Capturing grief collectively

"We do not remember days, we remember moments." Cesare Pavese

Capturing grief collectively

In the 1987 film, The Whales of August, a series of events centres around two elderly widowed sisters during a single summer day.  Many small “Do you remember...?” moments occur, inviting the viewer to share the memories of the two sisters.  For Sarah, the older of the two, the day marks the eve of her 46th wedding anniversary.  One of the most touching moments in the movie occurs during Sarah’s quiet time with the memory of her late husband.   She speaks to him in a monologue that is not only moving, but also passionate.  Another special moment occurs when the two sisters walk outside to look for whales. Although one is blind and cannot see them, reliving and sharing their memories honours the bond between the sisters.  While this movie captures the reality of grief, the sisters’ remembering shows how our happy memories can be a source of strength and energy that can be released and used for healing. 


Living in a society represented by many cultures and religious beliefs means that each person’s grief is unique, with opportunities for mourning and remembering also being celebrated and honoured differently. Loss and grief have many faces and take many forms in daily life. Common to human experience is the death of a loved one; friend, family, or other. The grief that follows can be intense and profound.  Grieving is a fluid process, evolving over time, and sharing our grief with others allows us to capture it collectively, creating connectedness and opening us to the healing that comes when grief is shared. 


There are no limits to finding creative endeavours to express grief and to honour the memory of those who have died.


Aboriginal culture involves being still and waiting.  When a relative dies, the family members wait a long time with their sorrow.  They own their grief and allow it to heal slowly.  Although traditional mourning and grieving customs vary widely between language groups, all customs involve acts of ritual mourning, the singing of sacred dirges and complex ceremonies.


In the Jewish tradition, the Mourner’s Kaddish is recited at funerals.  For the death of a parent, Kaddish is recited for eleven months; for a spouse, sibling or child, thirty days, and on the anniversary of a death.  The essence of the Kaddish is public sanctification and is only said with a prayer quorum of ten Jewish adults.  It is customary to recite the Kaddish in unison, eliciting a powerful emotional reaction that is shared by all who are gathered.  The words of the prayer offer comfort, proving to the mourners that they can maintain an important connection with those who have died. 


In Mexico, the Day of the Dead, a festive and colourful holiday, is celebrated.  Deceased loved ones are remembered and honoured by visiting cemeteries and decorating graves. In their homes they make Ofrendas (offerings); these heartfelt works of art are set up to remember and honour the memory of ancestors. These practices demonstrate the belief that spirits return to the Earth one day of the year to be with families, and so for each deceased relative, a lighted candle guides the spirits on their way back to the home.


In the Paddle Out, surfers take to the water, offer a floating memorial and take time to reminisce. Straddling their boards, they form a floating circle, holding hands in union with one another and with the one who has died. Words of remembrance are spoken, flowers are thrown into the circle and a few moments of silence follow before they return to the shore.


For my sons, wearing black armbands during a footy game has been a collective way of honouring and remembering loved ones who have died. Gathered together in a circle and spending a moment in silence before the game united the team and was a symbol of strength.


In the month of November, whilst beliefs and practices vary widely among Christian churches and denominations, it is a commonly held practice to remember the deceased on the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. For many, participating at Mass and lighting a candle in memory of a deceased loved one is of great comfort. This communal event brings with it a connectedness and a feeling of being part of something much bigger than ourselves. Richard Rohr speaks about these special feasts as times to ‘Experience the Holy’, of ‘Deep Time’ and as an invitation to become aware of, honour and celebrate our oneness with our ancestors when past, present and future co-exist.


There is no one way to mourn the loss of a loved one. Each culture has its own way of helping people cope with grief. Our beliefs, rituals, and traditions can provide some predictability and normalcy during a difficult and confusing time. Rituals and customs provide a ‘way in’ as we begin to reconcile our loss.  Transformation occurs as our relationship with the deceased moves from one of physical presence to one of memory. We become more comfortable bringing the deceased back into our lives, celebrating what was once shared together, without compromising our efforts to move forward. We understand that grief is not the process of forgetting, but of remembering with less pain (Jack LoCicero, 1991).


Benita Tait is the Co-ordinator of Seasons for Growth in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. To learn more, please P 4979 1353 or E


If this story distresses you, you can call CatholicCare's Counselling team on 4979 1172. For urgent assistance, phone Lifeline on 13 11 14.


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