Being Present with Pain Part 2: Grief

epa04176741 A grief-fuelled moment for a father of a victim of the Sewol ferry accident,  at a joint incense-burning altar set up at Ansan Olympic Memorial Hall in Ansan, south of Seoul, South Korea. 23 April 2014. Officials say about 200 people are still missing and at least 150 confirmed dead after a passenger ferry carrying hundreds of teenagers sank off the southern coast of South Korea on 16 April. Only 179 of 475 passengers and crew were rescued. Lee Joon-seok, captain of Sewol, the ferry carrying 475 passengers and crew, has reportedly been arrested.  EPA/YANG JI-WOONG

Our ancestors put in place many rituals that were specifically designed to give an outlet to purge lingering, unexpressed emotions. From Confucians to Jews, many systems had specific systems for expressing grief and sadness, which, sadly, we seem to have lost, as the inefficacy of psychotherapy and mass-medication points out. Our present systems are emotionally unhealthy, and we are experiencing the emotional debt of that.

Recently, I attended a funereal for someone I cared for very much – an old lady I had looked after, who had suffered from Alzheimer’s, and who died from a pulmonary embolism. I was asked to speak at her funereal, which I knew would be a challenge, but which I was very keen to do.

As it was one of my first experiences of genuine loss, I was quite disappointed by the disingenuousness of the proceedings. Sure, the funereal service was poignant, and well-put together another enough. But I wanted to see crying – I wanted to see people coming together to express their grief fully in the security of eachother’s compassion. But, in typical British fashion, emotions were kept below the surface, and I only saw a few who had the courage to share their tears. Though both myself and my fellow speaker almost started sobbing during our speeches, we both held together, and were applauded for our fortitude.

This was a far cry from Jews rending their garments, Australian Aborigines cutting their flesh, or a Confucian student mourning the death of his parents for three years. What good is having the strength to carry on through pain, if that pain carries on within us? Their must be some healthy vehicle for exorcising it. Much better a temporary scarring of the flesh than a permanent scar inside.

In the Analects of Confucius, after being criticized for mourning his pupil openly and un-self-consciously, Confucius saidĀ that we cannot be excessive in grieving for someone we care about. And he was right. We need to be present with our grief, and squeeze it out, to the very last drop. Being prim and proper is pure cowardice if we cannot be sincere and authentic, in expressing ourĀ emotions. Do not be ashamed of how you feel – but neither wear your hurt feelings as a defiant badge of pride. Just let them be for as long as they’ll be, and be ready to heal yourself once you reach the other side.