Coping with the Circle of Lifeby Nicola on 2015-07-11
Coping with Grief and Bereavement
By Dr Nicola Davies
Dr Nicola Davies examines how we can cope with grief and bereavement experienced when losing a loved one.
A Place for Tradition
Traditionally, Inuit believed that when a person died they entered another world; in ceremonies, the departed were invited to participate, even though it was acknowledged that this wasn't possible, in effect keeping their memory alive in the community. Today, many Inuit accept Christianity but still respect the wisdom and beliefs of the Elders. What is essential is to understand how to help a grieving person, as well as to provide a place for rituals that can help us come to terms with the loss.
Giving Voice to Emotions
The five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, as laid out by Dr Elizabeth Kübler Ross in her 1969 book 'On Death and Dying,' referred to the dying person’s acceptance of their own death – not the survivors’ experience of bereavement. Modern psychological studies have shown that, although people may not go through all these stages and not in the order suggested, it doesn't mean they aren't coping. People cope in different ways.
Among Inuit, it is usually not considered appropriate to show intense emotion. However, that is after the traditional five-day grieving period, during which time emotions are shared and the time is used to come together as a community to remember the person who has passed. This sharing of grief is believed to help prevent mental disorders, which ties in with the advice of Kübler Ross in her second book, 'On Grief and Grieving.' As she puts it, "Grief must be witnessed to be healed.”
Inuit Resilience Intact
Resilience is important in overcoming grief. Fortunately, Inuit are genetically engineered to be resilient, as life is harsh in small settlements with extreme weather conditions. When an elderly person passes, it is accepted as a part of the circle of life. Should a tragedy befall a family due to an accident then there will be more anger and denial, because the natural order has been upset, but community support is usually forthcoming.
Inuit Communities Supportive
If a bereaved person appears to be depressed or lonely, members of the community will support them and guide them toward acceptance of their loss. However, it would be considered rude, in Inuit culture, to specifically refer to the person’s emotional state. Should a person cut themselves off from family and friends there will be an attempt by members of the group to subtly guide that person back to social integration.
Recent studies have shown that grief does end – normally within six months those who have been bereaved will be going about their normal daily routine, unless the death was due to a homicide or accident, when it may take longer. That doesn’t mean people don’t think about the person who died or miss them – it simply means they can carry on successfully, even without formal grief counseling.
How to Help a Bereaved Person
Here are some key steps that will go a long way in supporting a bereaved friend or family member:
- Accept their feelings – just sit quietly with them and let them talk or cry, but don’t judge or offer unnecessary comments.
- Sometimes silence is good – just try to feel their emotions and support them with a hand squeeze or a hug. Inuit are traditionally good at this as on a visit they feel no need to chatter; they will simply “see” how a person is doing by reading facial expressions carefully and observing the household.
- Don’t stop a bereaved person talking about the person who has passed and how it happened – instead let them talk. By doing this, they are working through their loss.
- When offering comfort remember no one can experience another person’s grief as intensely as that person - so it won't be helpful to give advice unless it is asked for, otherwise the person may become angry.
- Give assistance where needed - Don’t say, “I’m here for you,” then disappear. Rather, observe carefully and do something useful, like fetching supplies, cooking a meal for the children, cleaning up, or ensuring their vehicle is in good condition, until they are ready to cope.
Rituals Help make Meaning of Grief
Niemeyer talks about the importance of reconstructing meaning from life for those who survive. They may have been devastated by the loss of the loved one and need to re-establish the meaning of their life. Rituals, whether they are religious ones or small family rituals, help. They provide a framework for reconstruction. The funeral service and five-day mourning period, and the one-year remembrance ceremony, are part of that framework. The Inuit custom of naming children after their relatives allows the loved ones to live on forever, and family traditions the departed one was fond of also help keep cherished memories alive.
Loss isn't the end; it is the circle of life.