Grief is a sacred journey

We Are Not Alone: A Community Ritual of Remembrance

uuf_bannerI arrive at the Unitarian Fellowship in Big Flats, NY a little early on Sunday morning. I need spaciousness and inner quiet to set up and lead a Ritual of Remembrance for this community. This is my second visit as their guest service leader.

Inside, a few people unstack chairs and mingle as I set up a round table for an altar. I place one red candle in the center surrounded by thirty unlit votive candles.

When I was here in March, it was below zero. This November day is mild and sunny, so more than thirty arrive. They know we will deal with grief. I feel their wariness.

“May the children join us?” Jackie Wilson, the woman who invited me, asks. “They usually have their own gathering, but they might enjoy this.”

Preparing altar for the ritual

Preparing altar for the ritual

“Yes, sure,” I say. “All ages welcome.” I know this simple ritual works for everyone.

After Jackie opens the service with readings, sharing, and a song, I light the central candle and read Mary Oliver’s poem “Heavy,” including these lines.

“…It’s not the weight you carry
but how you carry it –
books, bricks, grief –
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it
when you cannot and would not,
put it down….”

“Please write the name of someone or something you love that has died on a 3×5 card,” I say while I hand around cards and pens.

DSC03086

with Jackie Swift

“What if I want to write more than one?” someone asks.

“Write on one card or two. It will work out. It always does.” I wait as people write more names and wipe tears.

“Please pass your cards to the person on your right. Now pass to the right again.”

I begin by reading the name on the card I hold. Just one name followed by a short love note to a dog. A little girl comes to the altar with her mom and lights a candle. After they sit down, I motion for the person next to me to read a card. We soon get the rhythm of read, listen, and light a candle or two. We hear names of parents, spouses, friends, children, and pets. Hugs wait for people who need them when they return to their seats.

Someone calls, “Vic Mansfield. Husband. 1941-2008.” I light a candle for Vic and reach for another.

DSC03077“This candle is for Vic’s mother. She hasn’t been able to grieve for her son, so I’ll light a candle for him in her place.” As I light my votive candle from the large candle, I’m grateful to feel tenderness for Vic’s mom, my adversary for so many years.

As we call names and light candles, the room grows quieter. I stand near the table, watching and adding candles. We need nearly sixty. Everyone, including the children, settles into the silence of sacred space.

Putting out the candles

Putting out the candles

Even in a strong community such as this one, grief isn’t part of everyday conversation unless we consciously invite it in. It isn’t easy to make our losses public and bare our souls. We quit trying when we’re met with platitudes and well-meaning instructions for getting over it.

Today, we do not ask for a way to fix grief. We simply acknowledge our losses together.

After another song and a closing of the altar, the community gathers around food. We are still hungry for life.

***

DSC04017Have you taken part in a community grief ritual? I’m thankful for many planned and spontaneous rituals in response to the tragedy in France. I hope you’ll find useful ideas in Creating a Grief Ritual or in this article and adaptation from my book called Solstice Blessings: A Family Ritual of Remembrance and Love.

Lon C. Ware, Jr. 1915 – 1959: Today is my Dad’s 100th birthday. I still light candles for him.

20 Comments
  1. Happy Birthday to your Dad Elaine. I also light candles on my parents’ birthdays.

    The ritual of Remembrance you described melts my heart. I don’t think that many of us are given such an opportunity to share our sorrows. It does need to be acknowledged and consciously invited in to make it meaningful and grounded. I so appreciate your posts thank you …

    • Yes, Happy Birthday to Lon C. Ware. My uncle, his only brother, used to cry when he saw me because I look so much like my dad.

      I love these rituals every time, whether in a church or a fellowship hall, at hospice or in a disco bar like one I did in San Francisco. It always moves people to write down a name of someone they miss, hear it read, and light a candle. It’s so simple. I used to lead more complicated rituals, but found the simpler ones kept people in their hearts rather than in their heads trying to figure out what to do next.

      I’m glad you got rain. May you have all you need. Weather will cool here after the warmest fall I can remember. I see snow showers in the forecast for Saturday night. It’s reality therapy. Thanks for commenting, Susan. I’m always happy to hear from you.

  2. In a world gone mad with hideous noise, it is calming to read of candles, cards, and remembrance.

    I’m in the midst of reading Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, a memoir of women, nature, grieving – and ritual. I just passed the page where her Dad gave the dying Mother a blessing as the family gathered ’round in a circle. It wasn’t a community grief ritual, but it was a ritual nonetheless.

    Heart over head wins every time. You have the gift of helping hearts heal. Blessings, Elaine.

    • Thanks for your reflections and encouraging words, Marian. I loved this calming, heart-opening ritual. I must re-read Refuge (and a stack of other books). I loved Refuge the first time I read it–long before I had dealt with ourcancer catastrophe. I know it would mean even more to me than it did then. Yes to the family blessing and the praise and lament to Nature. It’s so important to give that blessing to those who are ill or have died–and also to the living.

      My sons, daughter-in-law, and I will have our sixth solstice ritual of remembrance, similar to what we’ve done since the first winter after Vic’s death. That first winter, there was no ritual. We went to a friend’s house and tried to pretend we were OK. We were miserable. Once we began recognizing and honoring our loss with a yearly ritual, we could pause and remember at Solstice and celebrate the birth of the Light a few days later.

