I went back to Nusa Lembongan, a very small and desirable Indonesian island, where we run our retreats. I expected coconut trees, fighting cocks, turquoise waters, the odd cocktail, and yes, a bit of local culture. I did not expect to be attending a funeral.
And yet, there was my man, looking uncomfortable in the required traditional sarong outifit, attempting to stride (with skirt restrictions!) down into the fray of the most festive funeral I have ever attended. Street sellers had their rickety trolleys loaded with food. Every single person from Lembongan attended. The entire village shut down for a week. We could not even rent a motorbike (gasp!).
I did not know the decreased guy and he was not famous, but evidently death is viewed as a normal, although significant, phase of life in this culture, one that should be kindly attended to. All hands on deck please! Boatloads of mourners arrived from the mainland as the big day of the ceremony drew closer, and as many as 10 people were to be cremated that week, along with the most recently deceased man.
The ceremonial drums were beaten loudly throughout the tropical nights of the celebrations. As I paddled out across the ocean in the beautiful breaking dawn light, I could hear the drums and smell the cremation smoke, both wafting across the ocean from the shore. The smoke lasted for days after the event. When I commented on this, local people would cheerfully agree that the smoke tended to linger for quite awhile. The smell of death…and no-one wanted to sanitise it?
I contrasted this to our often compartmentalized experience of death at home, where people take an hour off work to check in at a funeral; widows are given one day of ‘compassionate leave’ by the government. It seems to indicate that death should all be neatly done and dusted and our normal lives seamlessly resumed as quickly as possible. Patients of mine often comment about how quickly the flood of flowers and home cooked meals drop away.
It makes me feel angry because it seems to imply that grief that lasts for more than a few days is somehow abnormal: and it’s not! If we lose someone we love, we will naturally feel a painful gaping hole. As a clinical psychologist, I know that grieving people do not routinely need therapy: because grief is not a pathological condition! It is not something that needs ‘fixing’, getting rid of, controlling and least of all suppressing. What grieving people need is permission to feel how they feel without ‘faking good’.
I will never forget an elderly man who came to me as a patient. When I asked him why he had presented for therapy, he said that his kids had sent him because he was ‘still’ sad about the death of his wife. He had been married for 56 years. She had died three months previously. Just how emotion-phobic is our society getting? Discovering that he was indeed quite normal was all the treatment he required, and he got on with embracing his healthy bundle of mixed feelings about the loss of his wife.
I saw a lot of laughing and crying and solemnness and yes, even hilarity at the Lembongan funeral. All of these emotions tend to be real and present when someone dies. In my experience, Australian funerals are often above all awkward affairs where people showing high levels of emotion of any kind are uneasily ignored or even borne off somewhere out of sight to ‘settle down’. People who can act falsely or coldly are rewarded as ‘strong’.
I absolutely loved the Lembongan approach of permitting the authentic. I shed tears at that funeral. Not from the loss of the unknown man, but for all of the many hours of suffering that I had witnessed in my Western clients. Suffering that was caused by having to repress their grief and become terribly lonely in this harshest of times. I cried too because I felt so moved at the sight of a society being kind enough to support their people; a group of people making time for important priorities like death and healing and spirituality.
In our country we say we don’t have ‘time’ to do things like this. And yet what could be more important? I hope to live a little more this way from now on. As for helping yourself or someone else who is grieving, what can you do? Here’s a couple of things that I believe help:
• Allow people to experience the emotions that come as a natural consequence of losing someone they love. Don’t try to ‘cheer them up’ every minute of the day.
• Accept that grief will take some time to resolve. There are reasons that many cultures use ‘widows weeds’ or black armbands for 12 months to indicate mourning. How considerate! It’s like wearing a sign that says to others ‘handle with care’ or ‘please don’t expect me to act normally or be gratuitously happy right now!’
• Become tough enough to acknowledge and befriend the darker emotions inside of you. This requires much more grit than faking good, I reckon, and it’s rewards are commensurately better too.
How do you do grief? What helps you…or not? I would love to hear! Perhaps your comments will help someone else too.
All the best! Alanda