Grief is a sacred journey

Honoring A Family Death with Personal Ritual

Liz, David, & Virginia, 2016, her 100th birthday

The funeral home owner called me after my mother-in-law’s death on Thursday. I’d prearranged for him to pick up her body and deliver it to the crematorium since this was her wish, but I had to identify her body because the funeral director didn’t know her.

“I’ll pick her up tonight,” he said, “but you won’t be able to get to my place from Friday through Sunday. It’s Grand Prix weekend.”

Ah, one last delay in her 102+ years. At the Watkins Glen Grand Prix, vintage cars are displayed and raced on downtown streets, the original Grand Prix track. 30,000 people inundate a village of a few thousand. Traffic stops.

“We have an up-to-date facility,” he said. I knew that was code for good coolers or dry ice since we had agreed on no embalming or make-up.

Waiting gave me time to prepare for a pre-cremation ritual. On Friday, I bought a burnable wooden cross (hers were metal) and a soft white blanket to shroud her in the cremation box. Sunday, I cut flowers from my garden. On Monday, my son Anthony picked me up for a somber drive to the funeral home, but there was already gentle humor.

“She’ll think the Grand Prix is a celebration for her,” I had said Friday evening.

“Yes, and she gets to step through the Pearly Gates holding hands with Burt Reynolds,” David said. “Grandma loved Burt Reynolds.” He died the same day she did. Our jokes felt just right.

Her body lay in a wooden container on top of a blanket. Her hands held a soft toy bunny sent with her from the nursing home—a sweet touch of kindness.

With Anthony at her feet, we shrouded her with the white blanket. I laid gladiolas and zinnas over her body—bright flowers she loved. In keeping with family tradition, I added her favorite foods, garlic and pasta. No red wine included since glass wasn’t allowed.

“Thank you for your gentle death,” I said to Virginia’s lifeless body. “Thank you for being a challenging teacher for 50 years. I’m sorry for the times I responded to your anger with anger or cold disdain. Thank you for taking care of Vic after you and he were abandoned. Thank you for loving him and keeping him safe. Thank you for the love you gave your grandsons. All is forgiven. May there be Peace.” Before leaving, I said “Hail Mary” a last time.

Virgin Mary at Immaculate Conception Church, Ithaca, NY

Anthony and I drove home along the road overlooking Seneca Lake. “I want to see Hector Falls,” he said. He spotted a large bird perched on the railing close to the road,

Elaine & Anthony at Hector Falls

“Let’s go back,” I said. We stopped at the wild waterfall and headed back south. The bird remained on its perch while cars whizzed by. Was it injured? Was it a young eagle or a huge hawk? Why was it still there?

Anthony parked on the narrow roadside and walked toward the bird. It flapped its wings, but stayed. Anthony got close, but decided he didn’t want to scare it into the road. We called for animal assistance, but later learned it had flown before they got there.

A friend at the Farm Sanctuary identified it as a large red-tailed hawk with wet feathers fluffed to dry. My husband Vic’s totem had been a red-tailed hawk—and Virginia was his mother.

“That’s your totem now,” I said to Anthony. He’d noticed the hawk first. He’d gotten close and snapped the photo. Later that day, Anthony signed a contract for a new job which marked a big turn in his life. The hawk felt related to his life transition and grandmother’s death.

So much didn’t need to be said. There was no resentment or anger left to express. Only fatigue. We didn’t rehash old wounds or resentments. We’d worked it all through. Like the rushing waterfall, all had been cleansed and washed away in the flow of time.

Thank you, Virginia, for being a powerful and persistent teacher for most of my life. Thank you for softening toward me in your last years. Thank you for teaching me lessons I’m only beginning to understand. Peace be with you.

****

Do you create personal rituals for those who’ve died? Do you have a set way of doing this within a religious tradition? We have a personal style, but the next day I went to Immaculate Conception Church and arranged to have masses said for Virginia. It’s one of the few things she requested. Her second request, to have her ashes buried near her son, will come later when the family gathers together. For a post about saying goodbye to Virginia the day before her death, see When Death is a Gentle Gift. For a post about creating healing ritual many years after a death, see Six Ways to Invite Love to a Death Anniversary.

