“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?
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.
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.
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.
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.