A saying goes, "You never know how precious someone was, until they are gone." The loss of someone we care about is often a devastating one, and that sort of side-effect is more natural than not.
Humans are very very social animals - more social than is immediately obvious; we are one of few animal species that wish to and often continue to commune with those who've passed on. Among such species that grieve their dead are crows (which form lifelong bonds in pairs, which grieve the loss of their partner by diving, swooping and sounding calls to other birds, at the location of their dead partner), primates (especially chimpanzees and bonobos) and other elephants that often refuse to abandon the bodies of their dead, and then cats, dogs that exhibit "sad" behavior after the death of a fellow in their company. I personally once witnessed a cat of mine, Nikita, that used to sleep outdoors, incessantly cry the whole night, and the morning after, I discovered that its only kitten had died in the night. So yes, grieving is very natural and for many cultures (and species), is a natural way to adjust to the loss of dear one. It's something that might be challenges by many people's modernist ideals and preferences, but it's not something wise to totally discard or take for granted - especially not for us humans.
Importantly though, it's imperative to realize that one just doesn't grieve automatically, as though it were something that gets triggered by a switch as soon as someone or something is lost. Grief is a consequence of loosing something or someone that one did have an emotional bond with. In the absence of that emotional connection between two beings (say, if you were to encounter a story in the news, of the death of someone you not only knew, but probably don't care to know about), there can be no genuine grief - and probably, there shouldn't, as death and loss are part of life, if one were to go about grieving every possible loss, one would not only live miserably, but would possibly loose themselves as well, eventually. BUT, for those things, people with whom we still have an emotional bond (even where it might just be suppressed by separation in space or time), it is healthy and recommended to grieve - or to do something that would aid our minds (and spirit), in dealing with the loss.
A failure to adequately deal with emotion, bereavement (or the loss of someone we were emotionally bonded to) being one of the most important ones, often has negative consequences.
If one were to still have an emotional bond with someone or something, and if that thing were to be taken out of their life, then if the person doesn't deal with that loss adequately - say, if they either fail to grieve and then let-go (meaning the person avoids or suppresses grief), or if they grieve and then fail to let-go (meaning the person experiences and accommodates grief, but refuses to out-grow-it), then in either cases, one or more forms of psychological pathology are bound to happen - there are always negative consequences to not adequately dealing with emotion (be it love, fear, pain or grief). To the healthy and wise, it is important that one know and practice proper means of facing death and the emotion of loss (bereavement).
But, as research (see the work of George Boranno) has shown, the lack of symptoms of grief (especially external symptoms such as crying), in those who have experienced loss, is natural and healthy as well. One doesn't have to externally exhibit loss, so as to adequately deal with it - grief is more an internal, psychological experience than not. Also, the research has shown that humans are naturally resilient in the face of loss - we naturally have the capacity to adjust back to normal, after having lost someone of something.
Grief doesn't have to be projected outside ones mind for it to be effective, and a lack of such external symptoms of grief, as well the lack of grief entirely is natural and healthy - as long as it's not supressed.
Humans are naturally resilient, so that sometime after loss, we naturally adjust back to normal.
It is the unnatural modes of grief that poses problems, and which many need to be wary about:
- Don't grieve, don't cry if you don't have to (especially if it hasn't come naturally).
- Don't linger on the experience of loss, after some healthy point (no more than a few months ideally), and let go and move on.
Now, as for how to adequately deal with the loss of someone, there are many possibilities, but for most people and cultures, the act of crying, and talking (in sympathy and sorrow), about their lost ones, is deemed to be effective and sufficient. But, as the following quote says:
Crying is a normal and natural part of grieving. It has also been found, however, that crying and talking about the loss is not the only healthy response and, if forced or excessive, can be harmful.
So yes, though for most people crying is the natural reaction to loss, it's not the only means possible, and as you might have realized yourself (either experiencing the death of someone or witnessing those who had lost someone), there must be other, probably more relevant means of dealing with loss.
Done effectively, grieving should exhibit the following traits:
- It should be natural - not forced, not exaggerated, not suppressed.
- It should be emotional - grief is an emotional, not intellectual experience.
- It could be spiritual - especially where the griever or the grieved were a very spiritual person.
- It should be timed - grieving shouldn't be unnecessarily prolonged, and it should be a hastily done affair. Generally, the duration of grief will depend on the strength and significance of the emotional bond between the grieved and the griever - the stronger the bond, the longer might be required the period of grief. For people who aren't bonded at all, a momentary acknowledgment of the loss by the griever might even be sufficient.
- It should be expressive - thoughts alone can't be sufficient in expressing and alleviating ones sense of loss, in addition to the emotions and their external and internal expression (which is highly recommended), the griever is encouraged to invest in and leverage some other symbolic, often external aids, by which they can both express and deal with their loss.
