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Thursday, August 18, 2022

How grief and the act of mourning can bring us together

Apoorvanand writes: When we join others in their mourning, we take responsibility for their lives.

Relatives grieve outside a hospital in New Delhi. (Express Photo: Tashi Tobgyal)

After any loss, grieving is human. Death is the ultimate loss, especially the death of a dear one. Our cohabitants on this planet also grieve. But humans are unique in the sense that they take their grieving to the stage of mourning. The performance of mourning is an essential part of cultures across the globe.

While grieving can be a personal act, in the ritual of mourning, we invite others to share our grief. Our community takes shape in the course of mourning. We remember those who care to participate in our mourning. By doing this, they share our loss and also offer a part of themselves to fill the gap that the loss has created. We become one.

Who is allowed to grieve? When does grieving become collective or common? In answering these questions, societies and nations also tell us about their self-image. How they want to be viewed by others. All deaths are not equal. We have seen deaths in these times of the pandemic and blamed the apathy of the state, the broken health system and nature. But it was largely non-discriminatory.

Deaths by disease or ageing are different from those caused by violence. There, too, if someone who does not know me decides to kill me because he hates a part of my identity, the pain of death becomes very different. It affects all those who share that identity. A man with a beard, a kippah, a woman with a burqa or naqab — if these signs are enough to arouse hatred and violence, then it can target anyone bearing these signs. Or names. The grief arising out of such deaths is also mixed with anger. It goes beyond the family of the one killed.

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Such outpourings of grief mixed with anger were witnessed last year in the US and other parts of the world after the death of George Floyd. Black people felt it in their guts and burst out in anger. But they were not left alone. Thousands of mourners, a large number of them White, lined up outside the church where his body was brought to offer their condolences. The governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, travelled to Houston to offer the flag flown over the Texas capitol to Floyd’s family. The mourning was a long-drawn affair.

This mourning was separate from the process of justice. But it showed that America had embraced Floyd and the American establishment had also dissociated from the act of one of its officers. Last month, we saw four caskets rolling out in the compound of the Islamic centre of Ontario draped in the national flag of Canada. They contained the bodies of Syed Afzaal, 46, his wife, Madiha Salman, 44, their 15-year-old daughter, Yumnah Afzaal and Syed Afzaal’s 74-year-old mother. They were killed by a 20-year-old White Canadian. The Prime Minister of Canada was joined by all political leaders in expressing grief and anger, calling the killing an act of terror but also emphasising that the killer aimed to divide Canadians. The attempt failed as they stood as one people in mourning the deaths. Through this act of mourning, they claimed the immigrant family as one of them.

This performance of mourning in Ontario took one back to Christchurch, New Zealand, where a similar act of collective mourning was performed after the mass killings at a mosque by a white extremist gunman in March 2019. A call of prayer was aired on national TV with the Prime Minister in attendance, her head covered by a scarf to honour the Islamic practice. She quoted the Prophet Muhammad, “The believers in their mutual kindness, compassion, and sympathy are just like one body. When any part of the body suffers, the whole body feels pain.” “New Zealand mourns with you; we are one,” Jacinda Ardern told her fellow mourners.


In the act of mourning, a fellowship is born. When you join them in their mourning you take responsibility for their lives. It cannot be an empty act. We hear Rachel Rosenthal through Kristin Prevallet, “In performance, you squeeze out yourself, you dredge it up from your unconscious. It is a process of giving it a form from the inner to the outer. The process cannot be frivolous, but must be a deep, a deep commitment to yourself.” It is important to grieve publically, Prevallet tells us, quoting Freud who said that grief could be productive if connected to a larger collective or cultural loss. If internalised, it turns into anger.

When we mourn the way the New Zealanders or Canadians did, we see identities getting pluralised, as Derrida had said, thus giving those who have lost someone assurance that they are not alone. When we mourn for and with people who are not like us — in religion, language, colour etc — we identify with their vulnerability and suffering.

The acute loneliness of the family of the young Dalit woman raped and killed in Hathras became starkly visible when they said that none of their upper caste neighbours came to mourn their daughter. It is this loneliness that an honest act of mourning can act against and create the warmth of togetherness.


This column first appeared in the print edition on July 2, 2021 under the title ‘Solidarity, through grief’. The writer teaches at Delhi University.

First published on: 02-07-2021 at 03:06:01 am
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