Although I grieved for a long time, over a year, it was accepted as a normal part of life. I was never asked, “Aren’t you finished grieving yet?” Rather, they would say – “have you grieved enough? Have you cried enough?”
For my people, the Dagara tribe of Burkina Faso in West Africa, we see that in life it is necessary to grieve those things that no longer serve us and let them go. When I grieve I am surrounded by family reassuring me that the grieving is worthwhile and I can grieve as much as I want. We experience conflicts, loved ones die or suffer, dreams never manifest, illnesses occur, relationships break up, and there are unexpected natural disasters. It is so important to have ways to release those pains to keep clearing ourselves. Hanging on to old pain just makes it grow until it smothers our creativity, our joy, and our ability to connect with others. It may even kill us. Often my community uses grief rituals to heal wounds and open us to spirit’s call.
I thought this perspective on grief was natural for everyone until I came to the U.S. I was with a friend who was having a conflict with her family and I knew the situation was not easy for her. But one day I heard her alone in the bathroom crying! I said, through the door, “Are you OK?” She said, “Yes, I’m fine!” I said to myself, “Oh my god, something is not right here.” The people who were supposed to support her were not there. I felt conflicted and wondered what would my grandmother do in this situation?
I was in my late teens when my grandmother died. I was overcome with so much devastating grief I was unable to release it. I was stuck in feeling of anger, betrayal and even rage. I wondered, how could my grandmother do this to me? Everyone was grieving around me. Though I could not join them they made a space for me. Everyone took turns caring for each other as they broke down. Luckily, the seventy-two hours of usual grieving time were stretched beyond five days. When everyone was finished, I still had much to grieve, and people were still there for me. Though I began my grieving late I never felt dissatisfaction from those around me. It is natural that people around you start to grieve when you do. We know that when you have pain it’s not a personal pain, it is a pain of the whole group. We experience a collective sharing, so that an individual doesn’t need to bear all the weight of the suffering.
Many years later, while in the U.S., I had a relationship crisis. I felt like I was dying. I realized that I was feeling lonely in my grief as my soul, heart and mind continuously collided. I was not used to giving an intellectual explanation to my grief. I found much relief in various communities here and when I got home and everyone joined me in the grieving all of a sudden, I felt lighter.
There is a price in not expressing one’s grief. Imagine if you never washed your clothes or showered. The toxins that your body produces just from everyday living would build up and get really stinky. That is how it is with emotional and spiritual toxins too. What we must remember is that, the more these toxins rise the more we have a tendency to blame or hurt others around us. People never harm others out of joy, they give pain to others because they too are hurt or in pain.
There can be so much grief that we grow numb from the unfelt and unexpressed emotions that we carry in our bodies. Unexpressed hurt and pain injures our souls, and can be linked directly to our general sense of spiritual drought and emotional confusion, not to mention the many illnesses we experience in our lives. Many of us suffer from medical conditions that are grief-related. Grieving, whether in private or in community, has many scientifically proven health benefits, from lowering blood pressure and risks of heart attacks to simply having a better quality of life.
We need to begin to see grief not as foreign entity and not as an alien to be held down or caged up, but as a natural process. As the recipient of someone’s grief we also must understand that it is OK for someone to express pain.
In today’s world, most of us carry grief and do not even know it. We have been trained at a very young age how not to feel. In the West we are often taught that to be good girls and boys we have to “suck it up.” The consequences are that even with your most intimate and trustworthy friends you might feel like, “I am burdening them.” Crying in front of others is too often a forbidden fruit. We learn to compartmentalize our grief because expressing it in an unwelcoming place will only lead to more grief. We are taught that the people who are closest to us have no way of holding us when we fall apart.
Yet we are born fully knowing how to grieve. We cry naturally to feel better, to unburden ourselves and take a few pounds off our shoulders and souls.
If there is a way for everyone to grieve openly, I believe it will also diminish the blaming and shaming that goes on between the races. When you are in the presence of someone grieving you don’t see color anymore, it is a universal language. We are all in pain. There is no need to blame others. Blame, shame, and guilt come from being unable to express our grief properly. How can we pretend to be happy, peaceful and loving when we have so much pain and grief?
I believe the future of our world depends greatly on the manner in which we handle our grief. Positive expressions of our grief are healing. However, the lack of expression of our grief or its improper release is what is at the root of the general unhappiness and depression that people feel, all of which lead to war and crimes.
There are things we can do in society to help heal. We can begin by accepting our own and each other’s grief. We can have grief rooms and shrines in public spaces where people can go to grieve. I have seen this happen in different communities in the United States and it worked for them. Churches can have rooms for people to grieve. One of my dreams is to turn places where there have been great and repetitious crimes into grief shrines where people can go to mourn. I imagine Memorial Day not as a day of barbecue, but a day to allow us to deal with our daily frictions, losses and grief as a community.
Communal grieving offers something that we cannot get when we grieve by ourselves. Through validation, acknowledgement and witnessing, communal grieving allows us to experience a level of healing that is deeply and profoundly freeing. Each of us has a basic human right to that genuine love, happiness and freedom.
Sobonfu Somé is one of the foremost voices in African spirituality. She travels the world on a healing mission, sharing the rich spiritual life and culture of her native land Burkina Faso, West Africa. Author of The Spirit of Intimacy, Women’s Wisdom from the Heart of Africa, and Falling Out of Grace, Sobonfu’s message about the importance of spirit, community, and ritual in our lives rings with an intuitive power and truth that author Alice Walker has said “can help us put together so many things that our modern Western world has broken.” She is the founder of Wisdom Spring, Inc. an organization dedicated to the preservation, the sharing of indigenous wisdom as well as holding fundraisers for wells, schools and health projects in Africa. Sobonfu tours the United States and Europe teaching workshops.