  3. What a wonderful ritual to be able to take part in. Wish I lived near you Elaine. It’s always nice when we can share our life and losses with kindred spirits. 🙂

    • Thanks, Debby. I’ll be interested in reflections on this piece from others who were there. They knew I was writing about it and I asked permission to use the one photo of the altar with children and young people. I hope I did an adequate job. I live more than an hour away from this Unitarian community, but it was a gift to be with them for the second time. I’d better watch out or I’m going to be known as the Grief Lady.

  4. What a truly beautiful post Elaine! I have bookmarked this page so never to lose it. The community ritual of remembrance you describe, as you say, is simple yet highly effective. I read in silence, deeply touched … not knowing what feelings would arise. Your post, with its calm, peaceful images seamlessly merge and seems timely in light of the recent attacks in Paris. It is my hope that families, schools, churches and communities worldwide will also gather and collectively offer each other the time and space to join hearts and hands.

    I watched Vic talking on YouTube earlier today, it is the first time I have met him since reading your wonderful book, “Leaning into Love.” I love how he spoke of you right at the end, and how you urged him to take more books along to that meeting. I felt like a witness to Love. Beautiful. Blessings always, Deborah.

    • What a lovely message, Deborah. Thank you. The ritual was wonderfully peaceful and heart-felt with many quiet tears. It was an honor to be there and to receive permission to write about it.

      I don’t know the YouTube of Vic, Deborah. Can you send me the link? I can’t find anything about him as Vic or Victor Mansfield on youtube, although I found someone named Victor Mansfield who subscribed to youtube within the last year. I also don’t know what you’re referring to about taking books to the meeting. I want to see this! I have this short video taken less than six weeks before his death: http://blog.syracuse.com/video/2008/04/the_dalai_lama_at_colgate_univ.html The first minute is the Dalai Lama and the second minute is Vic talking to an interviewer.

      Vic wrote lovingly about me in acknowledgements to each of his three books. What a gift it was.

      • Dear Elaine, here is the link to the video I watched on YouTube this morning. I did a quick search ‘vic mansfield dalai lama’… and near the top of the list this video was there, like a gift.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNyhCCqwxwY

        It is called ‘Vic Mansfield – Book Signing and Talk 3/1/08 at Wisdom’s Goldenrod’ and was uploaded by Mark Scorelle. The film is over one hour long and was a joy, after reading your book, to finally meet Vic himself.

        Love and blessings, Deborah.

        • I found it, Deborah. Thank you. If I search you tube Vic Mansfield I come up with nothing. The magic key was “Vic Mansfield Dalai Lama”–and then it came right up. I watched this video soon after Vic’s death. Maybe our friend Mark sent it to me or distributed it to the people who were there. Perhaps I put it out of mind because I was stunned with grief, and it hurt too much to watch. (I didn’t watch the one-minute video of Vic for a long, long time. And then I couldn’t stop watching it.) I’m so glad this piece is up and you found it. I’ll thank Mark. I’ll send my sons the link. They were not there, but I was (my white shoulder length hair and a red fleece jacket are the clues). It was a huge and important milestone in Vic’s last months. He felt so loved by our community and he had lived to see the book published. He is so ill in this video. It hurts to watch him get up off the floor. This man was muscular, strong, lean, and agile, but here he was swollen, weak, and awkward, existing on nasty medicines that kept the swelling and inflammation of cancer under some control. Again, I’m grateful to you and glad this is available and I can watch it again and again. I think I’ll write a blog about the whole experience–if you don’t mind–and embed the video so more people can see it.

          • There are no words, only love, always love.

            “He flashed me a smile with such warmth that went right to my feet.” – Vic Mansfield

            Blessings always, Deborah.

          • Thank you, Deborah. I’m honored by our connection and the important message you delivered by finding this YouTube. It felt like a message from across the veil–and I will write about it.

  5. I adore the energy contained in this powerful form of community connection via heartfelt space!

  6. It’s a simple but beautiful ritual, Elaine. It must be so gratifying to be able to gift your community with these. I love that you include pet losses. Cheers!

    • Robin, I hope you take candles wherever you are on Thanksgiving Day. Everyone seems to want to take part in this ritual. May all be well.

  7. This is especially meaningful as I enter the difficult period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was during this time in 2012 that life changed forever. I miss my mom more than words can describe. Your words are a comfort, my friend.

    Love,
    Ann

    • Sending you more love, Ann. I know you have many rituals in your life to honor your mom. And it still hurts, but it helps a little to hurt together.

  8. A lovely ritual, Elaine. I know that the ritual reading aloud of the name of a beloved person who has passed on can be such a moving a powerful moment and the card passing and candle lighting gives it all the more power. My father, Ernest Wightman Farr, born November 2, 1915, would have been one hundred this year too. Wish I’d been there for your ceremony.

    Blessings,

    Jenna

    • Thank you, Jenna. After doing grief rituals with many groups, I find the simplest is most powerful and makes everyone want to participate. Names and candle lighting one at a time until we have a table of light and love. My Dad was born Nov. 17, 1915, so he would have been 100, too. Other than willful avoidance, we did nothing to mark my dad’s death or anniversaries when I was a kid. It’s nice to light candles for him now. Blessings back to you as Winter Solstice nears.

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