Loss, Grieving, and Re-/Creating Traditions for an Uncertain Future

The world is gripped in a crisis more profound than humanity has experienced collectively and simultaneously for a very long time. We are only at the beginning of the personal, social, and cultural tolls that this pandemic will visit upon us. If this is not the mortal blow that brings down the current world order as we have known it in recent history, it is a harbinger of those calamities that will await us in short order, not least of which is environmental catastrophe.

There is already, and will be even more, a need to grieve our losses. The death of family, friends, and cultural icons. The impracticality of our previously envisioned plans and dreams. Our faith in the old certainties, even those that seemed to aid our ability to negotiate crises. There is so much to contemplate, with wisdom and discernment, at such a fast pace.

One of the texts I’ve read lately that resonates most with my current feelings about the situation appeared that features an interview with David Kessler, who is an expert on grief. In this interview (strangely enough, in Harvard Business Review), Kessler comments, amongst other things, on the intensity of the moment and the need to process it emotionally:

we’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. … The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air. … Understanding the stages of grief is a start. But whenever I talk about the stages of grief, I have to remind people that the stages aren’t linear and may not happen in this order. It’s not a map but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world. … There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what’s inside of us. … Your work is to feel your sadness and fear and anger whether or not someone else is feeling something. Fighting it doesn’t help because your body is producing the feeling. If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us. Then we’re not victims. … The truth is a feeling that moves through us. We feel it and it goes and then we go to the next feeling. There’s no gang out to get us. It’s absurd to think we shouldn’t feel grief right now. Let yourself feel the grief and keep going.

David Kessler, interviewed by Scott Berinato

It really struck me when training for my doctorate in Celtic Studies in Scotland that modernity has taken away so many of the rituals and social practices that have allow people to feel and move through the grieving process for the vast majority of our existence as humans. We can’t force ourselves to ignore such fundamental emotions and realities without becoming paralyzed and haunted by them. On the other hand, if we become fixated and overwhelmed by them, stuck within them, we cannot return to the land of the living to engage in the life of the community that endures.

Depiction of Irish keening woman from Hall’s Ireland, Its Scenery, Character, &c, c.1850

This is why most cultures have carefully prescribed traditions of mourning and grief that help to move us through the stages of grief, channeling it through the community and holding us in a socially-distributed safety net that helps to validate that grief and share it so that no single person is deluged by it. These were my observations in A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, published in 2000:

Death in modernist society is the concern of specialized businesses, and it is not too much to suggest that the inability of people to complete their grieving for a loved one is not unrelated to their removal from the processes of death and burial. These matters were the responsibility of kin and community in Gaelic society. … There were too many joys, and tasks, in life to let death trouble one for too long.

A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, pp. 160, 161

The rituals of mourning in Gaelic society into the eighteenth century – such as keening, group round-dances, wakes, and so on – were inherently communal activities. Human beings need contact with one another, arguably, to maintain our humanity and even to understand ourselves. That’s one of the things that makes this current crisis so devastating and difficult – merely being in the presence of one another increases the spread of the contagion.

This is not a new or unique hardship. Much the same contradictions have confronted humanity for millennia, and the tensions between the traditions of communal mourning and the imperatives of isolation due to biological threats have played out many times lately in the so-called undeveloped world. But now even the self-styled first world finds itself in the same predicament. Death – and plagues – are the great levelers, and surely it is time to call Western Exceptionalism (and all of its variants) obsolete.

This brings me to some concluding thoughts about notions of tradition, culture, ritual, and meaning. It is not always possible, or even desirable, to re-enact the rituals of the past precisely, to pretend that we can re-animate the lives of the ancestors verbatim, and re-embody customs exactly as they were in the past. I believe that it is vital to understand these customs and practices, but even more especially to comprehend their underlying principles – how they meet universal human needs but are given culturally-specific expression.

We need to be able to be true to their aims but also flexible in how we attempt to revitalize and apply them in our new realities. I’m explicitly stating that no single person (including me) has all of the answers but that it will take a village of wise elders to reconstitute ritual and custom in a way that is both faithful to ancient tradition but also responsive to contemporary needs. And that will require a much broader sharing of and discussion about Gaelic tradition than has been possible in the recent past, if this particular tree in the Old Growth Forest of humanity is to survive through these crises. And I hope that I may be helpful in the community that wishes to make this possible.

I’d like to conclude with this important note from David Kessler’s interview: “Finally, it’s a good time to stock up on compassion. Everyone will have different levels of fear and grief and it manifests in different ways. … So be patient. Think about who someone usually is and not who they seem to be in this moment.”

PS. After I initially released this blog post, my friend Déirdre Ní Mhathúna in Scotland sent me a link to a project in which she is involved that is re-introducing the rituals of lamentation to Scotland and Ireland: the Keening Wake.

PPS. If you’re curious about Gaelic rituals of lamentation and customs of grief, I’ve provided documented accounts of them and analyses of them in these two books:

Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders (2019, 2nd. ed.)

The Everyday Life of the Scottish Highlanders (2020)

I have collected further descriptions in a blog post on my Patreon site restricted to patrons.

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