Grief is a sacred journey

How to Remember the Sorrow We Can’t Forget

Vic's cairn

Vic’s cairn

“I don’t come to Vic’s cairn so often now,” I said to my friend. She and I had walked my favorite forest trails before taking a side trail to the stone memorial where my husband’s ashes are buried.

“Soon after he died, I read an article that advised, ‘Give your flowers to the living, not the dead.’  I couldn’t do it. I had to take flowers to Vic.”

I also offered flowers to what had died in me. My marriage. My sense of safety. My plans.

“Will I keep taking flowers there forever?” I asked myself that first year. I didn’t know, but saw no reason to stop a small ritual that soothed my bruised heart. I’d grown a garden full of flowers. I could do what I wanted with them. I wanted to offer them to Vic and to our love. What was wrong with that?

King's Cemetery, Ithaca, NY

King’s Cemetery, Ithaca, NY

Recently, a reader said she was worried about her mother. Her dad had died a few months earlier and Mom wanted to visit her husband’s grave every day. The family feared it was excessive. Maybe she needed to move on and get over it. Maybe she would become stuck in grief. Maybe they should insist she stop.

“Don’t stop her,” I told the daughter. “It’s only been a few months. Your mom created a ritual to help with unbearable grief. Something in her knows how to get through this. She won’t go to his grave forever, but she needs to go now. Support her. Don’t criticize.”

I trusted the instincts of a widow I’d never met because, when I was newly widowed, I trusted myself.

Trail to Vic's cairn

Trail to Vic’s cairn

The first year, I visited Vic’s cairn every day. Some days twice. Sometimes at night with a miner’s light. When my grieving heart felt it would burst in my chest, I walked ten minutes on trails through the fields. As I moved and breathed, I watched the land grow green in spring and gold in autumn. I listened for tree frogs or an owl’s call. I carried gladiolas or zinnias. Sometimes I walked on snowshoes in animal tracks.

The second year, I skipped some days, but not many. The third year, I walked those familiar trails and occasionally forgot to visit the cairn. At first that upset me, but it was sign of transformation. A softening acceptance, a letting go.

Climbing the knoll to the cairn

Climbing the knoll

Vic's red oak

Vic’s red oak

On the knoll

On the knoll

Now, eight years after Vic’s death, I haven’t been to the cairn for almost a week. Last time I went, I forgot flowers even though I had calendula in my garden. I offered New England Asters and acorns I found along the path.

This summer, I gave my flowers to the living. I shared them with friends or put them in a favorite glass vase and enjoyed them myself.

cairn in snow

cairn in snow

I don’t love or remember Vic less, but grief changes like everything else. The ritual held me when my chest groaned with grief. It gave me purpose when I had none. I had prayed at Vic’s cairn for strength to survive. I had leaned against the red oak where he’d asked to have his ashes spread. I’d turned my face to the sky and inhaled the possibilities. I’d kissed the cold stones.

Those daily rounds were my long goodbye to him, the life we shared, and the woman I was. No one tried to talk me out of it, but they didn’t know how often I repeated my simple ritual.

If I didn’t talk about it too much, no one would try to stop me.

***

What rituals hold you in hard times? Most of us soothe ourselves with repeated rituals, even if we don’t call them that. Ritual is part of every spiritual tradition. Do you visit a grave, cook someone’s favorite food, light a candle on a birth or death date, or offer prayers? For another blog about the healing power of ritual, see Creating a Grief Ritual. If you’d like to read more about my protected forest, you’ll enjoy For the Love of Trees: 2005.

gladiolas

gladiolas

 

 

 

28 Comments
  1. It’s lovely giving flowers to the living – as well as to the dead. Thank you for this Elaine. Thoughts of the living and the dead can be incorporated into the simplest of rituals, like making coffee or lighting a candle, or visiting their grave site -. On my side, I walk the end of the jetty with my sister who lives in Cape Town, when I visit. We tossed our parents’ ashes into the sea at the end of the jetty many years ago. So we visit, and say hello and offer our prayers and loving thoughts .. there’s something rather special about this walk … apart from the beauty of the place that we all lived in many years ago when we were teenagers, it brings back memories of when we would walk the jetty with ur parents ..

