Communal Healing: How the Grieving Process Connects Community

Communal Healing: How the Grieving Process Connects Community

– Composed by Rebecca Bourhill, Edited by Glenn Nangaku Leisching


Communal Healing: How the Grieving Process Connects Community

Grief is an inherent part of the human experience, transcending cultural boundaries and affecting individuals and communities alike. In many societies, the process of healing from loss is deeply intertwined with communal support, offering solace, strength, and a shared space to navigate the intricate journey of grief. This article explores the significance of communal healing, focusing on the isiXhosa and isiZulu peoples of South Africa, as well as the ancient Dagara way of grieving in West Africa.

Understanding Grief: A Shared Human Experience

Grief is a complex emotional response triggered by the loss of a loved one, a relationship, or any significant change that disrupts our lives. It encompasses a wide range of emotions, including sadness, anger, confusion, and despair. While grief is a deeply personal experience, it also has communal dimensions. Humans have an inherent need for connection and support during times of loss, seeking solace from their community.

Grieving Traditions in isiXhosa Culture

The isiXhosa people, one of the largest ethnic groups in South Africa, have a rich cultural heritage that includes unique grieving traditions. In isiXhosa culture, grief is seen as a communal experience that involves the entire community. The grieving process often begins with a ritual known as “Ukuhlamba,” commonly referred to as The Healing Dance which is followed by A Cleansing Ceremony, The Welcoming of the Spirit, and finally The Communal Feast.

“Umbuyiso” (The Cleansing Ceremony)

During the Umbuyiso ceremony, the community gathers to cleanse the spirit of the deceased and prepare them for the journey to the afterlife. This cleansing ritual involves the use of traditional herbs, incense, and prayers, conducted by a spiritual leader or healer. The ceremony aims to release negative energy and facilitate the transition of the departed soul.

“Intwaso” (The Welcoming of the Spirit)

In the Intwaso ceremony, the community welcomes the spirit of the deceased back to their ancestral home. This ritual is performed to honor and show respect to the departed soul. The community gathers at the family homestead, where prayers, songs, and offerings are made. It is believed that the spirit of the deceased is present during this ceremony, offering comfort and guidance to their loved ones.

“Umgidi” (The Communal Feast)

The Umgidi feast is a vital part of the grieving process in isiXhosa culture. It serves as a way for the community to come together, share a meal, and support the grieving family. During the feast, stories are shared, laughter and tears intertwine, and the community demonstrates solidarity and care. The Umgidi feast provides a space for collective healing, where the burdens of grief can be shared and eased through connection and support.

The Grieving Process in isiZulu Culture

The isiZulu people, another prominent ethnic group in South Africa, also have unique traditions surrounding grief and communal healing. In isiZulu culture, grief is acknowledged as a collective experience, where the community plays an active role in supporting the bereaved. Similar to the isiXhosa, the isiZulu grieving process occurs in stages.

“Ukubuyiswa” (The Process of Calling Back)

In the isiZulu culture, the process of grieving begins with the ritual of Ukubuyiswa, which translates to “the process of calling back.” This ceremony is held to invite the spirit of the deceased to return home and be with their family. The community gathers at the family’s homestead, where songs, prayers, and offerings are made. Through this ritual, the community expresses their love and desire for the departed soul to find peace.

“Isithwalandwe” (The Unveiling Ceremony)

The Isithwalandwe ceremony is a significant milestone in the grieving process for isiZulu people. It marks the unveiling of the tombstone or memorial for the departed loved one. This event brings the community together, allowing them to pay their respects, share stories, and honor the memory of the deceased. The unveiling ceremony provides closure and a sense of finality, while also emphasizing the importance of community support during times of grief.

“Umemulo” (The Celebration of Life)

In isiZulu culture, Umemulo is a joyous celebration held after a specific period of mourning has passed. This ceremony serves as a commemoration of the deceased person’s life and a way to honor their memory. The community gathers to dance, sing, and share in the spirit of celebration. Umemulo acknowledges that life continues even after loss, emphasizing the resilience and strength found within the community.

The Ancient Dagara Way of Grieving

The Dagara people, an indigenous ethnic group from West Africa, have a profound understanding of grief as an integral part of the human experience. For the Dagara, grief is not viewed as a solitary journey but as a collective process involving the entire community. Though greater in distance from the isiXhosa and isiZulu, the Dagara’s grieving process also moves through very similar stages.

“The Vigil”

The Vigil is a central aspect of the Dagara grieving process. It involves the community coming together to create a sacred and safe space for the bereaved. During the Vigil, members of the community take turns keeping watch over the body of the deceased, ensuring that they are never alone. This practice symbolizes the commitment to support and care for the grieving family, fostering a sense of unity and compassion.

“The Ancestor Altar”

In Dagara culture, the Ancestor Altar is a physical representation of the spiritual connection between the living and the deceased. It is a sacred space adorned with photographs, personal items, and offerings dedicated to the ancestors. The community gathers around the altar to offer prayers, songs, and expressions of gratitude to their ancestors. This ritual serves as a reminder of the ongoing presence and guidance of those who have passed on, providing comfort and strength to the grieving community.

“The Healing Ceremony”

The Healing Ceremony is a transformative and cathartic experience in Dagara culture. It is a communal gathering where the community comes together to witness and support the bereaved in their journey toward healing. The ceremony involves storytelling, rituals, dancing, and drumming. Through these expressive practices, emotions are released, wounds are acknowledged, and the community collectively holds space for healing and transformation.


The Power of Communal Healing

Communal healing holds immense power in the process of grief. When individuals experience loss within a supportive community, they find solace and understanding in shared experiences. The collective empathy, compassion, and rituals provide a framework for navigating grief, allowing individuals to heal holistically. The presence of community lessens the burden of grief, offering comfort, connection, and a sense of belonging.

Creating a safe space for grief within a community is crucial. It requires open communication, non-judgmental attitudes, and a willingness to listen and validate the emotions of the bereaved. Through shared rituals and ceremonies, communities can collectively honor and remember the deceased, creating a sense of continuity and a bridge between the past, present, and future.

Cultural Exchange and Learning

Exploring different grieving traditions allows us to expand our understanding of the human experience and recognize the diversity of healing practices. Engaging in cross-cultural dialogue and learning fosters empathy, respect, and appreciation for the ways in which communities come together to support one another during times of loss. By embracing these diverse traditions, we gain insight into our shared humanity and find inspiration in the wisdom of ancient cultures.


Grief is a universal human experience, and communal healing is an integral part of the grieving process in many cultures. The isiXhosa and isiZulu peoples of South Africa, as well as the Dagara people of West Africa, exemplify the power of community support in navigating the intricate journey of grief. Through rituals, ceremonies, and shared experiences, these communities provide solace, connection, and a safe space for healing. By embracing and learning from these traditions, we can foster a more compassionate and supportive world for those who grieve.


Are communal grieving practices limited to specific cultures?
No, communal grieving practices are found in various cultures worldwide. While the specific rituals and traditions may differ, the fundamental idea of community support during grief transcends cultural boundaries.

How can communal healing benefit individuals who are grieving?
Communal healing provides a support system that allows individuals to feel understood, validated, and not alone in their grief. It offers comfort, a safe space for expression, and a sense of belonging, which can aid in the healing process.

Are these grieving traditions still practiced today?
Yes, many communities continue to practice their traditional grieving rituals and ceremonies. These traditions hold significant cultural and spiritual value, and they continue to provide comfort and support to those who have experienced loss.