Transcribed from Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community by Malidoma Patrice Some

A non-Westerner arriving in this country for the first time is struck by how little attention is given to human emotion in general. People appear to pride themselves for not showing how they feel about anything. A husband might lose his job yet deploy tremendous effort to show some modicum of indifference. A couple has a crisis in relationship, yet unless seen together, it is impossible to tell what turmoil they hide inside. And the worst case of all is witnessed when someone dies. It took me t he longest time to figure out that a long line of cars with headlights on in the middle of the day meant someone had died. As attractive as the modern world is with its material abundance, it is repulsive with its spiritual and emotional poverty.

What overflows in the West is barren in the indigenous world, and vice versa. Among the things that the indigenous world can share from its abundance with the modern world are spirit and emotion.

There are countless ways of expressing emotion because countless ways are needed. No one is supposed to repress emotion. If death disturbs the living, it offers a unique opportunity to unleash one of the strongest emotional powers humans have: the power to grieve. Yet, anyone who has had an opportunity to participate in a grief ritual in another culture would be shocked by the effort deployed by people in this culture to prevent themselves from feeling anything when someone dies. It is as if death had intruded into forbidden territory of the heart trying to steal away with some kind of emotion against people’s wills.

People die in newspapers, in television reports. People die on bulletin boards. But they are rarely shown dead. To an indigenous person, showing a picture of a person alive and saying that this person is dead is anachronistic. Why hide death?

People who do not know how to weep together are people who cannot laugh together. People who know not the power of shedding their tears together are like a time bomb, dangerous to themselves and to the world around them. T he self-rekindling or calming, which not only helps in handling death but also resets or repairs the feelings within the person. This is needed because death, and the sudden separation around it, puts the living in a state of emotional debt, loss and disorientation. The unresolved energy produced by the death of a loved one translates itself emotionally as grief. And grief is in fact owed to the dead as the only ingredient that can help complete the death process. Grief delivers to the dead that which they need to travel to the realm of the dead — a release of emotional energy that also provides a sense of completion or endedness, closure. This sense of closure is also needed by the griever who has to let go of the person who has died. We have to grieve. It is a duty like any other duty in life.

For the Dagara, grief is seen as food for the psy9che. Just as the body needs food, the psyche needs grief to maintain its own healthy balance. As a result, one of the most sophisticated rituals designed by the Dagara for its own people is the funeral ritual. The Dagara feel this ritual, which involves everybody both living and dead, is owed to the dead, whether they die young or old. This ritual gives our people the opportunity to grieve individually and communally.