Grief is a sacred journey

A Ritual for the Seventh Season of Grief

IMG_0007June 3, 2015 was the seventh anniversary of my husband Vic’s death. I planned a day with an empty calendar. I needed time to check in with myself and see where I stand. Am I pushing grief or anything else under? Do I need to turn my attention to something neglected or forgotten?

I lit a candle near Vic’s photo soon after midnight, the time he died, and sat in silent meditation. The flame reminded me of the holy atmosphere surrounding Vic and all of us who sat with him seven years ago.

DSC00136In the morning, I picked purple Lupines in my fields on the way to the cairn in the woods where Vic’s ashes are buried. Lupines are a constant in my yearly rituals of remembrance. They bloomed with wild enthusiasm on the day Vic died, holding joy and beauty when I could not.

DSC00232There are many more Lupines now, thousands of blossoms as they seed themselves and spread to new places. I don’t have to remember the date of Vic’s death each June. Lupines remember for me.

In the forest near Vic’s favorite red oak tree, I laid Lupines on the cairn my sons and I built over Vic’s ashes. I arranged the flowers with an image of my book cover and wrapped the stems with the blue IPPY gold medal sash. My book Leaning into Love had received the award the week before. It represented the fulfillment of a promise I’d made to Vic to find a way to thrive without him.

I recited the poem Vic and I read at our wedding in May 1968. Here are the lines I find most meaningful.

I need love more than ever now…I need your love,
I need love more than hope or money, wisdom or a drink
Because slow negative death withers the world—and only yes
can turn the tide
Because love has your face and body…and your hands are tender
and your mouth is sweet—and God has made no other eyes like yours.
~
Walter BentonThis Is My Beloved

I sang “Let It Be,” the Beatles song I heard in a dream after Vic’s death.

DSC00253When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be…

I ended by reading a poem Vic and I read to each other on our 39th Wedding Anniversary. He had been through nearly a year of cancer treatment in May 2007 and requested an anniversary party knowing there might not be another year.

There was a 40th Wedding Anniversary, less than two weeks before his death. He listened with tears as I held his hand and read the poem twice, once for me and once for him. Here’s an excerpt:

… When men and women come together,
How much they have to abandon.
…they have
 to abandon their longing for the perfect.
The inner nest not made by instinct
Will never be quite round
And each has to enter the nest
Made by the other imperfect bird.
~Robert Bly, “Listening to the Koln Concert”

DSC00259I feel a shift and softening since last year. Of course, I don’t know what the eighth season will bring, but I hope for another quiet day when the Lupines bloom next year. I hope for another bouquet for Vic.

***

How do you mark the death anniversary of someone you love? Do your rituals change over time? Does there come a time when you let them go and feel they’re no longer helpful? For related posts about creating ritual, see How to Create a Grief Ritual. For more ideas about creating ritual, I suggest Why Rituals Help Us Mourn…and Heal by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D. or my TEDx talk which focuses on the healing power of personal ritual: “Good Grief! What I Learned from Loss.

30 Comments
  1. Beautiful, Elaine. My heart swells for the many ways you honor that shared love and the man. Your lupines are so, so, so abundant! Warm hugs and love.

    • It’s very sweet to hear from you, Patti. Flowers carry many memories for me. Catalpa tree flowers for my Missouri grandma and Bleeding Hearts for the Ohio grandma.

      You see one tiny part of the lupine pageant in these photos. I love how they spread each year. And they’re legumes, so they make the soil richer.

  2. Elaine, this is such a sad and beautiful post. The poems are so moving, I’m glad I had Kleenex next to me while I was reading. I know that Vic is looking down on you with pride and I think the lupines are telling you so. You are such an inspiration. <3

    • Thank you, Debby. It was good to take a quiet day. I’m doing well in many ways…and I miss and love Vic. We humans are good at holding all sorts of feelings at the same time.

  3. You are a remarkable woman, Elaine. I am so grateful to call you a friend. Thank you, once again for your generous, open heart and soothing equanimity.

    • Oh, Ava. I love your words “soothing equanimity.” Writing this piece felt like that and I need more of it. I feel very fortunate to be your friend and share so many points of contact. Thank you.

