In this article:
- Grief is an emotion we feel following the loss of something or someone we care about, typically the latter.
- We experience it as a negative emotion which is why many of us are uncomfortable with grief and try to ignore the emotion when it occurs.
- The increasingly busy pace of modern life, which favors constant productivity, has made it harder for us to dedicate time to our grief. If anything, it’s given us an excuse to not process it at all.
- But in parts of the world where tradition is yet to give way to the break-neck speed demanded from us of our globalized economy, grief is still an honored emotion that gets vibrant celebrations and days of rest dedicated to it.
- While these practices are also in danger of fading away, there’s something in each of them that we can adopt to help us process our grief in a healthier way.
Grief is a howling dog.
At least, it was to me. My first experience with grief came with the death of my first dog who was named Spike, after the Tom and Jerry show’s dog. When we moved to an apartment in the city, we weren’t able to take Spike with us.
A few months later, the relative we left him with called to tell us that Spike was dead.
He died alone in a dog house and the neighbors heard him howling that night. I loved him as well as any child can love a pet, but I don’t remember crying. Years later, I didn’t weep when my grandmother died. A month ago, I didn’t weep when my grandfather did.
So I wondered if that was a common experience and tried to look for other people online who haven’t cried for dead loved ones, no matter how loved they were in life.
It turns out, it’s a fairly common experience and as Lynn Somerstein, a Manhattan-based licensed psychotherapist, puts it, “Who says you have to cry?”
It’s true that we experience emotions differently and that some people are less emotive than others, but how much of that is an innate difference? For most people, the inability to “feel grief” isn’t so much about an actual resistance to feeling, but a lack of time.
Some of us don’t go to funerals because there’s no time. We don’t cry for more than a day or two because there’s no time. And our lack of time for grief hurts us in ways that we don’t necessarily notice.
We Don’t Make Time for Grief
Grief is an emotional response to loss, particularly of someone we love.
While people like me seem to be immune to the emotional effects of death and have no trouble jumping right back into work, most people have the opposite problem: They need to stop grieving so they can get back to work.
Some advice you can find on the web about “how to work while grieving” include asking your boss about how many days off you can take to grieve but making sure that you get back to work as soon as possible.
It’s practical advice, but it reinforces an expectation to be productive even before we’ve had time to let grief set in.
What you get is a “grieving process” that never lets you fully decompress and the expectation that you should be “fine” after you’ve had a good cry or two. This results in what’s commonly called “emotional constipation” and it negatively affects our mental health by becoming an underlying source of stress that later blows up, making it harder for us to “move on.”
Perhaps because of an intuitive understanding of the dangers of emotional constipation, many cultures developed grieving rituals that give grievers a definite start and finish to their grieving process.
Grieving Rituals Give Us Temporal Space to Process Our Grief Properly
Rituals can be loosely defined as a set of actions organized in a specific order to mark a major event in the community or the life of the person celebrating it. The quinceanera is a coming-of-age ritual and gender reveal parties, though blamed for forest fires, are modern rituals celebrating the conception of a child.
They help us “frame” our emotions around a specific time, during which the ritual is held, and a specific space, where it’s held, and through this, they help us celebrate the life of the departed while giving us “emotional room” to grieve.
In an increasingly fast-paced environment, we’re expected to always be working, participating, and doing. So finding the time to grieve also entails giving ourselves permission to grieve.
Rituals remove that self-consciousness because you’re expected to do nothing but grieve.
These grieving rituals from different cultures throughout the world and from different time periods may not be the funerals you’re used to, but they might be just what you need to process grief.
How Do Other Cultures Grieve?
The Jewish Grieving Process Doesn’t Let You Grieve Alone
You’ve likely heard of the “Stages of Grief” developed by Elisabeth Ross and David Kessler, but the truth is, the Jewish people had it all figured out centuries prior.
The Jewish mourning process begins with aninut which starts at the death of an individual until they’re buried. During aninut, the griever isn’t expected to do anything other than attend to the burial of the deceased.
Not even regular observance of prayer is expected. Once the deceased is buried, grievers share a “meal of consolation” that lets them spend time with extended family members and friends of the deceased.
In shiva, the week after the funeral, friends, family members, and people in the community bring food and assist the grieving family with their needs so that the person isn’t left to juggle the little tasks and errands of daily life while processing their grief.
What’s interesting about the process is how many safeguards against sorrow are built into it. It gives the mourning family enough room to grieve, but it never lets them grieve alone, ensuring they don’t feel lonely.
