… Consider, and call for the mourning women to come; send for the skilled women to come; let them quickly raise a dirge over us, so that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids flow with water.
~ Jeremiah 9:17-18 The New Oxford Annotated Bible
Nowadays I take long walks and talk to dead people. And my favorite dreams are visitations. Sometimes just comforting glimpses, or on fortunate nights rich conversations and a visceral felt presence. Sometimes, when I’ve hit the jackpot I wake and am still surrounded by their smell.
But we don’t only mourn the dead. We must mourn everything we cherish, for all things are impermanent. We don’t get to hang onto much. And even wishes die and are reborn.
And those who cannot mourn and those refuse to will sicken and eventually break under the strain.
I am, and have always been, a moirologist, a professional mourner, a hired lamenter, a grief facilitator. Sometimes I think that is really all that psychotherapy practice actually entails – the ability to notice what is lost, and to make the sounds- the ritualized keening and ululation – that allows others to surrender to fate, to release their grip, to accept their losses and to bury their dead along with the hopes and expectations attached to them.
And although it made no sense to me at the time, people called me “wise” long before I was old enough to be entitled to the carry that label. Only now do I know what it means, and it is only this: I had learned, at young age how to lose things, to remember and acknowledge my losses, and to transform those losses into fertile ground to survive upon. And I did this while others around me pretended that nothing of import had happened at all.
When they called me wise all they meant was that they could sense I had survived something. Although I wandered for a while in the empty hallways of nostalgia searching for lost a time and a place that could never return, I had given up the futile search and chosen life. I had surrendered all false hopes and come to a new land seeking love and faith and sustenance.
In my adolescence and young adulthood I had to learn these lessons over again in the realm of romantic love, but it didn’t take me too long, with some therapeutic instruction, to learn that ritual lament and find my way across the gulf of grief for lost love.
And my years and years of psychotherapy, as client and as a therapist have shown me that mourning is a skill that must be nurtured and developed. And that those who have learned how to grieve are the ones who are able to survive, and love, and appreciate the extraordinary and delicate beauty of Life. And I remind myself of this as I support my children in facing down their own losses, rather than attempt to shield them from grief.
Only the professional singers of the funeral dirge are truly wise.
~ The New Oxford Annotated Bible: annotation Jeremiah 9.10–26
People seek out psychotherapy for every kind of loss and fear of loss imaginable. Job loss, lost love, lost opportunity. Lost hopes. Lost relationships. Lost childhoods. Loss of innocence. The loss of who we might have been. The loss of who we wish that others might be for us. The loss of the parent we needed but never had. The loss of potentialities that never came to pass. Lost youth. Loss of faith. Lost bearings. Lost motivation. Lost joy in living. Lost investments. Loss of limb and health. The loss of life. Lost friendships. Lost attachments and lost happiness. Lost trust. Lost time. Lost memories. Loss of respect and self-respect. Loss of reputation. Loss of safety and security. Loss of control and temper. Identity and soul loss. Lost freedom. Lost autonomy.
And the losses of essential privation – the things we yearn for and never ever have enough to even lose them.
And above all: what psychoanalyst Charles Brenner calls the “greatest calamities”: the loss of the object of our attachment and loss of that object’s love.
Mourning is commonly the reaction to the loss of a beloved person or an abstraction taking the place of the person, such as fatherland, freedom, an ideal and so on.
~ S. Freud, On Mourning and Melancholia
We fear such losses. And we resist the loss itself. And once all is lost we then resist accepting our losses. And there are so many scenarios where the only choice in front of us is between losing something and the loss of something else.
All our “frantic attempts to avoid real or imagined abandonment” are in service of one thing: trying to avoid or forestall mourning. If we can’t grieve, we can’t accept and we can’t release. A refusal to mourn is a refusal to accept the reality of impermanence, injustice, violence and mortality. If we don’t mourn we will abandon what is real to preserve a comforting illusion, a very expensive one, an illusion that may cost us everything.
I resist too. I cling to my illusion. Such resistances are part of the process. We pretend we are fine. Or that it never mattered. We summon our aggression and ride on our agitation or just feel some judgmental contempt for our utter powerlessness in the face of it all. Sometimes we are just so tired of having to be sad, again or at all and we just would rather not thank you very much.
My therapist was particularly skilled at cracking through my crusty resistances to mourning with a simple technique I have come to call “the boo-boo face intervention.” I’d be talking about something completely normal for god’s sake, some story or recounting some event that really wasn’t the thing that bothered me one bit because… why was he making that face? Why did he look so sad all of a sudden? His brow furrowed, his lower lip in a slight pout, a grimace of pain in his eyes… Sometimes he would close his eyes and his breathing would change and I could see him contending with some vicarious hurt. I would look at the sorrow in his face and see that he was embodying the loss that I could not yet acknowledge, he was not sorry for me, he held my sorrow for me, until the pain of it reflected in his face, and then back to me, and a hot rush of tears raced up through my throat and the pain sounds were now coming out of me and I was the one grieving.
He was my designated mourner.
Mourning allows us to have compassion for ourselves. It is a way of being tender to ourselves in our defeat. Mourning is pain which we are allowed to accept as an understandable and justifiable response to real events. We don’t blame ourselves for sorrows which we have defined as mourning. Mourning allows us to see our sorrows and losses as natural, expectable.
It is also most remarkable that it never occurs to us to consider mourning as a pathological condition and present it to the doctor for treatment, despite the fact that it produces severe deviations from normal behaviour. We rely on it being overcome after a certain period of time, and consider interfering with it to be pointless, or even damaging.
~ S. Freud, On Mourning and Melancholia
We can more easily allow waves of sorrow and pain to move through us – without castigating ourselves as weak or sick – because it is natural to mourn. If we are terrorized by mourning, or if we reject the flood of grief we will find our ability to love withers as if in a drought. If we are so afraid of loss and its processes, we will love life – and each other – less, in a sorry attempt to protect ourselves from inevitable, ubiquitous, loss.
If we hold ourselves out of grief, we will also deprive ourselves of the opportunity to engage in actions which honor what we have lost and allow us to live meaning-filled lives.
Avoiding loss begets loss.
There is no way out without being a loser. The only way out is through.
And although my mastery of the the boo-boo face lamentation ritual has never reached the skill level of my dear mentor’s – I can rarely help a client cry with just a glance – I have found my own funeral songs and spells that I begin when I am the first professional mourner on the scene of an unmourned loss. That is what we do, a great deal of the time, those of us who have therapy offices – we are the ones who initiate the dirge.
In all the squares there shall be wailing; and in all the streets they shall say, “Alas! alas!” They shall call the farmers to mourning, and those skilled in lamentation, to wailing; in all the vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through the midst of you, says the Lord.
~ Amos 5:16-17 The New Oxford Annotated Bible
We begin the mourning process so that others can join in with the sound of keening. So they do not need to be frightened by the sound of their own sorrow alone, their own voice crying out.
We lead the way in, and know the dirge and the ritual and the dance.
We know how the waves rise and fall. We set the pitch and tone of the mourning cry.
We know that the flood of tears fertilizes our lives.
We know how it begins:
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
~ Matthew 5:4 New Oxford Annotated Bible: