Community grief ritual connects participants to beauty by way of tears

GOOD GRIEF: Burkinabe healer and author Sobonfu Somé returns to Asheville November 13-15 for an evening talk and traditional Dagara grief ritual. Photo courtesy of Sobonfu Somé

“When you have a culture that doesn’t grieve, then you have a culture that doesn’t love and appreciate beauty, because the two go hand in hand,” says Laeo McDermott, a local home-funeral organizer and advocate who participated in a 2013 grief ritual led by West African healer Sobonfu Somé. “To really praise life, you have to really grieve it.”

Somé is back this fall, leading a community grief ritual Saturday-Sunday, Nov. 14-15, in Arden, as well as an evening talk about grief at Jubilee! on Friday, Nov. 13. The weekend events are sponsored by local nonprofit School of Integrated Living.

“If you were going to put an acupuncture needle on America, I think you’d hit the grief point,” says McDermott. “We’re really strong on war and domination. Really good at consumption [and] innovation. But we’re not good at grieving.”

While dealing with grief from losses in family and partnership in his 20s, he spent six years on antidepressants. McDermott recalls the experience as a general disconnection from any emotion at all, which prevented him from connecting with his grief.

“When I came off [the antidepressants], it was pretty clear that what I needed to do was to cry,” he says. Although McDermott had explored holistic healing experiences with men’s groups and plant medicine, it wasn’t until he took a full two days in 2013 to grieve that he felt he had “flushed” out all the pain that was weighing down his life. Only then, he says, did he feel fully empowered to move forward.

But what does a “grief ritual” entail? At the core: crying. A lot. More specifically, two straight days of crying, lamenting, grieving and sitting with others who are going through a similar experience. McDermott describes the ritual as its own living, breathing, sustainable organism that has a pulse, circulation and consciousness.

Bundle up

“You make a bundle out of sticks, leaves, rocks and other objects that you can source from nature,” says McDermott, explaining how to prepare for the ritual. “And in making this bundle, you are getting clear with yourself and with whatever other powers you are working with [about what you are] saying goodbye to.”

When it comes time for the ritual, McDermott continues, there are three altars — two on opposite sides of the room and one at the very front. The front altar is where participants place their bundles and go to grieve; the side altars are for processing, before and after, he explains.

“When you are ready to grieve, you just approach the front altar, fall down on a pillow and start crying,” he says. “The structure is for someone to then come and put their hand on your back. … Behind them are Somé and the drummers, and finally behind them, the singers.”

When participants are ready to step away from the grieving altar, they circulate back to the periphery, joining in the singing, says McDermott. From there, the grieving circulate back into the support role for those who’ve moved to the front altar. Often, that empathetic connection pulls participants back into their own grief. Over the course of the weekend, many such cycles follow.

Committing to the grief ritual takes courage, and many participants do not complete the whole ceremony, says McDermott. The thought of sobbing in a roomful of strangers sounds awkward, uncomfortable, even scary, he notes. And while they’re out of the ordinary and even intimidating to many Americans, grieving rituals and bereavement ceremonies are integral to a host of cultures around the world.

What’s mine is yours

For Somé, born and raised in the Sud-Ouest province of Burkina Faso in West Africa and a member of the Dagara tribe, the grief ritual is a safeguard against the accumulation of trauma — both individually and collectively. The Dagara see the individual as inextricably linked to the collective and vice versa; so if the individual isn’t well, then the community certainly has no hope of thriving either.

In a 2013 interview with Xpress, Somé explained that when grief is suppressed, it eventually makes itself known in other forms, such as paranoia, anger, depression or abuse. What’s more, it can lead to serious illness or even dying with unexpressed grief. Future generations can inherit the unprocessed “ancestral grief debt,” which they will carry in the same way, either facing and processing it or passing it down.

“Those kinds of grief are called ‘old grief,’” said Somé, “We also call it ‘ancestral grief.’ … If a family has endured a lot of losses and has never dealt with it, they may end up with somebody in the family being mentally ill without knowing why they are mentally ill. But it can be related to those stories and those losses that the family never dealt with.”

But isn’t Asheville the “Happiest City on the East Coast”? Surely we aren’t drowning in sorrow here?

Such glittery top 10s aside, Somé emphasized that all people harbor grief — yes, even in Asheville — be it from childhood, personal loss or collective ancestral experiences of war, slavery, environmental degradation, exploitation — and the list goes on.

Somé explained that in American culture, we’ve snuffed out any discourse for grieving. But putting our grief out of sight has certainly not put it out of mind. Instead, Somé noted, such a cultural slight actually exacerbates our individual and collective traumas, creating immeasurable consequences to public health and social vitality.

A 2010 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited 11.1 percent of Americans 18 and older reporting antidepressant use between the years 2005 and 2008. That was up from 2.4 percent between 1988 and 1994.

A 2011 article published by the National Institute of Mental Health cited depression as the leading cause of medical disability in the U.S. and Canada. The year before, NIMH estimated, antidepressants were the second- most commonly prescribed medications in the United States (cholesterol-regulating drugs were No. 1).

What are you crying about?

“In our region, as in much of the world, folks are living with both the ancestral and modern-time manifestations of displacement, colonialism, racism and ecological devastation,” says NikkAnne Feinberg, director of SOIL, adding that there is a strong local interest in grief work, evidenced in an attendance of over 100 people at the 2013 ritual.

“As Sobonfu says, there is no such thing as personal grief. All grief is collective, as any individual’s unexpressed grief affects their choices in life and has a ripple effect throughout the community,” she says.

If grief and praise are the crests and troughs of cultural expression, then what happens when that which we hold most beautiful is marred but not reciprocally grieved? Does it lose whatever dynamism made it great in the first place? Will the crests and troughs flatline? No praise, no grief, just, “Meh”?

“We have every reason to be sad, to be in deep sorrow,” says Kristin Wilson, domestic violence investigator for Buncombe County Department of Social Services and participant in the 2013 grief ritual. “There is so much suffering that happens, and if we refuse to connect to it and don’t allow the healing and honoring of it, then we’re all going to get sick, and we’re seeing that happening. The rates are growing exponentially. With cancer. With mental illness … wars and fighting.”

Wilson sees grieving at the crux of reclaiming a sustainable culture and honest human experience. “The human race. That’s what’s at stake,” she says.
Wilson explains that she has no choice but to suppress her grief every day in her workplace. Constantly dealing with violence and abuse, she takes on a monumental amount of collective trauma every day, just by proxy. “And I have complete meltdowns,” she says, describing situations where she has broken into tears in the office.

“But when it happens, I’m told: ‘Oh my God, this has to happen behind closed doors.’” And so it does, Wilson admits. She adds that sometimes she just has to just go on a drive during her lunch break and let it all out.

So what’s to be gained by participating in a grief ritual? “If you really grieve, you have to be prepared for your life to change completely,” McDermott says. “It’s like an initiation — and that’s scary. In our culture that doesn’t always fly. … You might come to some conclusions that make you do things differently. So there’s risk there, and I think culturally, it’s the most important thing we are doing.”


Sobonfu Somé will be offering an evening talk at Jubilee!, 7 p.m., Friday, Nov. 13. The suggested donation is $10-$20, but all are welcome.

The grief ritual will take place 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 14, and 9 a.m.-2 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 15, in Arden. Registration:

For more information about Somé, her work and her books, go to


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About Jordan Foltz
Exploring the subtle and esoteric aspects of what drives and inspires people to take action— including religion, spirituality, ethics, and aesthetics.

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