Rituals and traditions can be helpful. They can make life changes easier. The problem is that these prescribed behaviors may be harmful. Rituals and traditions not withstanding, there is no “right” way to mourn.
While there is a general pattern for mourning, generalizations often do not apply to individuals. Every person is unique and each meets the world in his or her own special manner. Imposing certain expectations regarding the expression of emotions can be harmful.
Anna, a friend in East Africa, faced such a problem. At Paul’s funeral, just before his body was carried from his house to the grave outside the window of his room, Anna told us that she dreaded the next step. Custom required that she enter a nearby house full of women, rip her clothes, pull her hair and wail as the coffin was lowered into the grave. For the rest of the day she was to sob with her relatives as proof of her grief.
The difficulty for Anna was that she did not feel that way at the time. Perhaps Paul had been ill for so long she experienced his death as a relief or perhaps it didn’t yet feel real. For whatever reason, Anna couldn’t genuinely express grief publicly that day. She wasn’t sure how she felt, yet she had to act as though she were overcome with sorrow. If she didn’t behave this way, her family would ostracize her.
What was meant to be a ritual catharsis for Anna turned into a meaningless, dishonest and, therefore, a potentially harmful act. When the dirt began to fall on the casket, Anna, with all the other women, ran, wailed and sobbed. Custom had forced her to be dishonest. The prescribed timetable and manner of expressing grief could only add to her sense of guilt. What kind of sister-in-law could she be if she couldn’t feel what everyone told her she was supposed to feel?
Custom required that women wail. At the same time, all the men at the funeral sat somberly and all had dry eyes. I didn’t see one cry. Just as women were required to display their emotions, men were required to hide them. If this is true, it is much like American society. In both instances, custom interferes with true feelings. Both men and women are told what to feel, (even if that telling is never said directly), when to feel it and how to express it.
Forcing these feelings and actions upon people can be impediments to healing. People feel different things at different times. Although death is universal and no one is spared its tragic appearance, it is also personal and unique. Nothing else forces us to contemplate the great and ultimate questions with such urgency. In the face of death we are thrown back upon our most basic fears and anxieties. Each person suffers alone and the manner in which that loss is felt and expressed differs from person to person.
Willard Gaylin writes, “The sustaining loss to the individual involved in death, even a nontraumatic one, is never fully appreciated by the one who has not been in that position. Time does not heal all wounds, and the amount of time needed to heal the majority of serious wounds is well beyond that which the unwounded could ever anticipate.”
Feelings cannot be summoned upon command and rituals that demand specific displays of emotion can be harmful. Instead of healing, they may be sources of guilt and inadequacy, as the bereaved feels that somehow he or she is not normal because what is experienced and felt is not what custom deems proper.
Often it is healthy to release strong feelings. But to demand that the emotions be expressed in a particular way at a particular time is a rejection of the uniqueness of each personality. In an understanding and supportive environment of friends and family, feelings will be worked through in their own time, in their own way.