The following is a personal reflection that includes some (but not all) of the details from a Dagara grief ritual held in Rockport, MA in May 2016. I have begun facilitating grief work in a similar ritual format: please check out this link to find out more, or contact me to lead a retreat near you.
We gathered on a Saturday morning and took our seats in the circle of folding chairs. A few people had come with friends or spouses or had come to ritual before, but by and large we were a group of 35 strangers.
Sobonfu Some entered the room and sat down with us. She was effervescent, grounded, succinct, and wise. She shared with us some context for the ceremony we were about to undertake, a grief ritual from her West African Dagara heritage. Her teachings were profound yet delivered with matter-of-factness and often humor. As we introduced ourselves, some tears began. As we broke into small groups to share our stories, more tears were shed and connections forged; though strangers from different walks of life, we found we had particular kinds pain in common.
We built our altars altogether: one in red, full of photos and mementos from ancestors genetic, adopted, or from religious traditions. One altar was blue: to encourage the waters of forgiveness to flow through us. It was covered in images of loved ones who would support our work and our self-forgiveness. And the grief altar was a straightforward black, lined with stones. In front of it were placed cushions and boxes of tissues.
When sacred space was invoked and the drumming and singing began, each of us in turn went to the altar we felt most called to visit. The song itself was a simple chant; Sobonfu explained its meaning to be “I cannot do it alone.” And indeed, we found that we needed each other to peel back what one woman called the “cylinder of aloneness.” We may feel a constant, anonymous, shy isolation, but ironically we are all feeling it. It is symptomatic of a culture estranged from itself. But according to the Dagara, we are not meant to grieve alone.
One rule of the ritual is that no one goes to the grief altar alone. At first, we held space for each other without touching. In later rounds, we could touch, massage, or hold the grieving person to actively help move the sadness through the body. There were no stories, no questions asked, no advice given. Simply witnessing. And when the crying one was finished, both people could return to the village to sing until the next movement of energy, the next purge, the next visit to an altar.
I visited the red or blue altars on the way to the black altar, or as integration spaces for the way back to the “village,” the place for singing. When I was pulled by my own heart to the black altar, I wept. Sobbed. Coughed and moaned and screamed and stomped my feet. I cried out from my marrow things I didn’t even know were in there. Someone always had my back.
One of my griefs, unbeknownst to me until it threw me onto the cushion, was shame that I have f**ed up so many times. I kneeled down at the black altar and muttered every apology that came to mind. Through my snot and sorrow, someone had my back. In fact, she stood behind me with her knee in my back and hands on my shoulders to help me stay upright and breathing – it was the perfect assist to move the energy through my heart. When I stood and walked to the forgiveness altar, I was met by smiling photos of my friends and by mementos that had meaning to these strangers who were now my village. Would these friends be as hard on me as I had just been on myself? Of course not. They would have my back, just as I would have theirs.
During another round, I cried out all my disappointment at lost love. I let out all the rage of all the blows to my heart, and the belief that no man could ever really hold me. The person at my back then happened to be a man, and he held me so tightly there was no mistaking this message from Spirit. He stayed with me for a long time, as long as it took for me to release the tears. He asked no questions, he expected no thanks. He simply held me until I was done. I spoke with him the next morning about our exchange at the grief altar and before I could express the beautiful serendipity that a man held me during my grief about men, he thanked me for allowing him to experience that embrace. “It was very healing for me,” he said.
In my own way, I understood what he meant. I was able to hold space (and actually hold) several people. It is a privilege and such a deep comfort to me to be present for someone else in that way, to simply show up with love. It’s humbling and inspiring at once, and it was a beautiful real-time reminder that witnessing and being witnessed are so much more powerful than any advice or modality.
Over the course of Saturday and Sunday, we spent about seven or eight hours actively engaged in ritual before it was formally closed with celebration. Seven or eight hours of witnessing and releasing grief. I left hoarse and with pains in my body from the work of purging so many tears and moans. Seven or eight hours of singing and praying.
And it wasn’t enough.
We carry the grief of our personal losses: the loved ones who passed on, the illnesses and traumas we survived, the disappointments and wrongs we’ve endured. We carry the grief of our ancestral lines: the famines, pogroms, diasporas, plagues, and poverty. We carry the grief of our communities: the violence, ignorance, fear, terror, isolation, and blatant miscarriages of justice. We carry it all, and in our culture we have no place to put it down. It is hidden by our numbness, distraction, and cynicism. It is misunderstood or perceived as a threat to those who aren’t ready to feel their own pain. It can be turned into addiction or eventually become illness, hardened hearts, depression. We have no skill for grief because no one has ever told us that we aren’t supposed to carry it alone. We haven’t had an altar for it. And life continues, with more death and fear, giving us more reasons to grieve, but also perhaps to come together and ultimately heal.
One weekend is not enough. In West Africa, rituals happen for seventy-two hours at a time on a regular basis. You don’t have to say why you’re there and you don’t have to be a member of that particular tribe to participate. It’s just understood that there is always work to be done, for ourselves or for others, and everyone is encouraged to do it. Grieving well is a way of preserving life. It makes room for joy, supports health, and allows for authentic support and connection within the village.
The grief ritual was one of the most important things I have ever done. It’s been a month since we gathered and I’m still integrating and marveling at the depth and breadth, while also recognizing the simplicity and common sense of it. Of course, we need safe space to grieve. Of course, it isn’t just when someone dies. Of course, we can’t do it alone. Of course, it will linger in our blood and bones until we release it.
I look at my clients, family, friends and wonder if they will ever have the opportunity and inclination to join me at a ritual. I read the news and wonder if there are enough rituals in the world to contain all of the grief and outrage we feel. I wonder what I can do to help.
And I remember: I cannot do it alone.