In light of the above, the use of adequate ritual to deal with loss is not only recommended, but possibly very effective. Some of the reasons one might want to leverage ritual might be:
- Leveraging symbolic forms that make their impressions on the mind of the griever, it becomes possible for the griever to:
- Effectively express their loss (to themselves, the grieved and any witnesses whose testimony the griever deems valuable) - by leveraging symbols that have meaning to themselves, the grieved and those chosen to be witnesses.
- Ritual and its use of external symbols helps in externalizing loss and the negative energies it nurtures, so that the griever is left purged from the negativity of loss, and thus can more easily move on after experiencing loss. This might easily be the most powerful advantage and incentive for investing in rituals dealing with loss (whether it be death, social rejection, a heartbreak, disasters, etc). Employed this way, rituals serve a very important therapeutic role in the management of loss, and this psychological (as well as spiritual) advantage can be easily ignored.
- If performed as a group, ritual has the added advantage that it helps distribute the gravity of loss to all those actively witnessing the loss - which otherwise might have overwhelmed the griever if left to themselves and the grieved. In this case, participating in a grieving/loss ritual means everyone present gets to absorb some of the crushing energy that is a side-effect of the loss - the more one participates in the ritual, the more they absorb.
- Part of the reason behind this is that loss is an emotion, and as all emotion, carries with it energy of some sort. Now, as with all emotions, everyone who comes into contact with (or experiences) the emotion (the person or people experiencing the emotion), does likewise get affected by it directly or indirectly - it's the law of contagion, and it's a fact.
- It's for this reason that it's unwise for someone to haphazardly attend funeral rites, hang around cemeteries, or dwell for long times in places or with persons possessing such negative emotional energy as sorrow and loss. If this is done without constraint, one risks absorbing much undesired negativity (or negative emotional energy) or inducing it in themselves, which unless if it be their goal, can be unfortunate.
- Possibly the motivation for the ancient saying, "Let the dead bury their dead." If you seek life, avoid the dead.
- Rituals of loss don't only involve negativity (or don't only involve people with negative emotions), but also positivity or its induction. Thus done right, a loss ritual actually involves the cultivation of positivity and gain.
- It's for these reasons that proper burial rites try not to dwell on the fact of loss alone, but heavily exhibit a celebration of the grieved person's life; their successes, cherished memories, music, flowers, pleasant scents and the like.
- Thus, by cultivating and inducing positivity in the face of loss, such rituals manage to cancel out and possibly over-power the negativity that would otherwise overwhelm the griever(s). This still is another very powerful therapeutic aspect of ritual in dealing with loss.
- And so, for these reasons, it's not unhealthy or unwise to see the following things exhibited in the face of loss, say as part of burial rites or the aftermath of someone's experiencing loss:
- The use of brilliant colors
- The use of pleasant scents
- The employment of pleasant music
- The eating of good, healthy and pleasant food
- Dancing, laughing, reading of poetry, etc
- Beware of love-making though, and if you have to, only do it with care (there's a reason most cultures and systems have taboos around sex and death - either you must know what you are doing or don't do it), and possibly not by the person who's lost a loved one, and recommendably, not for pro-creation purposes - as it could spark a backlash of negativity later, due to emotions of betrayal and the contagion of negativity which could stain the outcome of such creative acts.
- Rituals, and especially the symbols they employ, have the advantage that, like any other external aid employed by man, they can be used to anchor immaterial things like emotions, ideals, abstract thoughts (or more accurately, thought-forms) or even spiritual beings!
- In the case of loss, a ritual or the symbols it employs, can be used to contain (either temporarily, or permanently), especially immaterial elements of that which has been lost, after the physical loss happens.
- Note first of all, that many burial rites, traditions and systems already involve the use of symbols that serve to "contain" physical and immaterial aspects of the entities being grieved.
- Such symbols are for example coffins, urns, niches, graves, crypts, mausoleums, cemeteries, and in ancient civilizations, even pyramids and entire temples served this purpose as well.
- By anchoring the dead to something external to and independent of others (especially the grievers), it becomes possible and easy to:
- Have distinct reminders that the grieved is no longer a part of one's "ordinary" life - especially where the anchor is kept spatially distant from the "living" people, as is typical of many burial grounds.
- Serve to offer a "most powerful" relic or portal via which those left behind (the grievers and other witnesses of the loss), can go to in case they need to once-more connect with the deceased.
- This is the reason many cultures have the practices of people visiting and taking care of the graves or burial sites of their deceased - it's a way of "re-visiting" the dead person, at the site where they most powerful anchor in the current life still exists.