  4. It sounds like a perfect day reflecting on your love and time with Vic. On the 4th anniversary of my daughter’s death in March, I hiked with my inherited dog and a small group of friends. My quiet alone-time was the hours I spent Photoshopping her image, like stroking her face, talking to her, and then posting the pictures on Facebook which she loved. She loved sushi so I splurged on sushi and sashimi. And later, walking her dog in the driveway, I sang to the night sky.
    I feel shifting going on too. Softening, yes. I don’t know what to hope for for next year. But each year seems to bring with it more peace. Cheers>

    • Robin, thanks for describing your photoshop process and the loving way you hold Marika’s image. I feel that same tenderness toward Vic’s photos although I don’t photoshop. AI have notebooks full of his slides that need to be digitalized so I can cherish and preserve each image. There are a zillion stories in those photos.
      Shifting happens and things change. That seems to be inevitable. I remember people saying how it would get better in time. I didn’t like hearing that and didn’t know it meant the love, grief, and longing would stay and become a familiar and even comforting part of me.

  5. “Lupines remember for me”. This gave me chills.
    The poems are strong and clear and your profound love remains
    as time blossoms on.

    • They do, Lauren. I watch for the first leaves every spring and then the flower spikes and then the blossoms. So far they’ve always bloomed on June 3. For me, they mark his death more than the date.

  6. Dear Elaine, how do you deal with the pain which time brings with it? I am finding that Time, instead of acting as a healer, is the opposite. When I realise that it will be 4 years this November, when our lives were ruined by my Pete’s stroke (he died the following May) it hurts me physically. I can’t bear that so much time has gone by when we have been separated. I can’t see this ever changing. People think I’m ok, as I seem ok. But the pain of that Time seems to get worse and not better. I wish I could deal with it better because the hurt is awful. Any ideas? I know that like us you had a wonderful close marriage and are now coping alone. And I loved your book. And I know that every partnership has to end with one person doing the suffering of its ending. I know all these things but sometimes I wonder how I can deal with that continuing pain that Time seems to bring with it.
    Jan

    • Dear, dear Jan. I’m sorry you’re having a difficult time. My words are inadequate. At three years after Vic’s death, I couldn’t have said what I said in this post. This may be the first year I can say that grief has softened, although there have been more periods of lightness the last two years and even occasional fun.

      Longing is a constant companion and I think about Vic often each day. I try to turn toward my feelings, write about them, and explore them. That meant many tears for many years. For me, it’s no good to soldier on without giving space to sorrow and doing something that honors it–taking flowers to the place where Vic’s ashes are buried, writing something about him or our life together, reading poetry, or calling a friend who is struggling. I’ve also made it a practice since he was diagnosed with cancer nine years ago to look for the positive in my situation. Not to ignore the negative, but to hold both together. Photography helps me do that or noticing the way children play or the way birds take care of their young. Nature is a major healing force for me, so when I feel the downward pull getting to strong, I take a walk. Many, many walks.

      And I still see a therapist every other week, the one I started seeing four months before Vic’s death. She has seen me in the most helpless and hopeless moods. With her, I let it all out and also explore dream images. For me, dreams often held images of hope when my conscious self felt so hopeless. I also found support in bereavement groups with other women–first as a participant and then as a leader. Or just having tea with a friend who has lost her partner and is willing to talk about her experiences. Although, in general, I want more solitude than I needed in the past.

      I hear what you say about Time. It is inexorable. Vic stays the same age in his photos and I move forward because I must. Time widens our physical separation, but it hasn’t lessened the power of love and memory. When all else fails, I remember that my grief is just another kind of love. Somehow this idea helps me honor grief rather than banning or shunning it. It helps me forgive myself–as though continued grief should need forgiveness, but in our culture it seems to.

      I hope some of these ideas are helpful. I hope just writing your comment helped.
      Sending you love, Elaine

  7. Love your photos, the poems and song… Thank you for sharing.

    • Thank you, Nati. Poetry can hold all the feelings. I hadn’t thought of “Let It Be” for many years and then it came in that dream as a gift.

  8. How do I mark the death anniversary of someone I love? Next week I will dedicate a blog post to my father who died 30 years ago. We had a conflicted relationship, but over time the imprint of his positive influence on my life has grown more distinct. I’m grateful for that.

    The bittersweet rituals you observe in Vic’s memory are beautiful and affecting. I like that the purple Lupines soften the stones in the cairn – a nice balance.

    • I know you will rise to the occasion, Marian. It’s nice to get older and forgive our parents, isn’t it?