    • A beautiful ritual, Susan, and all the sweeter because you do it with your sister. I imagine you holding each other’s arms with sea wind blowing your hair back as you near the end of the jetty. So much of this is about our thought and intention, but many Jungians and spiritual teachers showed me the power of repeated ritual. I’m glad I could let the ritual take time.

  2. I believe I’ve visited Vic’s cairn in another season – perhaps on a previous post. The “cairn” for my mother is a Ball canning jar topped with a flat black bonnet and her prayer cap, an artifact I didn’t recognize as ritual until you pointed it out.

    You also pointed out that now you give flowers to the living including yourself. Why not! Unlike in my mother’s swift passing, I’m glad we can shower Aunt Ruthie with flowers before her death. Your gorgeous glads remind me that gladiolas were one of Cliff’s mother’s favorite flowers to grow in the Pacific Northwest.

    My most enduring ritual is writing blog posts about loved ones: The act of writing is itself healing; besides it provides a legacy to future generations.

    • You have, Marian. I’ve included his cairn in posts in all season. Since he died in early June, my rituals and photos often include lupines from my fields. I remember the altar you created for your mom. I love that you take flowers to Aunt Ruthie now. I imagine her eyes bright with joy. The article I referred to made me think deeply because I couldn’t stop giving flowers to the dead. I didn’t see why I had to make a choice–and in time there’s been a strong shift toward the living.

      Thanks for writing your family stories for yourself and as a legacy. I love the way you combine stories with past and present images. My favorite ritual now–but not in that first year after Vic died. Then I walked.

  3. This touched my heart, Elaine, thank you for sharing. So important and poignant.

  4. Thank you for this lovely post, Elaine. Lovely images as well as insights. As always, I find your ability to stay with your grief very inspiring. As I read your last line,”If I didn’t talk about it too much, no one would try to stop me” it struck me that the ability to do that may also have something to do with personality type.

    I trust my inner wisdom too, but as an introverted feeling type, I find not talking about deep feelings too easy for my own good, probably. I know the value of letting yourself feel and grieve your pain, and I can do that to a certain extent. And like you and Marian, writing about some things helps too; yet others remain very private. Perhaps this is a combination of knowing instinctively what to share and what not to share mixed in with the vestiges of my mother’s stoic ‘suffering in silence’ mentality.

    • Thanks for your insights, Jeanie, and thanks for catching a typo this morning. I felt compelled to share grief in the year or two after Vic died. Since I knew it was a bit much, I tended to stick with close friends, family, the forest, and my dog. Tears bubbled up and out even when I tried to stop them–perhaps showing that my natural extroversion was alive and well in my suddenly introverted life. Writing became an important outlet and then leading bereavement groups at hospice. Tending grief with ritual helped so much as did writing, having a therapist, and sharing sadness with others who missed Vic. My mother’s grief silence taught me that I needed to find a different way.

  5. Such a beautiful post that honors our intuition on how to manage our grief.

    • Thank you, Charli. It’s so nice to get your comment. Grief is hard to handle in our go-it-alone culture, but it’s part of life. Sometimes a big part of life.

  6. A poignant post Elaine. The story you told about the person worrying about her mother visiting her father’s grave too often, makes an excellent point. Everybody carries their own grief in their own way. Nobody should be the judge of how long it takes one to get to the next step. 🙂

    • Thank you, Debby, and I agree. Each of us needs space to grieve in our own way–even if family members think they know better. I don’t know how this turned out, but I hope they let Mom make her own choices. It’s hard for us to watch someone grieve. It’s natural to want to fix what can’t be fixed but must be lived through.

  7. It doesn’t seem possible that it’s been eight years, Elaine. What an inspiration it’s been to watch you grow through your grief and to share in your journey through your honest and beautiful writing.♥

    • Thank you for all the support you’ve given me and so many along the way, Marty. Eight years: a long time and a blink of an eye. When my brother died, I felt how much I’d learned about supporting myself in grief. It’s also been a gift to help others who grieve through writing and bereavement groups.

