Is it Best to Express not Suppress, Grief?

 Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D.

Screaming is a primitive and the most elemental expression of pain, anger, and fear.  Mourning displays all of the three emotions, thereby, screaming may be a reflex action of grief.

Dr. John Bowlby, by teacher and one of the pioneering researchers in the world in the area of attachment and loss, once showed us a transparency of a man's face from an African tribe who had just seen his mate dead.  That picture is still etched in my memory:  mouth opened while uttering a scream; eyes widened showing terror, surprise and pain; veins popping out of the sides and front of his forehead and the rest of the face extremely taunt.

That was a picture of grief -- open and uninhibited, a natural reflex of grief.

Darwin, the father of the evolutionary theory, closely observed muscles, bones and other aspects of the physical structure of humans and animals.  In the 1870's, he was studying the physical aspects of grieving behavior in humans. He knew that the face is the most important thing for understanding emotions because we express our emotions through our face.

Astute observers rely on facial expressions rather than on words to identify their true feelings.  Therefore, Darwin chose to analyze the facial muscles humans used in grieving.

Some physical cues appeared to be similar between a child's and adult's response to loss.  He concluded that to understand the origin of an adult's grieving behavior, one should look at an infant crying.  

The crying and screaming of the infant is where it all begins.  The same facial muscles that an infant employs in screaming are involved in an adult's mourning and wailing.  In many cultures, even today, when people witness the death of a loved one, they scream in shock and sorrow.

In grief, to some extent, we all scream inside, but in our culture, we are not at liberty to scream fully and openly like the infant.  Thus, we muffle the full throated scream and try to experience the distress inside.

Adults and older children try to control and suppress their mourning openly  However, if you study the facial muscles, you will find two sets of muscles opposing one another:  the muscles involved in screaming and crying, and the muscles that are used in controlling and suppressing the screaming.  Some children are not yet trained in suppressing their crying and screaming, therefore they openly express their grief, unless they get too depressed and withdrawn.

Screaming, crying and wailing are still essential parts of public mourning in many societies.  These serve the purpose of releasing the pent-up emotions.  In certain parts of India, there are "professional mourners" who come to the mourning ceremony to  mourn alongside the family and friends of the deceased.  The loud wailing and chosen words facilitate and perhaps accentuate the grief of the occasion.  Everybody is moved and cries, even the hard-to-cry folks.

The women of Kota, and Indian tribe, on the day of mourning, drop everything and sit down when the bell rings for mourning.  They cover their heads and wail and sob for two days with just a few intervals in-between.  The men of the bereaved household take care of the household chores, feeding the guests, and also join in the wailing from time to time.

Of course, the widow or widower is the chief mourner and thus performs many of the mourning rituals, but the siblings and children also extensively participate in the public mourning.  The mourning rituals go on for one whole week.

On the eight day, a second cremation ceremony is held A(in that tribe, the dead are cremated rather than buried) in which the personal articles belonging to the deceased are cremated.  Afterward, the bereaved, relatives and some others from the tribe spend the whole night together at the cremation ground.  The next day at dawn, the mood is festive, in stark contrast to the last seven days.  The day culminates in dancing and feasting, and gradually the activities of normal life are resumed.

Many of these societies, in the first phase of mourning, arrange and stimulate a release of emotions, particularly the sorrow and the anger through wailing and lamenting.

Incidentally, people mourn as a community and such mourning has a powerful releasing effect for the participants.

The third phase consists of rituals that bring the bereaved closer to the normal social life.  It is speculated that group mourning with a full discharge of emotions is of great help to the bereaved.

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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