October 31, 2013 at 2:23 am (Death and Dying, Spiritual) (altar work, celebrating your dead, death, death shaman, depression, divorce, dying, energy work, everything ends, funerals, grief, mental health, mourning, moving on, outreach, remembering, rituals, Samhain, saying goodbye, selfies, shamanism, spirituality, stories, symbols)
I read an article today about a photo-Tumblr that is solely comprised of “selfies”- pictures one takes onesself, “duckface” optional – at funerals. Some of the images even had the dearly departed in the background. The author of the article used this to make the point that we, as a society, no longer learn how to mourn.
Historically, when a person died, they were kept in the house for a few days so people could come by, pay their respects, and mourn with the family. Death was a tangible thing, and in some cultures families or other groups of people (not professionals) would wash and dress the corpse in preparation for burial. Then, the funeral services became a thing, and once Aunt Tilly dies, she is whisked away to a mystical place where they make her look as alive as possible (if you have a viewing), or put her in a container where you don’t have to see her dead body.
On top of this, most families are wishy-washy as to how to explain death to children. There’s this express notion that you shouldn’t upset them, which seems a little odd to me. Losing a loved one is inherently upsetting, and eventually that kid is going to grow up and realize that Grandpa isn’t off having a very long nap, or is on the longest Disney vacation ever. We are so afraid of the mysteries of death and afraid of not knowing the answers to what children may ask about what happens after death.
But the predictable thing that happens after death is mourning. Even if the person who died isn’t someone you were personally close to, knowing that person won’t ever make another movie or write another book or show up at Christmas dinner ever again is a sad thing. You’ve invested some amount of energy into that relationship, whether it’s your father or your favorite musician. Knowing that you have to move forward in the story of life without the unique contributions that person, that relationship brought to your life and the lives of those around you can be a hard thing to face. Of course, on top of that, it calls into question our beliefs about what happens after death – whether you believe they’re just a decaying food source for the earth or drinking flagons of mead in Valhalla – I know that every time something ends, I wonder what happens to the entity that was.
This goes even further into our every day lives, because it’s not just people we love who stop existing in the form we’re most accustomed to. You might lose a job you legitimately loved, or have to leave the town you grew up in, or decide that your relationship is no longer working and needs to end. Perhaps these things, too, have some sort of afterlife? Maybe you start to collect photographs of your hometown, or write emails to former co-workers, or in some other way try to keep some energetic tie ennervated even though it isn’t as direct as it once was. I know that every so often, I google ex lovers just to see what they’re doing with their lives, what happened to them after they were a significant part of my life. I notice if they’re still listening to that band I introduced them to, or have kept the hairstyle I told them was sexy. I like to know that I’ve had an affect on them, even though our connection is severed or different than it was.
But when things, people, places, situations, come to an end, often we have no idea what we’re “supposed” to do. We feel confused and lonely – and that’s unfortunate. My family, being both Irish and WASP-ish, was one where you did not engage in big shows of emotion outside of the family house. No matter what was going on in life, once you walked out the door you were happy, healthy, and well-adjusted. So when we rushed to the hospital because Mom was sick, or when my father sat us down and blamed each one of us individually for why he was leaving (even though he came back about 5 hours later), I was taught that you didn’t discuss this to outsiders. Eventually, an exception was made for therapists, and maybe pastors, but that’s about as far as it went.
So personally, I never really learned how to mourn. There were no rituals or ceremonies that gave us free space to truly feel and express our emotions – maybe a tear or two at a funeral, but everyone looked askance if you started to sob – and if you chose to redirect your sense of loss by being sullen, difficult, rebellious, or detached, that was grounds for punishment. In the end, I was shown the only response to loss is to bottle it up and wait until you saw your therapist.
It’s only been the last few years that I’ve really started thinking, writing, and talking about emotional catharsis around mourning. I’ve had clients and friends come to me after someone they love has died, feeling lost and confused because they feel like they should do something, but they don’t know what. Sometimes, or especially, it’s after the funeral is over and they’ve had a few days to really think and feel and process, and by then you feel like you lost your chance because that’s what the ritual was supposed to be for. When my father died, I did the majority of the planning and execution for his funeral, so for me, it was difficult to dig deep and really figure out what I was feeling and what I wanted to do with those feelings, because I was busy finding the right music and figuring out where the funeral would take place and writing programs and delivering my eulogy. It wasn’t until months later that I realized I had truly shut off any sort of emotional response to his passing, and I found myself feeling guilty for not “doing more” to memorialize him, and to process the complex emotions that I was having.
This is one of the reasons Samhain is one of my favorite Pagan holidays. It is a time and place where people are encouraged to truly mourn their dead, in whatever way feels right, and allow themselves to have whatever emotional response they need. And there’s no rule that says you can’t mourn your dead every Samhain – you don’t just have to do it the year they die, you can do it as long as you want, as long as you think you need, for decades if need be – in fact, that’s the way the holiday is set up. You don’t have to bury your loved one once and then move on in life; you can ritualize their passing, and the grief associated with that passing, for as long as you need to.
