15 ︎︎︎ It’s time to mourn

Can we use the scenic arts and theatre as a space where we can perceive suffering, where we can address it instead of hiding it? Rolando Vasquez Melken, scholar in gender and postcolonial studies

In 1915, Sigmund Freud was the first in the history of psychology to use the term “Trauerarbeit” (work of mourning). More than a century has passed since then, and nowadays, the medical field acknowledges this work in its own terms: according to guidelines set by the World Health Organization, a mourning phase should last 2 weeks on average. If it lasts longer, it is considered to be a “depression”.

Yet, in view of the fact that life, as a whole, is just a cycle of endings and beginnings, shouldn't we give this emotion more time and space? According to the Jungian psychoanalyst Verena Kast, grief is the emotion through which we say goodbye in order to continue living with a new understanding of ourselves and the world.

Even though Kast mainly refers to the loss of a loved one, could a similar dynamic of processing and integrating also be present in other instances of loss? The loss of the familiar self through an accident, illness or other life circumstances; the loss of social security; of a functioning political system; the familiar linguistic environment, a home, a feeling ... Doesn’t every loss deserve its own farewell ritual?

For our podcast A Space for Grief, we were concerned with these questions, and we tried to create a space for mourning the most varied of losses through words and music. Additionally, we spoke to expert Barbara Raes, who specializes in the artistic processing of unacknowledged losses in a de-ritualized society.

Interview: Seda Nigbolu & Astrid Kaminski
English Editing: Adina Glickstein
Images: Cara Levine

Barbara Raes, with your project Beyond the Spoken, you want to create new ritual practices and open mental and physical spaces for unacknowledged loss. Do you have a personal story of loss and grief that got you interested in those topics in the first place?

I do. I have actually two – which are very different experiences. But both were turning points that made me do what I do today. The first one is that I lost my father when I was ten. My brother was eight and my sister was five. Our father died of cancer. He was an architect. He and my mother were building their dream house. In the middle of the construction process, he became sick and he died. This was in the 1980s in Belgium – in West Flanders –where people didn’t give any time or space to grief. As children, we were not informed that our father was going to die. We could see, of course, that he was very sick – but as a child, you never believe that this adult person could die. So there was no space for us to prepare for how we would feel. There was no space for sadness when it was really happening, and there was no space afterwards for processing what happened, even though of course it has had a very big influence on my life and my brother and sister’s lives since then.

When I was in my late twenties, a colleague of mine died from the same type of cancer as my father. He was about the same age. I went to the funeral, and I saw his children there, and I saw a mirror of myself. It was as if I saw my own experience in black and white, meanwhile their experience was in colour. This was the point when I knew that I have to do something with this. Later on… Because at that point, back then, I was the artistic director of an art centre.

How did you finally happen to make the connection?

In 2013, I was really burnt out. I stopped working as an artistic director and I decided not to go back to this job, knowing that I would get sick again if I were to continue. This moment of realizing that I couldn’t go back to the job that I loved so much, having to say goodbye to a network of people that I loved, not knowing what I would do in the future – this felt very much parallel to mourning a death. I got completely obsessed with grieving, with the process of how to deal with grief, and I studied as a funeral undertaker. After finishing, I decided to dig deeper into grief and mourning, and it was very helpful and healing to be busy with that. From this, I grew my understanding around unacknowledged loss, which formed a connection between the knowledge of how unhealthy it is not to give space to grief and my experiences in the arts and culture sector.

Why is Western society so far from organizing rituals for transitions? Is it maybe because death is treated as such a clinical topic here?

I think Corona has started a revolution. Throughout most of history, death was central to society, literally present in the middle of cities. But in modernity, being sick and dying became medical issues, and people were no longer dying at home, they were brought to hospitals. Subsequently, there was the whole hygienic question of where to bury them. There weren’t buried in the middle of the city anymore, because it might have caused diseases. So everything was put out of the centre of the city. New crematoriums were built out of the centre of the city, whereas before, the graveyards were around the churches, in the centre of the village. As death became professionalized and commercialized, it took away people’s agency and initiative in their individual mourning processes.

I think there are three or four reasons why our society became increasingly de-ritualized. Those are, on the other hand, precisely the reasons why we need rituals so much today. The first reason is secularization: the fact that institutionalized religion and the notion of God – the God or the religion one relates to – has disappeared in Western society. But this doesn't mean that we no longer need feelings like forgiveness or consolation, or practices that come from church like prayers. These emotions still exist. We didn't become apathetic when we stopped believing in God – we might even feel it more in times of crisis. As for now, we are in a time of a pandemic, ecological crisis, and economic crises. Under this umbrella of uncertainty, rituals are even more important.