The ritual also never leaves them to fend for themselves so that the burden of grief is shared with a community.
Sheloshim comes in the 30 days following the funeral during which the mourner isn’t expected to go to parties or other public events. In short, there is no expectation to “act happy.” If a parent was lost, the mourner gets to mourn for up to a whole year and keep their deceased parent in their memories by reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish daily.
Ghanian Fantasy Coffins Give the Dead a Lively Send-Off
Those aren’t parade floats in that picture. What these men have made are coffins, custom-made for the deceased. While mourners in the U.S. are left footing astronomical funeral costs, the dead of Ghana are honored with “fantasy coffins” that are symbolic of the deceased’s life.
The fantasy coffin is rooted in local beliefs about how the dead continue their lives in the afterlife.
Think of how emperors and pharaohs’ tombs contain “reminders” of their old lives and how Singaporeans burn paper iPhones for their dead ancestors who didn’t make it to the release of that year’s new model.
According to Paa Joe, a craftsman who has been making fantasy coffins since the 1960s, the coffins are both an expression of a craftsman’s artistry and the deceased’s profession. For journalists, he recommends a camera-shaped coffin so they can continue telling stories in the afterlife.
The Bara People’s Women Do the Weeping
The Bara people of Southern Madagascar have come up with a unique solution to the problem of being a grieving man in a society where men aren’t allowed to weep: You get women to do the crying for you.
Bara funerals are segregated affairs. Men go to the “male house” where they organize the death rituals while women go to the “house of tears” where they weep and console each other.
In other places in Africa, the men will line up to watch the women cry so that they can grieve vicariously. By watching women cry, they get to externalize their grief in a way that isn’t emasculating.
That said, Tom Golden, a grieving counselor, says there isn’t anything inherently pathological with the way men grieve.
While it’s common to call this “toxic masculinity” today, Golden says that part of the difference in the way men and women grieve, at the group level, is because of differences in physiology.
As they age, men produce less prolactin, a hormone that’s involved in the production of emotional tears, while women’s supply of it remains relatively stable.
In modern societies where men’s funeral work, such as building coffins, is no longer necessary, Golden recommends other productive activities that help ritualize grief such as jogging for alone time or planting a tree in the deceased’s memory.
Maori Tangihangas Are Lively Affairs
The Maori tangihanga, sometimes called tangi, calls for the dead to be brought out to a marae which is an open space outside of a building where the community often performs social activities.
If the death is expected, the tangi is prepared in advance and an ohaki, final words, are given as instructions to the dying person’s family. These final words aren’t always structured but rather, anything said by the dying person as they grow frailer will be taken as instruction on what to do after their death.
This is followed by a tuku wairua or a “spirit leaving” ceremony during which religious and spiritual services are provided. After these services, the body is left out for the family and guests to view and celebrate with.
And Even Romans Wrote Beautiful Epitaphs for Dogs
We don’t always think of tombstones as rituals because they aren’t. They’re objects involved in the rituals of death and grieving. But think about the process behind the creation of a tombstone.
Someone writes those words and while it’s common for these words to be generic Hallmark-esque phrases today, the ancient Romans had to actually sit down and think about what they wanted to be written on a tombstone.
Surprisingly, they wrote epitaphs not just for people, but for dogs as well.
We tend to think of the Romans as a distant people and their historical legacy paints them as proud, militaristic, and cold. But no matter how many people say “We weren’t soft in the old days!”, implying that grieving pets is pointless, the Romans still wrote them touching epitaphs.
Of a hunting dog, a master wrote: “Surely, even as you lie dead in this tomb, I deem the wild beasts yet fear your white bones, huntress Lycas; and your valor great Pelion knows, and splendid Ossa and the lonely peaks of Cithaeron.“
This one sounds like a letter to a lover: “Issa’s more pert than Lesbia’s sparrow love, Purer than kisses of a turtle-dove, More sweet than a hundred maidens rolled in one, Rarer than wealthy India’s precious stone. She is pet of Publius, Issa dear, She whines, a human voice you seem to hear.“
And this one scolds us for even thinking of making fun of grief: “You who pass on this path, if you happen to see this monument, laugh not, I pray, though it is a dog’s grave. Tears fell for me, and the dust was heaped above me by a master’s hand.“
Moving With Grief, Not Moving Through Grief
Many of us treat grief as if it presents a choice between shutting down or ignoring it completely, but rituals teach us how to acknowledge grief, contain it, and use it as a source of wisdom on how to live the rest of our lives.
Until it’s our turn to be grieved.