When it comes to overcoming grief and emotional pain, it turns out, humans are not all that unique. It’s true that we have a wide variety of methods with which to flee our troubles. Examples are: work, drugs, sex, relationships, hobbies, physical exercise etc. But when it comes to what we need to do to face them and move on we are all remarkably similar.
When I had a painful loss in my life I couldn’t deal with alone, I came in contact with the research of John W James and Russell Friedman of the Grief recovery Institute. In order to better help people in their practice they did extensive research and identified several discrete steps all grieving need to take to overcome their pain. I’ve come to recognise these principles in various religious practices. It seems like major religions have already figured these steps out, if not in theory, at least in practice, and are all acting on them:
James’ and Friedman’s steps to overcoming emotional pain:
1. Acknowledge that you have issues and define what they are. When we feel emotional discomfort our first instinct is to avoid the pain. Instead try to allow yourself to feel what you feel.
2. Accept that you have part of the responsibility to overcome your grief.
3. Identify your thoughts and feelings. Especially feelings you haven’t expressed yet.
4. Express those feelings in a safe environment.
5. If you’ve been honest with yourself and done the work you should be able to say goodbye to the pain. Find strength and joy by this. Learn and grow.
Intellectualising emotional pain, by itself, never works. Understanding why you are sad won’t make the pain go away. Feelings have their own rational and rarely cooperate. Contrary to popular belief time doesn’t heal all wounds. Keeping busy and trying to ignore the pain will only serve to prolong the pain. In time we may push the pain into our subconscious, make it part of our personality. But until we dare face it and deal with it, it will linger, draining us and dragging us down.
In order to feel safe and be relaxed enough to face our fears, honestly share and be open with how we feel we need a people around us we feel safe with. We need to feel respected and cared for. We need to be able to weep together and laugh together. The mending of broken hearts requires hard work and is difficult to do alone. This is the kind of basic unit around which all religious communities are built.
So what about other people’s sorrow?
If we want to be part of the supportive community for others we need to know what to do. Best advice. Don’t over-think it. Just say “I’m sorry. I can’t imagine how it must feel for you. How have you been doing?”. It communicates that you care, that you’re not about to belittle their pain or give them unwelcome “expert” advice and it gives them the opportunity to talk to you about it without it coming off as prying.
The mortician Caitlin Doughty has a witty and fun vlog about her job and death called Ask a Mortician. Here’s a good video from her on the topic of grieving.
Rituals to help us overcome emotional pain
Burial rituals are designed as a sacred space where the grieving are given a safe space to express their pain, say words they feel need to be said to the deceased and a to take a final farewell. They all contain the above steps and components.
Shinto burial ritual
- “yukan,” washing the corpse, the family washes the deceased.
- “kiyu hokoku,” The family announces the death through prayer
- “makura naoshi no gi,” the deceased is placed with the head facing north.
- Food, sword and a knife is left of the the deceased
- “nokan no gi,” the placemend of the deceased in the coffin.
- “kyuzen nikku,” daily offerings to the deceased at the altar.
- Announcement of the return of the spirit.
- “bosho batsujo no gi,” earth purification ceremony of the grave site.
- “Kessai,” priest’s purification
- “tsuya sai,” the wake
- “senrei sai,” transfer of the spirit, a priest transfers the deceased’s spirit from the body into a wooden tablet. The tablet is held over the deceased while the priest says a prayer.
- “settai,” refreshments, food cooked and is served to the mourners.
- “Shinsosai,” the funeral service. The room is purified, offerings are made and eulogies are given by the priests.
- “kokobetsu shiki,” farewell ceremony, mourners file out past the deceased and say farewells.
- “hakkyu sai no gi,” the preparation of the coffin for removal to the grave site.
- “soretsu,” funeral procession.
- “hakkyu-go batsujo nogi,” purification of the house, priests and relatives purify the house with cleaning after the coffin leaves. The funeral altar is removed and a new altar is set up.
- “maisosai,” burial rites, family and close friends assemble at the grave site or crematorium with the body. More offerings are placed with the coffin.
- “kotsuage,” picking up the bones, bones are removed from the crematorium ash and put in a vase.
- “Kika sai,” coming home, step 20, is the return of the ashes to the home. The family thanks the people who helped with the funeral and places the ashes in the family shrine.
Priests have in all times been trusted persons to safely share with. Ideally, it’s a person who exists apart from everyday life only to be a spiritual guide, to share with and who can be trusted never to abuse their position. We don’t have priests in Syntheism. But we do have a community and the shared wisdom collected in all the world’s religions.
It’s important to actually say goodbye. Even though Syntheists don’t believe in an afterlife, the soul, ghosts or anything supernatural you still remember those you have lost. You know them, their mannerisms and the kinds of things they would say. You can still talk to them in your head, feel their presence. I’m sure we’ve all had such solo dialogues. In such an internal discussion you can admit things, forgive them or tell them things you need them to hear, and it’ll still have an impact on you as if they really were in front of you.
If you have unfinished business with somebody you have lost, you can use this method to settle things. Say it out loud. Preferably in the presence of another person. Whatever you need to say, say it and it can help to heal your wound. For psychological reasons, saying it out aloud with trusted people present is much more effective for healing this kind of pain, than just thinking it in your head. Community and the support from others is critical. We all need an understanding voice that listens.
Will the circle be unbroken (written by Ada R. Habershon). Sung by Bernice Johnson Reagon. A Christian lament for a dead mother