The 2020 -2021 year has been a hard one for many. Losses, death, conflict, and tragedy. I lost by younger brother to suicide during this time. My soul (and that of our mother) felt broken beyond repair.
It was then that I turned to sacred grieving, one of the most powerful experiences brought to the Americas by Malidoma Somé from the Dagara tradition of West Africa.
In the Dagara tradition, they perform a grief ritual as part of the funeral rites when someone dies. Beyond grieving the loss of a loved one, the grief ritual has the power to cleanse and heal even the deepest wounds. When we come together in sacred grieving, we validate, witness and share our collective stories of loss, pain, and suffering. Then, we relinquish those stories to the Other World for transformation.
A grief ritual is African spiritual technology using the healing power of water (tears) to facilitate healing, peace and mending of the soul. Without it, I would not have been able to make sense or cope with the loss of my brother.
Ritualized grief takes us to the top of the hill, then allows us to get back down slowly and peacefully. It offers a level of healing that is deeply and profoundly freeing. The expression of grief is also the vehicle that transports our deceased loved ones to the Ancestral Realm, while healing the loss of those left behind.
When it comes to ritualized grieving, we bring our soul wounds - spiritual/mental/physical - to the doorway of the Other World as give-aways. We give away our grief in tears and story-telling to be mended and healed. I only wished my brother had given away his pain and soul wounds - instead of his life.
Mending Wounded Souls Across Cultures
Indigenous Africa is not the only tradition that views soul wounding from a psycho-spiritual perspective. Cultures across the world recognize the significance of unhealed grief…
TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE
Chinese medical doctrine suggests that certain behavioral patterns associated with emotional experiences may lead to disease. Probably the most important causative factor identified in this medical system is the failure to resolve emotional distress by appropriate familial and societal interactions. It is understood that unrelieved emotional stresses cause alterations in the functions of the internal organs, ultimately leading to their malfunction and the initiation of disease processes. For example, a large portion of the cases of cancer, autoimmune diseases, and gynecological disorders are thought, by the Chinese physicians, to be induced by or promoted by anger, depression, and anxiety.
Appropriate resolution in the Asian tradition may include discussing the situation and the emotional problem with respected elder family members to obtain wise advice towards resolution; attaining agreement with one’s spouse over areas of controversy; and simply obeying the rules laid down by Confucius or other great thinkers regarding one’s place in the family and within the greater society. This concern is basically for spiritual health, in the sense that one can, and should, strive to resolve spiritual emptiness - a potential basis for disease and failure to handle emotional situation - by communication with spiritual leaders in the community and by following the teachings of revered historical figures. (1)
Ayurveda recognizes that in order to truly heal, just putting a bandage on a wound doesn’t actually solve the problem; the same wound may crop up again, in the same or a different form. To truly heal, one must understand why one has the disease or imbalance to begin with, and then unravel the cause so that it does not keep happening.
In Ayurveda there are three main causes of disease and one “primordial cause.” the ultimate root cause.
Let’s begin with the primordial cause, since that’s where everything begins. Ayurveda teaches that “disease begins when we forget our true nature as spirit.”
Within each of us resides our spirit or soul, and our spirit is already in perfect health and harmony, undisturbed by the challenges of the material world in which we live. When we “forget” this, as happens in material existence, we get caught up in the dramas of life, our mind fills with constant chatter, challenging emotions arise, and the biological energies (doshas) of the body become disturbed. The door is then open to becoming ill - physically, emotionally and/or psychologically. (2)
Theories of disease causation and even the names of diseases vary from tribe to tribe. Diseases may be thought to have internal or external causes or sometimes both. According to Cherokee medicine man Rolling Thunder, negative thinking is the most important internal cause of disease. Negative thinking includes not only negative thoughts about oneself but also feelings of shame, blame, low self-esteem, greed, despair, worry, depression, anger, jealousy, and self-centeredness. Johnny Moses, a Nootka healer, says “No evil sorcerer can do as much harm to you as you can do to yourself.”
Diseases have external causes too. “Germs are also spirits,” according to Shabari Bird of the Lakota Nation. A person is particularly susceptible to harmful germs if they live an imbalanced life, have a weak constitution, engage in negative thinking, or are under a lot of stress. Other people or spirits may also be responsible for an illness. Another external source of disease is environmental poisons. These poisons include alcohol, impure air, water, and some types of food.
Native American healers believe that disease can also be caused by physical, emotional, or spiritual trauma. These traumas can lead to mental and emotional distress, loss of soul, or loss of spiritual power. In these cases, the healer must use ritual and other ways to physically return the soul and power to the patient. Some diseases are caused when people break the “rules for living.” These rules may include ways of showing respect for animals, people, places, ritual objects, events, or spirits. (3)
Research has established that chronic stress, including traumatic events, lead to adverse health outcomes.
Multiple exposures to traumatic events can greatly affect the intensity of not only psychological symptoms but also physical symptoms. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (Anda et al., 2006; Felitti et al., 1998) is one of the most powerful studies to document such findings. Felitti et al. surveyed more than 16,000 adults with health insurance. Of the risk factors investigated (e.g., trauma exposure in childhood and adulthood, health behaviors, and potential genetic factors), childhood trauma exposure accounted for negative health outcomes across multiple diagnoses, from psychiatric (depression, anxiety, substance abuse) to physical (diabetes, heart disease, and cancer). Risk for disease increased linearly with exposure to multiple forms of traumatization. (4)
It Takes a Village
The Dagara people do not comprehend the idea of private grief. To do a grief ritual effectively, we need community. Grief is a community problem because personal pain affects the entire community. Just as a wound on your leg cannot be approached as the leg’s problem alone but must be treated as a problem for the entire body, a person in community who is sick with grief sickens the rest of the community - whether within the family or tribe.
I am not able to divulge the complete process of ritualized grief. However, within this sacred space, we come together to:
- Share our personal and collective stories of trauma, pain, and loss. In ritual, we embark on a communal journey of remembrance, echoing the stories of those who came before us as well as our own painful stories.
- Invoke the Ancestors to hear us and speak through us. Ritual space has the remarkable capability of creating a shift in our consciousness, allowing the Other World to speak through us. Do not be afraid. You are safe.
- Release our pains and losses in the flow of our tears. In sacred grieving, we identify that which no longer serve us., that which has been holding us back, hidden in the stories we hold about ourselves. We assemble elements from the natural world to offer to the Ancestors, to be buried and never return to haunt us.
When we need to heal our wounds at the soul level, it’s time for a grief ritual.
(1) Dorr, Subhuti Dharmananda Christopher. “Traditional Chinese Medicine and Multiple Sclerosis.” Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, OR, 1996, www.itmonline.org/arts/ms&tcm.htm.
(2) “The Causes Of Disease According To Ayurvedic Medicine.” The Ayurveda Experience, 16 Oct. 2017, theayurvedaexperience.com/blogs/tae/the-causes-of-disease-according-to-ayurvedic-medicine.
(3) “Native American Medicine.” Encyclopedia.com, www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/native-american-medicine.
(4) D’Andrea, Wendy, et al. “Physical Health Problems After Single Trauma Exposure.” Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, vol. 17, no. 6, 2011, pp. 378–92.