Last week my friend lost her sister. “Be strong. Guma! Don’t cry”, people said to one another with a hug or a pat on the back. These are words you’ll hear deep in the village or at a lumbe (vigil) in Kampala. These words cut across tribe, gender and age. Our response to grief and loss is one of the most unifying things about us as Ugandans. It is usually a response that calls for strength, but how come we respond in this way focusing on strength mainly?
Conversations about this with friends and family gave many reasons for saying ‘Be Strong’. “Maybe it’s a reflex”, some said, “we say these words without really thinking about them”. Others believe in these words, “You need to be strong because breaking down doesn’t help you in the long run”. A third group had a different idea, “I see someone crying and I don’t know what to do or say. There’s nothing like watching someone hurting. I want to help and yet I feel useless. Saying ‘be strong’ helps to take away their pain from where I can see it and if I don’t see it then maybe it’s not there anymore”. The unfortunate thing about telling a person to ‘be strong’ is that it does not allow them to grieve. “Grief is the price we pay for love” (Hall, 2014). All of us build emotional bonds, with things we own, projects we start but most especially people. The hardest part of loving someone is knowing that someday you will lose them. Dealing with loss involves working through these hard feelings and yet not many Ugandans focus on this side of it. We ask our friends and family to wipe their tears and no longer cry in public, to show only their brave face.
You might say this is our culture and it is. Has it always been our culture though? History says no. Think of the times before, when the village would come to the deceased’s home to cook, clean, and take care of the family. This would continue for some time after the person was buried. Some tribes would have the people who had lost someone marked in some way, shaving your head, wearing certain types of cloth only and remaining in your compound for a period of time. All of this was to allow the family time and space to grieve while marking them for the community to know that this family was struggling with something hard. Today it is the family, who immediately after finding out they have lost someone, must then immediately scramble to care for the community instead. They need money to feed the people who come to sit with them, a sound system for the speeches, funeral service providers need to be paid, the church has a small fee, and sometimes even the village neighbors who dig the hole for the grave need money for Waragi. Community members provide more monetary support than physical and emotional support. As soon as the person is buried, the community returns to life as normal. Meanwhile this is finally when the family could grieve but there is no time because they too must return to work and life as soon as possible.
So maybe we say ‘Be strong,’ because we know that there’s no time for anything else. Does that help them? Many people who have lost someone and been told these words will tell you it does not help at all. It only makes you feel like you should be ashamed of yourself for loving a person and being sad that they are gone. This feeling is made worse by the churches in Uganda today who have started a new trend of “celebrate the life”. Celebrating a life both physical and eternal is good but most people agree that the funeral is for the family, not really for the deceased. Should we be speeding them from loss and the pain it holds straight to celebration of the person they no longer get to share life with?
Researchers have tried to understand grief in order to help us help others better. Hall (2014) states that the old theory, where a person made their way through stages before they reached a point of accepting the loss, is no longer true. Grief is not about being angry then sad then asking why then accepting the death and moving on. This idea is too rigid and doesn’t reflect what people actually experience. Many people who have lost someone will tell you that, years after the death they still have bad days, where grief and sadness take over despite accepting that the person is gone. Boerner, Stroebe, Schut, & Wortman (2015) in a study of loss among the elderly note that the question to ask is this, “Why is it that some people are completely devastated by the death of someone while others come out, after suffering for some time, unchanged or even strengthened by what has happened?”. This question guides the new theories of grief and loss. What we want to know is, Is ‘Be strong’ wrong?
Stroebe & Schut (2010) who have developed the most popular theory of grieving recently would say not exactly. They have found that there are two ways of coping after losing someone. First there is the loss orientation where the person grieving focuses on the emotions they are feeling and deals with them as they come. Second is the restoration orientation, where the person is focused on finding a solution, where the person becomes strong. Stroebe & Schut (2010) say that every person goes from an emotions-focus to a solutions-focus from one moment to another, and from one person to another. This means that sometimes saying being strong is the perfect thing to say and sometimes it is not.
So how do I know what to say and when to say it? What should I say instead of ‘Be Strong? Ask yourself these questions:
- How close was X to the person who died? It might be easy if you know they were close or not close but some people had complicated relationships and struggle with how to feel.
- How did the person die? Was it a long-term disease or a sudden shocking accident? Sometimes a long-term disease gives loved ones time to deal with the coming loss and accidents or sudden illness are usually harder to deal with.
- What kind of social circle does X have? Is he/she close with their family, their church or their mosque? Or does he/she seem alone? Religion and community can help a person begin the process of life after loss because they are strong support systems.
- What else is stressing X? Stress can make the loss harder to deal with.
The above questions can help you figure out what to say and even better, how to help. If you can’t answer these questions then follow the golden rule; listen. If they want to talk about the loss and be angry, sad, or question then allow them to vent and have that conversation as hard it may seem. If they don’t, change the focus and help them be strong by focusing on something else. Don’t be afraid of their pain and not having the answers. No one expects their friends, and families to have the answers about loss. All they expect is for you to be there for them.
Boerner, K., Stroebe, M., Schut, H., & Wortman, C. B. (2015). Theories of grief and grieving. Encyclopedia of Geropsychology, 133–1 (January), 1–10.
Hall, C. (2014). Bereavement theory: Recent developments in our understanding. Bereavement Care, 33–1 (November), 7–12.
Stroebe, M., & Schut, H. (2010). The Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement: A Decade on. OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying, 61 (4), 273–289.