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Grief in the Outback: Living and grieving in an ancient way

You never know where you are going to learn something about grieving. When I visited Australia, I spent some time in the Outback, the home of Aboriginal people for thousands of years. In the town of Alice Springs, I witnessed a small skirmish in the longstanding border war between their ancient culture and the encroaching modern world.

It takes a plane to get to Alice Springs. People visit because it is the gateway to the ancient sacred site of Uluru, a giant stone formation that is famous for changing hues through the day. Moderners call it Ayers Rock, Aboriginal people call it theirs and strive to preserve their old traditions.

Despite its remote location, Alice Springs sports an impressive variety of U.S. fast food and shopping venues, largely because there is a multi-national military security base nearby filled in part with Americans who are used to such amenities.

In sharp contrast, in front of the modest city hall and in the dry river bed nearby, groups of Aboriginal people sit in circles quietly talking, effectively ignoring the bustle of townspeople and tourists. They sit with ease, as if they are part of the earth rather than perching on top of it.

We stopped on the bridge over the river bed on the way back to our modern hotel. We were told it was disrespectful to take photographs, but we could observe from a distance.

One group of twelve to fifteen individuals sat near a spreading gum tree, talking quietly. When they had something to say to a nearby circle of about twenty or so, they hollered and began a chattery high-pitched exchange. In a climate so hot, their ancestors had learned to use their voices rather than their feet to bridge the distance. They showed no sign that they were aware of our presence, or interested in it at least.

A day later, I met one of the people who stand on the border between old and new, attempting to interpret each culture to the other. Anita was a white Australian woman who served as a docent at the Outback cultural center. She dressed in khaki shorts, hiking boots, and a wide-brimmed hat to keep off the relentless sun. While she talked, she prepared Spotted Dog, the traditional bread baked over an open fire.

She explained that the Aboriginal people, while latecomers to classroom education, had developed a knowledge base that was necessary for survival. She illustrated for us the intricate social structure they developed to prevent inbreeding, and their genius at finding food and drink in the harsh and seemingly barren landscape. As we nibbled on kangaroo tail roasted in a covered pit, she told us about the giant grubs they would find far underground that were a staple of their diet.

In accordance with their nomadic tradition, she told us, they also developed their own way to face death. An old or infirm person who sensed that he was near the end of his days would stay behind when the group moved on. This tradition was adaptive for the group as a whole, which would not be hampered by having to tend to a weak member. It was far less beneficial for the individual left behind to die in the sun, whose bones would likely be picked clean soon enough by desert creatures.

In the old times and still today, when a member dies the customs are clearly set. The name of the person is never spoken again, out of respect. Some groups assign a substitute name to use instead.

Similarly, no images of the person are to be used again. In fact, museums post warnings to alert visitors that their exhibits may include photographs of people now deceased. How different this is from our practice. We talk about the person we have lost, prop pictures next to the casket, make posters with snapshots of the better times to display at the wake and funeral. In ensuing months, we are grateful when friends bring up the name of our loved one.

But in other ways, we were told, the Aboriginal practices mirror our own. People long to return home during the time of grieving, as we do, or at least to the places we once shared.

During the “sorry time,” when people come to pay their respects, Aboriginal people believe that their old traditions must be followed so that the person’s spirit can find peace, just as we expect a wake and a funeral, and often a meal afterwards where storytelling and laughter mix with tears.

The Aboriginal people have an additional expectation – that the person’s spirit will come to visit after death, either to report that they are at peace or that they mean to watch over their loved ones. The survivors wait for the visit, and are relieved when it occurs.

A number of my clients have also reported experiencing such a visit. Because we are not taught to expect it, we can find it unsettling or at least surprising. But I remember a young woman of Native American heritage whose ailing grandfather had told her to wait for his visit. She was frustrated and unable to rest, fearing that he was suffering somehow. One day, she happily told me that she had seen him in a dream the night before, and he had reassured her that he was indeed at peace. She found the visit a profound gift.

Maybe that’s where the ancient and the modern world meet – over grief. As we prepare to die, we experience our connection to our own tribe – our family and loved ones. As we grieve, we return home at least in our hearts, and we gather together to pay our respects. And we all long to know that our loved one is at peace.

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