      In a gathering of women on Mother’s Day, a friend asked, “What is the gift of your mother?” I’ve spent lots of time in my adult life looking at the hard parts of our relationship, so it was good to ask myself this question. So I’ll ask you something similar–and it sounds like you’re already thinking this through: “What was your father’s gift to you?”

      • There are three I have been rehearsing in my mind over the years. Maybe a fourth will come to mind between now and next week. Great question, Elaine!

  9. You have made Vic so alive to me with your words, images, and rituals, Elaine.

    Your wisdom in going to nature for healing is visible in nearly everything you write.

    thank you for helping the rest of us deal with past grief and prepare for the grief that lies ahead. None of us get out of this world alive. None of us escapes grief.

    My father’s death in 1980 was a turning point in my life. I was 32. He had been a patriarchal figure in my teen years and had softened as he faced death. His spirit was healed even as his body departed. I have been comforted by an image that came to me as I walked across campus: he was dancing (forbidden to Mennonites of his generation) with angels.

    • I’m glad I’ve made Vic three-dimensional. I don’t want to idealize him (how he would have hated that), but I’m afraid I do.
      I learned many years ago that if I’m anxious or deeply disappointed, there is nothing like spending time in the garden or visiting the woods or the lake. So Nature seemed like a natural place to turn along with meditation and poetry.
      I love imagining your elderly father with his Mennonite hat (was it straw or black?) dancing with angels. This one paragraph gives me a little glimpse of him from adult eyes.

  10. Elaine
    Your words helped me a lot. Especially this
    When all else fails, I remember that my grief is just another kind of love. Somehow this idea helps me honor grief rather than banning or shunning it. It helps me forgive myself–as though continued grief should need forgiveness, but in our culture it seems to. –
    Pete and I were very fond of rituals to celebrate natural events and I try to carry them on but find it difficult. However I have just with the help of my neighbour made a sort of gravel garden and called it the Moonhare garden as that was one of his names on the web. And there is a Moonhare in it. And for my birthday which is coming soon I’m going to buy another from him to me. I need to keep his spirit alive with me or I couldn’t cope with life without him. You are a guide through this new unwanted life Elaine. Thanks. Jan

    • Jan, we’re both trying to find our way through a dark spot. I sometimes took flowers to my ritual spot for Vic a few times a day. I didn’t say to myself, “You already did that this morning.” I just went and recited poems or said prayers or was silent. I’ve taken a little good news there in recent years. “Hey, Vic, this is what is happening to our family or this is what is happening in my life.”

      It sounds like your Moonhare garden is close to your home and you can create a sanctuary there. How sweet it is to do this with the help of a friend. No matter where I am–on the wild streets of New York City, for example–I feel Vic close to me. As a girl, I learned from my mom how damaging it is to try to keep grief at a distance. She had to shut down all her feelings and warmth to do that. It would have been better if we’d cried together. I’m glad you’re making a new space for the Moonhare.
      Sending you love, Elaine

  11. The tears, that I shed when reading this, were what I needed, today.

    • I’m so glad, Leah. I’m sorry you need to weep, but when we do, it’s a relief to stop holding back. I’m a woman with an endless supply.

  12. Feeling a deep sadness today, and not sure why…. reading this brought it to the surface, and I’m having a therapeutic cry. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself and Vic with us, my friend. xo

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. Ann. I hope you feel better–or maybe you need a day home from work. May all be well.

  13. Great blog.Thanks for sharing.

  14. This year will be the third anniversary of my six year old daughter’s death. So far each birthday and anniversary I have done things a little differently. I created The Angel Zoe Kindness Project (see my blog for what that is exactly) and I always do something for that. I always go to our local cafe to have her favourite breakfast and I usually write her name in the sand at the local beach. I often visit the friendship seat dedicated to her at her school. Then there are wish lanterns, balloons (but trying to do some hung more environmentally friendly) and planting roses. Symbols and ritual are very important to me in remembering her. I’d encourage everyone dealing with grief to create their own. They are beyond words in comfort.

    • I can’t imagine the pain of your experience, Kiri. The words I’m sorry aren’t big enough, but there they are.
      You create such beautiful rituals for your daughter Zoe. I know how helpful this can be, while it doesn’t dissolve the pain. It sounds like your rituals include others, and I feel this is essential in our grief-adverse culture. We need to know loss and pain as part of life for so many and open our hearts in community. Thank you for helping people remember together.

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