Another way I have incorporated open expressions of mourning into my life is by volunteering to mourn for others. When a friend or family member suffers a loss, I usually offer to mourn for them when I do my Rituals of the Dead. My “death altar” has items, pictures, tokens, and the like of friend’s fathers, mothers, high school buddies, as well as some from people I’ve personally known. And when I am feeling overwhelmed with sadness, as I do sometimes while dealing with depression, I put on all black and take out all the tokens and cry. I say their names, if I know them, and I hold their tokens close to my heart and just let out unadulterated grief. I figure if I’m going to suffer from uncontrollable crying jags due to depression, I might as well put them to good use.
I also build little mini-altars for my dead, by first burning a seven day candle until it is completely evaporated, usually lit as soon as I hear of their passing (or if they are very close to death and all indications say that’s what will happen). When the glass container is empty, I gather small items that make me think of them – a ticket stub from a movie we saw, a drawing of a brand I gave them, poems that make me think of them, etc – and fill the glass. I’ll also use “traditional” things, like rue, dried rose petals, lavender, fall leaves, and anything else that’s somehow connected with the death/decay/mourning part of the cycle. Sometimes I leave these at the gravesite, or I bury them somewhere appropriate, or give them to someone who is suffering and might find comfort with it. And sometimes I leave them on my altar, a way to create and maintain a connection with them (either symbolically or energetically).
What’s great about these things is that they don’t require you to have any one singular belief about the afterlife. This is not what these rituals and symbols are about. You can still write your loved ones letters after they have passed and still believe that they are mere wormfood. Or you can rest in your certainty that you have no friggin’ clue what happens to us after we die, and burn a candle in someone’s honor. These things are about you, your grief, your loss, what you need to do to allow yourself a significant moment to fully embody and express what this feels like to you. They don’t even have to look like traditional funeral tropes – if your friend was a drag queen, you can get dressed up and dance to Queen, go to a local drag bar and tip the queen that you think they’d be most impressed by, or maybe even get your ass on stage and do a drag number dedicated to your friend.
You can also use these things to help when the thing that passed was not a person. When my marriage ended, I found a piece of jewelry that was handmade for our wedding, and I placed in on the “death altar” while I spoke aloud about the end of my marriage, the death of the dreams I had when we got married, and the death of myself as his spouse. When I leave a house I have bonded with, I usually keep a token (most often a key, as I like keys) and when I feel nostalgic or sad that part of life is over, I’ll take it out and let it direct my memory fugue. Heck, there are still girl clothes I own that I can’t get rid of, because they’re too sentimental to me, even though I’ll likely never wear them again.
Samhain can be a time for these kinds of grief, too. It is the symbolic end of the agricultural cycle, where the crops have been harvested and now the plant matter left over is used to seed and fertilize the soil for next year’s harvest. We get ready for the dark of the winter by recognizing that which has served its purpose and needs to metamorphose into whatever’s next for you. You can use this symbolism to quit a bad habit, end a hurtful situation, let a part of you go that no longer serves you, recognize who you used to be and prepare for who you are to become. You can take a moment and allow the sadness of all the changes that have happened in the last year (or whenever) to flow out of you, in hopes that when you are ready to meet new and different experiences, you can draw from these memories without feeling the pain and loss. You can make Grandma Jo’s apple pie for your friends without sobbing through every bite. You can tell funny stories about when you used to work a corporate job, or when you used to be a girl, or when you used to only date boys. This is a great crucible to allow embarrassing, sad, hurtful, frustrating, and hellishly difficult situations become fodder for those stories that are only funny in retrospect. Or maybe use it as a story line for your novel, or inspiration for your next play, or to create a new RPG character.
So this is what I leave you with this Samhain: it’s okay to grieve. It’s okay to not know how to mourn, and to just open yourself up in a place you feel safe to do so, and sit with your feelings. Express them. Find rituals and symbols that facilitate this unburdening. Tell funny stories about your dead. Get rip roaringly drunk on your granddad’s favorite whisky. Go to the restaurant where you had your first date with your ex, and order the same thing you did then. Cry in public. Go visit a cemetery, find the oldest grave, and leave them an offering. You don’t need anyone’s permission to feel whatever the hell you feel about people and things and situations that are no longer part of your life. It’s also okay not to feel sad about these things – maybe your parent was abusive, and with their passing you have a better sense of safety and support. Maybe that job was holding you back from starting your own business, or living in a state you’d prefer. Mourning doesn’t always have to be all black lace and tissues – sometimes it’s a selfie taken in the funeral home’s bathroom.