Maverick Life

Physical distancing shouldn’t stop us from celebrating, or mourning together

By Helena Dolny 27 April 2020

Image cdd20 for Pixabay

At our best, we can be loving, creative, inventive, resourceful and compassionate. It’s our wonderful capacity to love other humans that also causes us to suffer when loved ones die. How can we deal with death better? By keeping rituals alive.

The Other Side of Sadness, the landmark work of Dr George A Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, is a book that was published in 2009 and still provides much comfort in times of grief. Bonanno’s 30 years of research, which also includes research on the grief of New Yorkers after 9/11, explains that we’ve been wired to be resilient since time immemorial. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t have spare time to sit around and mourn. A review published in the New York Times notes: “The bereaved are far more resilient than anyone – including Freud, and the bereaved themselves – would ever have imagined.”

The Covid-19 pandemic brings different kinds of griefs: Grief for the lost rhythms of ordinary daily life in which we go to work, our children go to school and we travel to be with one another socially; even for those with access to Wi-Fi and data, we might grieve physical contact; and finally, we grieve our social rituals, essential to our wellbeing in the world.

Former eNCA’s editor and media strategist Mapi Mhlangu shared the anguish she’s experienced with her family: “I’ve lost a cousin to Covid-19; one of the first South African Covid-19 deaths is my relative.

“She died alone. Our family did not say their last goodbyes nor wash her body. Relatives could not come to her house to pray and grieve loudly with her children, as is our tradition. Another relative was already in hospital after being infected by the deceased. The family did not receive the body of the deceased before burial day. Only 10 members of the immediate family were permitted to drive from Umlazi to Stanger … The coffin was not there when they conducted an hour-long memorial service.

“My family found themselves in completely unfamiliar territory, not knowing if we were paying respects in any way, let alone the right way. As a family, we have come to believe that no matter what we did, we can only hope that we have paid our respects in some way. I am ‘not allowed’ to mourn the death. In a traditional way, that is.”

Weddings, births and deaths are unifying moments for every South African, and funerals are where the traditional idea of loss, grieving and mourning take on a poetic expression.

In South Africa, grief is generally a collective experience. Physical or social distancing, whatever you call it, does not feature in the uniting force of remembrance. The pandemic is denying families the rituals that are often a source of comfort in times of losing a loved one.

We need to be resourceful and share ideas to find new ways to collectively mourn with new rituals that can support us during this pandemic. A starting point is to consider the essentials of rituals and think about how to create new virtual rituals that can support our emotional wellbeing.

Consider the different rituals you’ve been part of in your life pre-Covid-19 – Christenings, naming ceremonies, birthday parties, bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, weddings and funerals. Each of them shares common elements: special clothing for the celebration; a script, which may include a declaration such as the speaking-out-loud of vows; food associated with the occasion; visibility of the central characters (the wedding couple, the teenager marking their rite of passage, the family in mourning); an officiant; shared practice, through prayers, hymns, songs, chants and movement including dance; and bearing witness is also central to ritual.

What can we do at a time when we can’t gather?

#AloneTogether has become a global hashtag and it speaks directly to this sentiment. During one of our recent workshops, participants were asked to think creatively about rituals at a time of physical distancing.

With levity in her voice, one participant described holding an online birthday party in which all invited guests wore hats (special clothing), lit a birthday candle to be blown out after Happy Birthday had been sung by everyone (participation and bearing witness).

Someone told the story of a woman painting in huge letters on the side of her house, visible to passing vehicles, “it’s my husband’s birthday today, please hoot when you pass.”

Another spoke of a couple who had expected to be joyously with their daughter for the birth of their long-awaited grandchild and how their extended network of family and friends created “altars” in their homes and burned candles. When labour started, there was an invitation to meditate together twice a day at specific times.

Attunement can be defined as bringing into harmony, in tune. These moments can bring people together, by doing something collectively, even if it is remotely. Mhlangu notes that: “As a country, we should set aside a day, a time, an hour, a moment … to collectively say a prayer, meditate, or anything that your respective religion dictates, to mourn the loss of your family member and South Africa’s deaths due to Covid-19. National Prayer or Time of Silence or Mediation should be an everyday occurrence as the daily statistics are released. We all need a moment to remember the deceased and support the families of those who cannot mourn traditionally.”

If you are experiencing, or have experienced the death of a loved one, here are some ways to mourn, even as physical distancing keeps us away from each other.

Set up a memory table to support your grieving process, a space where you display photos or put any object that you associate with that person, whether they are in hospital or deceased.

One workshop’s participant spoke of having stones in her garden, with each stone, differently shaped, representing someone and the memories she has of them. I also have plants and stones – the aloe vera is my late husband, the frangipani is my mother, the cycad is my aunt, the stone is my cousin. These nudge memories of what Maya Angelou called her entourage – the people who’ve believed in us, inspired us and whose memory we draw strength from.

Consider hosting an online ceremony. There’s no reason why you can’t do the whole service digitally with different speakers, a music playlist, psalms and poems readings, and prayers for the dead.

One Hindu participant also spoke of the plate left on the table for a certain number of days.

Ritual is essential to our psycho-social wellbeing. When something deprives us of our traditions, rather than feeling defeated or even possibly guilty, we need to work out what we can do differently to fill that damaging void.

And eventually, when this crisis has passed and we’ve dealt with what we’ve lost, we will be able to reflect and revisit our rituals, identify what served us well, and what can fall away. DM/ML

Helena Dolny is a leadership coach and author of Before Forever After: When conversations about living meet questions about dying. Ngiphiwe Mhlangu is a leading journalist and media strategist. Together they joined forces as founders of LoveLegacyDignity, a social enterprise which promotes life-affirming conversations in the face of our inevitable mortality.

Visit lovelegacydignity for more details and to register. If you would like to share your stories, ideas or suggestions with Helena, you can email her at [email protected]

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