There are, in general, few feelings that we share collectively. We process them individually or with professional help.

Yes, individualization in our neoliberal society comes from this idea of the unique self, where social cohesion is seemingly unnecessary. People think they just all have to do it on their own. Privatization of grief and mourning – like, you just go to a therapist or a psychiatrist and you deal with it by yourself – creates a lack of responsibility for communities to take care of each other. In other times, it took a village to raise a child. Now, you just do it on your own. But there are also other ways of living – signs that things are changing, like sharing communities and new ways of dealing with food production. I see a transition happening. Rituals help us to feel more connected again. Individualization is the second reason why rituals disappeared and are now appearing again.

And the third one is the fact that rituals, religion, and contemplation take time. The rhythm they require doesn't fit into 21st century society. We have no time to take time. But rituals take time. I see an evolution in the sense that practices like yoga and mindfulness – a big influence from the East – are reclaiming a position in Western Society. But still, they’re embedded into our busy lifestyles. It's something different to take a full day to do a ritual, or to take a long time to prepare your ritual. Maybe due to Corona, some people are dealing differently with time, time management, and work. I think this might create an opening so we can once again give space to rituals.

A fourth reason I could also mention: the disappearance of vulnerability, which my own story with my father underscores. You could not be vulnerable, you just had to move on, and be strong, and so on. The pandemic showed how vulnerable we all are, and placed death in the centre of society again.

How can we mourn the pandemic? Is it possible, or is it too early, since we are still in the middle of it?

I found it very clear in the beginning of the first lockdown last year that people were going through a grieving process. There are a lot of parallels. Some people were anxious. Some were just ignoring what was happening. Other people were sad, they were already mourning for what would be lost in the future. Others got very angry. All these feelings, which you encounter when you are mourning, are valuable and relevant. They can all happen in two minutes, or you can do two weeks around one feeling and then another one. Some people are slow with it; others are very chaotic in how this happens in their inner landscape.

In the beginning of the first lockdown, it was clear that people were already mourning without realizing they were mourning. It was like they were anticipating a bigger loss that would happen. Like knowing that things will change, and not being able to deal with that fact. Of course, we are now in a different period. In these last months and in the last year, we have needed resilience. But you are not resilient if you're still dealing with loss and grief from many years ago. So in my practice, I had a lot of people who came not to grieve about Corona or because they lost someone in Corona, but because they finally understood that they had to take time for a farewell ritual around a grief or a loss from long time ago. Especially in the second Iockdown, I had a lot of clients whom I could support, and we found their resilience while dealing with the past.

Corona has taken things away, but has also given us a lot of things. I'm absolutely convinced that this is also somehow a positive period for society. It's now a matter of remembering what was given, what has changed, and what we’ve learned. It’s time to mourn for what we did to our planet. Human and nature are intertwined, and Corona gave a huge hint, like, “If you're not respectful, then you will have to go through one wave after the other”. Now the question is whether we will still be able to respect what we've learned from Corona. It's more abstract than just “Corona has caused so many thousands of deaths in our country and let's do a commemoration for it”. These things are also important, but at the same time, we have to create a space for the movement and changes that are happening inside people now.

Do you think that every big transition in life needs a ritual to be processed in a healthy way?

Yeah, I think it's very important to have a farewell ritual to mark that moment. Every farewell is also a new beginning, and every new beginning is also a farewell. Sometimes when I do rituals with kids, I notice that it's all about the transition to the new and the bigger and the growing. But actually, it's also always about saying farewell to things, to little toys you’re not playing with, to little clothes you can’t wear anymore. We tend to forget the farewell.

Farewell rituals help us grow. They help us transform. When people come into my practice, they are appointed by a therapist that says “in your course of treatment, it would be good for you to have a farewell ritual, and then you come back”. So they have a moment, a trajectory with me, and then they go back to their therapy. And often, that's the end of their therapy, because they have closure. It has a lot to do with closure of something. It’s the closure of a relationship – to someone alive or dead, or to a profession, or to a part of your body. It makes you grow and equips you to deal with the future.

Barbara Raes previously worked as artistic director in Belgian cultural institutions. She left after experiencing burnout and founded Beyond the Spoken, a platform for mourning work and rituals, in 2016. In 2017 and 2020, she was the curator of the project “Unacknowledged Loss” at the Berlin theatre HAU Hebbel am Ufer. This year her ritual plea “Cafuné” was published in Dutch and the documentation of “Unacknowledged Loss” was published by Theater der Zeit (Ed. HAU Hebbel am Ufer).

Photos: Cara Levine: Grief To Fill A Room With, painters plastic, fan, furniture 25’x14’x15’, 2021
© Cara Levinecourtesy of the artist 

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