- Furthermore, some researchers have argued that grief is a social signal by the griever, to society - especially to old and new partners, indicating that they are capable of forming strong emotional bonds.
- The person who's lost someone, when they exhibit grief, and when this experience is witnessed by others, the griever will have succeeded in communicating to the witnesses how much of a bond they shared with the thing being grieved.
- This can hold an advantage to the griever, who seeks to gain the sympathy and acceptance of their witnesses - on the assumption that people ideally prefer people who are good at forming strong, genuine, emotional bonds with others.
- In this way, the person who cries the most at a funeral is possibly trying to out-compete all the others, or is trying to win over the most acceptance and sympathy from those witnessing their grief. Thus, there's possibly a degree of falsity in publicly exhibited grief, and for these reasons, the genuine griever (possibly wishing to resolve their loss between themselves and the grieved) might better keep extreme emotional exhibition to private space and time, as that way, they risk little in being judged or misunderstood by those witnessing their grief.
The justifications for ritual in dealing with loss could be more, but for now, probably let's limit ourselves to the above, and move on to what kinds of ritual might be performed to handle the loss of someone we cared about.
The Rituals (Send-Off/Release Rituals)
There are already many burial rituals employed and well known all over the world, many of which are not only the standard in many religions, but which have been readily accepted and are considered the standard way of dealing with the dead. I won't enumerate or discuss those, instead I shall here introduce and discuss a class of burial rituals called "release" rituals, some of which share elements with some mainstream, group rituals, but which warrant their own special treatment so as to distinguish their efficacy, pros and cons. It is expected that by possessing knowledge of these rituals, a person should never be in fear or lack of options for how they can effectively deal with the loss of someone (at their hands), no matter what the circumstances might be. Also, as death is such an important, yet ill-understood aspect of human life, it's expected that when equipped with knowledge of and the principles around these death rituals, one will be best positioned to deal with death in general, and would be able to help others deal with death and loss adequately.
The following rituals are meant to serve one major purpose - they help to facilitate or symbolize the departure of the deceased/lost from this (or our) life, into the next... And they allows us to walk away from loss without carrying any of the negativity back with us.
Gone with the Flames
- Obtain a candle
- Light it, and while doing so, allow your mind to accept it as a symbol of the person being grieved - the wax symbolizing their body, and the flame their soul/spirit.
- Let the candle burn naturally, and maybe, as it does, spend time experiencing memories of the person being grieved.
- Before the candle burns out though - allow for a substantial amount to remain, withdraw from those memories and the candle as well.
- Leave the candle alone, so it can burn down till all of it is gone.
- Once the candle is entirely gone, accept that the person you have been grieving is finally and eternally gone.
- Don't take any of the remaining bits of the candle with you, but maybe throw them off into a lake, river or just leave them where it burnt off - especially where you can't access it again.
- Another, easier means of getting rid of these "remains" might be to bury them into the earth (especially if you didn't have a chance to attend the person's burial ceremony).
- One important thing to remember is that the candle remains do actually symbolize the physical remains of the deceased, so treat them as you would the physical remains of the deceased.
- Not in all cases might one want to discard these "remains", and there's genuine reasons for keeping them as we shall see in the later sections dealing with post-death rituals.
Some potential enhancements to the above ritual could be:
- The candle could be specially made from wax that's been mixed with some other symbols or bits of the deceased person's life (or for extreme people, bits of the deceased person's body). This variation mostly serves to further reinforce the power of the candle as a symbol/proxy for the deceased, in our ritual, and be more effective and probably more "sane"/acceptable even where access to the deceased person were possible.
- While doing the "memory" part of the ritual, it would be more efficacious for the griever to project or see in the very flame of the candle, those memories being reminisced. This serves to imbue the flame (which is meant to symbolize the spirit of the deceased), with the energy contained in those memories, and can make the ritual more potent.
- Where it's possible, and acceptable to directly use the physical body of the deceased, a most powerful version of this ritual is to not use the candle, but the body of the person themselves. This is a form of this ritual easier to perform if the entire community agrees with it, as it's definitely involved with affecting the deceased person's body entirely, which unless if one were alone in the burial rite, needs the approval of all those witnessing the rite.
- This is a normal and accepted rite in many primitive and modern cultures, and is also part of those rites which involve cremation - though, where cremation is involved, it's critical that the grievers have visual access to the burning body of the deceased - they should see those flames and smoke, otherwise the ritual's intrinsic power is lessened.
Gone with the Waves
- Obtain a powerful symbol, memorabilia or where possible, bits of the deceased person - the closer to the deceased, the better.