  8. Walking the dog I inherited from my daughter has become my “time” with Marika. I bought myself a very warm, long, hooded coat so that weather would never interfere with my “time.” At night, and in the early morning when it is still dark, that’s when I sing to her and talk. I could easily just let the dog out by herself. But the time we spend in the driveway, thinking of Marika, and walking the small path she once walked, has become a very special ritual. Walking the dog is not the chore it might have been had I not turned it into my special Marika-time. I imagine I might still continue this long after the dog is gone.

    • Robin, thanks for describing your daily ritual. I have snow pants, snowshoes, and all sorts of gear, so I get the long warm coat. Marika left you with a made-to-order ritual when she left you with Suki. I understand the special early morning and late night times outdoors–in rain, in snow, in heat. I made a new spot on stones in the woods for my brother so I can take little offerings to him, too. He and I walked to this spot when he visited me a year ago. I have precious photos of him in my woods.

  9. A touching post Elaine. I don’t usually comment, but noticed a glaring lack of male responses; so representing the gender I hereby declare you a menschette of the first order. Thanks for your unflagging compassion. Hugs, Rufus

    • Thank you, Rufus. Men had a little more to say and one had a lot to say when I wrote about the election. Thanks for representing in the world of compassion and grief. I’m glad to have a declaration rather than an election to the position of menschette. As I sign off, I’m thinking about your mom.

  10. Lovely piece 🙂 I agree that grief does change. Doesn’t mean we love them any less. There are stretches of time that I don’t get to the cemetery to visit my son. They seem to be longer now the longer that he has been gone. My favorite ritual that I do for my son is a candle that I light for him every night <3

    • Autumn, it must be so hard to have a child die. The closest I’ve come is taking care of my mother-in-law whose only child was my husband. It’s taken her years to let this loss in. I wonder if, like me, you’re taken the one you love into yourself so he feels close all the time. Your nightly candle lighting must be powerful and deeply connecting. Please take good care of yourself.

  11. This is a beautiful meditation on the evolving stages of grief, Elaine.

    The ritual that has come to mean a lot to me where I am now in Collegeville, MN, is that of lighting candles in the Shrine of St. Peregrine at the Abbey Church.

    I take concerns for friends who are suffering from illness and grief, and I pray for new life taking shape. I don’t come from a background of the intercession of the saints, but I find it comforting to pray in places where so many other prayers have preceded mine.

    • Thank you, Shirley. I love imagining you lighting candles at the Abbey Church. I understand the attraction and comfort of holy places where others pray and open their hearts to the Higher and Deeper. My favorite prayer at the most catastrophic moments is “Thy Will Be Done,” since my little ego doesn’t know the best outcome and needs help surrendering to what is. I’m drawn to Catholic Churches in any country, although I wasn’t raised Catholic and didn’t know a thing about saints and sages as a child. I’ve found this same comforting atmosphere in Hindu and Buddhist temples. In nature, too.

  12. A beautiful piece, Elaine. Thank uou for modeling how to hold the sacred space of remembering with abiding grace. The images are precious.

    • Thanks, Natalie, and thanks for taking time to let me know. This time of year, the colors and light change rapidly in the forest. It was good to share a little of where I walk and pray. I’m so grateful for the beauty of my surroundings.

  13. My brother died on November 28 1970 and one of my most dear childhood friends died on November 29,2013.My mother and I decided to ignore Thsnksgiving this year She was just 92 and when the kids were small and my father was still alive we acted out the ritual of an American Thanksgiving. My grief for all my loses is quiet this year. Sometimes the ritual of profound silence after a long while can be healing.Grief has never left me,it has changed my life in evety way.We do not know how till some time has passed.

    • Thanks for your words, Alicia. I agree. We don’t know how grief will change us until some time has passed. Right now, I feel the collective grief of my community as well as the personal grief of friends and family. If we open our eyes to sorrow, we find it everywhere standing close to love.

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