Grief isn’t something to be gotten over. Even though our culture asks us to “get over it,” “move on,” and “find someone (or something) newer or better,” grief takes time to heal through mourning. And, if we don’t give it due time, grief will dog us, finding us years down the road to make us face its pain then—not because grief is malicious, but because grief must be addressed for humans to continue to live, love, and grow.
But our Western culture is death avoidant, which means that although death is portrayed avidly and bloodily in movies, TV, books, music, and other media, the culture doesn’t want to talk about it. That’s one reason people suggest we should hurry up and get done with the grief. But we who grieve know that at six months, when many people think we should be done with grief, we’re just then learning it’s real and the loss is a forever loss.
So, we need different ways to conceive of our mourning work and how we live and love with grief. Symbols can help us with seeing grief differently and with finding ways to use grief to our advantage in growing as people.
Let’s look at the need to remember and honor those we love who have died as an example. If we break down the word remember, we see that re means again, or to go back. Member means to be a part of or belong to a group. The work we do in facilitating remembering is to return the dead to the family, reconnecting them, making them present again. Remembering gives us our loved ones for that time we spend in memory.
Henri Nouwen explains:
As we grow older, we have more and more people to remember, people who have died before us. It is very important to remember those who have loved us and those we have loved. Remembering them means letting their spirits inspire us in our daily lives. They can become part of our spiritual communities and gently help us as we make decisions on our journeys. Parents, spouses, children, and friends can become true spiritual companions after they have died. Sometimes they can become even more intimate to us after death than when they were with us in life. Remembering the dead is choosing their ongoing companionship.*
A good symbol for remembering the dead and seeing them as true spiritual companions is the Ghanaian Sankofa that expresses that it is okay to return to the past to take what is needed for the future. The most common Sankofa symbol is a long-necked bird depicted as standing with its feet facing forward and its neck tucked backwards to pluck an egg off its back. I often incorporate the egg into grief discussions because it symbolizes new life and essential food. The Sankofa’s egg is the new life and nourishment that the past offers.
The Sankofa is known in its native country of Ghana as the “look-back bird.” Sankofa means “go back and fetch it.” It’s also translated as “it’s not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” For Ghanaians, this translation suggests returning to the past to retrieve old customs and traditions that could serve them now. The Sankofa’s lesson for grieving people is that they mustn’t just move on, pretend they haven’t been upended, or act as if they don’t have reason to be sad. Instead, the Sankofa urges people to spend some time with their grief. People can and should “go back and fetch” from the past what they need for the future. What do we need? We need our memories and childhood experiences to teach us what is real from the past and whether we want to keep those realities alive in our current lives. We need our dreams and plans to show us what we have wanted, so we can determine whether we have fulfilled our goals or whether we want to change those goals to something else. We especially need to review our family traditions to see what we need to carry forward for our new, reconstructed families.
Looking back can help people see that which they expected but never received, encouraging them to take the active role of giving it to themselves. Deaths and losses of relationships such as divorce or distanced friends all may lead to grief, but they also may lead to opportunities to bring forward from the past what will help us keep going and continue growing in the future.
Sankofa grief requires time and self-reflection. It requires a willingness to spend time with the pain of grief but also to examine what about our pasts may have been necessary to be the persons we are now. In a Western culture that seeks to “let it go,” I’ve found that bereaved people appreciate looking backward for wisdom and to keep what they value.
If grief represents the death of someone or something, plucking the egg off our backs can represent new life from the old.
*Henri Nouwen, “The Companionship of the Dead,” Henri Nouwen Society, reflection for August 29, 2018, https://henrinouwen.org/meditations/the-companionship-of-the-dead/.
© 2023 Beth L. Hewett
Adapted from: Hewett, Beth L. Grief on the Road to Emmaus: A Monastic Approach to Journeying with the Bereaved, Liturgical Press, 2023.