- Travel to a water body with moving water - no, it's not okay to use a still-water body such as a pond or pool, it should be a body with moving water - a lake, river, ocean, spring, etc. The faster and stronger the water moves on, the better.
- Hold in ones arms, the symbols of this deceased person, and while doing this, immerse your mind in the memories of this person's life. Having the eyes closed is preferable, and if this can accompanied by the reading of the person's biography, playing music reminiscent of them, burning incense or scents reminiscent of them, or merely chanting the person's name or typical phrase, would help to further deepen and enhance the memories of this person in the griever.
- Then, after a sufficient moment elapses, walk over to the waters, and let go of the symbols into the receding waters. As you do this, bid farewell to the deceased and their spirit.
- Allow any emotions of grief to naturally manifest, as the symbol of the deceased sails away...
- Wash your hands in the water - symbolizing the resolve to let go of the deceased.
- Walk away from the sight of the ritual, and recommendably, don't look back.
Some potential enhancements to the above ritual could be:
- Because a symbol of the person is required, and because it is to be discarded into water, it's more natural and preferable to use the cremated remains of the deceased person if that's possible.
- This eliminates the mess of dealing with the cadaver in its entirety, but also means the remains can more organically be absorbed into the water, without leaving much trace - which has the advantage that the physical body of the deceased doesn't linger around after their death, which could symbolize (and possibly cause) the failure of the deceased person's spirit to transition or leave this life for the next - an often undesirable thing.
- If the deceased person had been recorded speaking during their life - especially during those moments when they were happy, it would be better to use these recordings as audio-playbacks during that reminiscing part of the ritual, as hearing the voice of the deceased can more easily reinforce memories of them than not.
Gone with the Wind
- This is yet another release/transition ritual, and is very closely related to the one above - "Gone with the Water", except that instead of the water, the ritual is performed with the following variations:
- The preferable/recommended site of the ritual is atop a hill, atop a very tall building or structure, or while flying high in the air (as on a plane or other aircraft) - height and the presence of strong winds are the key aspects here.
- Definitely, unless if the symbol is gaseous, it's preferable to use powdered forms of any symbols or remains of the deceased in this ritual.
- Care should be taken, to ensure that the chosen symbols of the deceased don't linger around the griever and other witnesses after the release. This is more difficult in this form of ritual, as the direction and dynamics of the wind might be harder to predict, and so, it's recommended to be sure that the symbols are releases when the wind is guaranteed to be blowing away from and not towards those present. If not done right, the ritual's purpose would not only be defeated, but those present risk moving away with elements of the deceased stuck to them, which is ideally not desirable.
Gone with the Wild (or Beasts)
This is still in-line with the previous release rituals, but unlike any of the above, this ritual is probably more primitive, more animistic and more barbaric than most people would tolerate. But it is also probably one of the simplest release rituals anyone can perform after the loss of someone. Because of its nature, I'll describe its essential elements clearly below:
- Obtain the deceased person (or something symbolic of them) and take them to their "final", physical resting place - it's preferable to obtain something that can be guaranteed to easily perish or disappear under the natural circumstances of the venue of the ritual. For cases where the body of the deceased is used, this might mean ensuring that the cadaver is readily exposed to the elements - in a way that decay, weathering and possibly the ravaging of the body by beasts can occur readily and naturally.
- Spend sufficient time immersed in memory of the deceased.
- Finally, bid farewell to the deceased, and walk away (recommendably, without looking back).
It's as simple and barbaric as that, but for many purposes, it works very effectively, and is the sort of rite that would work best where one lacks tools or fancy means to send off their deceased - as in the middle of war, the jungle, desert or other extreme conditions. Also, its easier to see why this is probably the most primitive of all these release rituals, as it almost mimics the way in which beasts of the jungle would deal with their dead - just acknowledging the death, possibly relieving the memories, and then moving on. For humans especially, it would be ideal to ensure that the remains of the deceased will be sufficiently destroyed - by beasts (vultures, hyenas, ants, and other beast which feed on dead flesh), and the elements (so any remaining bits can weather away as well).
Some variations of this form of release rite include:
- hanging the deceased on poles or trees so as to leave them to be weathered away by animals and elements
- throwing the body of the deceased to animals so as to have them help destroy the physical body - which destruction is meant to symbolize and facilitate the "release" of the deceased into the next life
- merely abandoning the deceased at the site of their death - a thing not entirely uncommon in extreme circumstances like war zones, contamination zones, etc
In any case, it's very very advisable to not use this last form of release ritual, as not only is it barbaric and seemingly "inhuman", but it also possesses the most risk of not effectively "releasing" the spirit of the deceased (or memories of them), from this life. And as you might know by now, this is often undesirable - unless one is a dark sorcerer.