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Column: We need new ways to acknowledge grief in our rapidly changing society

The experience of the darker range of emotions is healthy and natural. But what happens when traditional grieving practises fade away, when your community experiences mass emigration, or your friendships move online?

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TRADITIONALLY, THE IRISH do death really well. We have many rich practices engrained in our culture that have historically assisted the grieving process. From the vocal lament of keening at funerals to wearing a black pin on clothing for a year after bereavement, these supports have helped people work through pain and loss with personal dignity, honour and the support from their community.

But what happens when these traditions fade away? What happens when your community experiences mass emigration? What happens when the previous centres of community no longer serve a huge portion of the population, as is case with churches? What happens when your community is more online than offline?

These are some of the questions that Ireland’s new National Grieving Day are trying to address. The Day, which is being celebrated today in Ireland and around the world, is being marked by community-hosted events which are helping people move through their hurt, loss and grief towards celebration, hope and light. National Grieving Day arose from a recognition that in these modern times, we need to find new ways for our society to collectively acknowledge and release our grief, mindful that our losses might be that of a loved one, or an expectation, a home, a way of life or a period in our life.

Working through grief in daily life

Many traditional cultures around the world today have vibrant rituals integrated into their society to honour grief. But these days in Ireland, unless you’re religious or engaged in regular spiritual practice, there’s no place for people to work through their grief in daily life.

But it’s not just the lack of a central location to mourn that is the problem. Grief also seems to have a short shelf-life these days. We are expected to ‘get over’ things quickly by outsourcing our emotional processing to professionals or to compartmentalise our life, so we end up not bringing our whole person to work or to our position in the community or to the family dinner table.

The national guidelines around bereavement leave for civil servants is five days and it has become almost taboo to show our sorrow or rage, as it can make others feel uncomfortable and be perceived as a sign of weakness or dysfunctionality. This tendency to ‘just put the head down and get on with things’ can potentially be damaging, as by denying or repressing our grief, and treating it as a private pathology, our power to deal with life’s many hurdles is greatly diminished. We become more apathetic and our capacity to respond to our own suffering and that of those around us is greatly reduced.

So how do we allow our pain to be fully part of our lives? Could it be to befriend it as much as the joy we all seek? How can we learn to continue living vibrant lives in co-existence with our grief in all its complexity?

The gift of permission

The attitude of ‘getting over’ grief is a misnomer. The only way past our grief is to move through it. Grief is a verb the way love is verb. To make grief manifest in our lives is not just to feel it inside but to make movements and create actions bringing us deeper into it – the scary part we shy away from – and then through it towards a new perspective. That’s where change becomes possible. We need to acknowledge our grief not just on an intellectual level but through direct embodied experience, and key to this is giving ourselves permission.

The gift of permission, of allowing ourselves to acknowledge what we’re feeling without trying to deny any part of it, is transformational. What do you say when you meet a friend who has lost their job, or their home, or when their business has gone down the tube? Navigating the compassion and the shame around grief can be difficult and uncomfortable. We can only overcome our fear, anger, sorrow, emptiness, and despair when we give ourselves full permission to feel these emotions completely. The phrase “For every tear that is suppressed, another bullet is manifest” frames the importance of honouring these sometimes unwelcome feelings in our life.

We all encounter dark emotions

The experience of the darker range of emotions is healthy and natural, we all encounter them at some point in our life. To help communities and our nation move forwards, practical ways to help people move through these emotions are vital. Perhaps the local events around National Grieving Day today can go some way towards lifting the bind that unprocessed grief can lock us into.

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What a gift we can give to the next generation, and many generations to come, if we as a nation commit to changing our attitudes about grief. A brighter, more hopeful future can emerge from the personal and societal acknowledgement of grief and the learning that arises from such witnessing. It is time to bring the grieving process out of the shadows.

Written by Lydia Kiernan, founder of National Grieving Day, and Christine Hadekel, of the National Grieving Day team.

Lydia Kiernan is a change catalyst who works globally and at home in Ireland, directing transformational leadership and personal development programmes. Since 2006, Lydia has worked with thousands of people from a range of sectors on their quest for personal development and organisational transformation.

Christine Hadekel is a community activist and non-profit consultant who is dedicated to fostering social and spiritual transformation through all her work. She has worked with diverse communities across the globe in the areas of peace building, youth development, food justice and environmental restoration.

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