Wailing through the pain

I am away this week in Ghana. I came for my uncle’s funeral. It has been very nice seeing everyone and although a funeral is sad event, it is also a chance to see how people come together in times of crisis to support one another.

I mention in my book about how our personal relationships contribute more to our sense of wellbeing than our income. This weekend has really proven that to me. Just being among family, even for a sad event has made me feel nurtured and supported. If I can feel that amidst all the weeping and wailing (believe you me, when it comes to funerals, we really go to town on the wailing, especially those of my mother’s generation), that proves how powerful personal relationships are.

Now let me explain about the wailing because it is a big deal here in Ghana and quite an art form. They literally make a song and dance about it, I am not kidding or exaggerating here. They sort of chant whatever they are feeling about their loss and list how they are going to affected by it. They also move their bodies through the chanting, rhythmically rocking from side to side which makes it look like they are dancing, and they sometimes pace up and down. Different people do this at the same time, they experience their own private grief and on the surface it seems like a cacophony of noise but when you understand what is going on you understand what an art form it is. Unfortunately, this is a dying art form as my generation, especially the educated ones just stand there and weep silently because we think that it is the ‘polished’ thing to do. The sad thing about those of us trying to be polished is that we don’t really work through our pain of the loss with the physicality that the wailing and rocking affords us. By the end of the funeral, normally the wailers are spent and they collapse in a heap to sleep with sheer emotional and physical exhaustion whereas those of us silent ‘polished’ weepers are left to toss and turn in a fitful sleep.

The wailers can teach us a thing or two about emotions. Managing our emotions is good for our emotional wellbeing. We should not be afraid of pain but be prepared to live through it and allow it to pass through our bodies confident in the knowledge that it is only passing through. We have to be brave enough to experience our pain and show our pain wherever appropriate.

My mum is 82, she has buried a few people in her lifetime, especially when you live in Ghana, a developing country where the healthcare system leaves a lot to be desired. This means people die of very preventable illnesses. How has my mother survived all these funerals? Well, she lets it out. She is one of the wailers. She makes a song and dance about it. She expresses her grief unashamedly. My cousin whose father’s funeral it was, came to visit for the weekend before the funeral. We phoned my mum and the moment that she came on to the phone, and heard it was us, she started with her ritual chant about what had happened to her and that she had lost brother. Of course we knew better than to interrupt her during her chant. We waited until she had finished with chanting and then asked her how she was, which was a bit of a silly question considering she had just been wailing down the phone at us. She let us into her grief and we respected and shared it. There was no shame, there was no one trying to tell her not to wail, we understood it had to be done and we gave her the space.

My cousin on the other hand, if she was of my mother’s generation would have launched into her own chant for the loss of her father after my mother finished and mother would have returned the favour by giving her the space to express her grief. If this is done properly, you have two people expressing their grief to each other and feeling supported through their grief. No shame, no weakness, just pure expression of grief and support.

Alas, both my cousin and I are of the silent weeping generation. We chose not to learn about how to construct funeral chants to process our pain. So somehow we are not properly processing and articulating our sense of loss when we lose someone dear to us because we are busy being ‘polished’. Interestingly, it is us, the silent weepers who do not show our pain in public but think nothing of taking antidepressants. Perhaps that is because that can be done in private and no one gets to see our pain. Maybe, just maybe if we learnt to show our pain, expressed it, maybe not in a loud wailing chant while rocking from side to side but expressed it nonetheless, we might be able to save ourselves one less prescription drug.

I am now off to practice my wailing and chanting before I come back to England. Imagine me turning up at someone’s funeral in England and trying it out. I wonder how long it will take before the men in white coats are summoned to cart me off to be sedated. At what point in our western society, did we decide that pain if expressed at all had to be in secret and if one didn’t seem capable of that, then it had to be medicated?

I will keep my eyes open for more inspiration whilst I am here that we could perhaps modify to enhance our western wellbeing.