31 Comments
  1. Lovely, dear Elaine, thank you. I look forward to a walk with you sometime after this weekend.

    • Thank you, Peggy. I’m tired and still dealing with the last details, but we’re all relieved she had a gentle exit from her long life.

  2. This post pulses with sweet touches of kindness and loving rituals. And because you laid to rest the pain and reentment a while ago, all that remained was honoring Virginia in death. “So much didn’t need to be said” – That’s a line I’ll remember for a long, long time.

    I honor your example, Elaine, a clarion call to those readers who still harbor bitterness and remorse. Anthony couldn’t have a better example. I applaud you, Elaine.

    Anthony’s a good marksman, getting that hawk up close and personal. I’m happy for him and his new job too. Death and rebirth, it’s all here! 🙂

    • Thank you, Marian. It was lovely to have one son with me for this saying goodbye. We’ll all gather sometime to bury her ashes near her son as she requested. I’m relieved I stayed until there was no more resentment or anger. Did she finally understand I wouldn’t desert her? I don’t know. Somehow in the mysterious ways of family, peace was reached.

      When Anthony drove down the recently flooded lake road, I was oblivious to that hawk. Anthony pointed it out and I saw it through the rear window. I’m glad I encouraged him to drive back for a second look. He took the photo. A friend at the Farm Sanctuary where injured animals (domestic and wild) are cared for near here said a hawk will fluff feathers like that in extremely wet weather–like that day. It was still odd to see such a large bird perched a few feet from the road. At least some of Anthony’s changes are clear. Now I’m mostly tired but that will change, too. Everything has a way of changing–sometimes too slow according to us and sometimes too fast. We’re not in charge.

      • Such a blessed letting go…love you

        • Yes, a letting go as I finish the last and seemingly endless paperwork required by Social Security. Now I know it isn’t endless, but of course nothing is. It just feels that way. The last Monarch hatched today and will fly tomorrow. Another letting go. Sending love back to you.

  3. Beautiful, Elaine.

  4. How lovely to have those final moments Elaine and for Anthony to be with you. Though of course there are still the masses to be said and sung. What a journey it’s been for you all, including Virginia. May her soul rest in peace.

    Also the happening of the hawk – makes me think of wetness and dryness, flight and groundedness. I’d be so delighted to have seen such a symbol.

    • Susan, I haven’t asked Anthony questions about the hawk after our first discussion about it. He was away getting training for his new job. There will be time to talk about these things, but I’ll let him lead the way since I feel the hawk image was important for him. My sons and I are trying to let this change sink in.

      I was delighted by the hawk and a sense of purposeful visitation–the way Vic saw a large hawk just after my mother died. (I was in Canada at a Marion Woodman workshop when my mother died and couldn’t get back in time.) Hawks were so important to Vic–although not Virginia who wasn’t much interested in nature unless it was edible. I’m used to seeing hawks soar and had never seen such a large one up close in the wild.

  5. Dear Elaine, Thank you for sharing your tender, personal and intimate words and images with us. I love the beautiful, freshly cut, bouquet of flowers you placed with Virginia, the wooden cross and some of her favourite foods. The white blanket looks soft and comforting. Such love and soothing care brought a tear to my eye. Sweet touches of kindness that make all the difference when a loved one departs this life … swathing Virginia with such peace, love and the fragrance of forgiveness. You have honoured her life and death so beautifully.

    And then the red-tailed hawk puts in his appearance and the tears steadily flow. A time of great transition, for you too my dear friend. With your heart softened, bathed and washed clean, Mary Oliver’s profound word’s … “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” comes to mind. You were born to write Elaine so maybe there’s a second book now waiting in the wings? (I do hope so!) Thank you for being who you are and for doing what you do … you’re my inspiration and spurs! Love and light, Deborah.

    • Thank you, Deborah. I did my best to honor Virginia for the sake of my sons and also for me. Bringing things to full closure and honoring all she taught me about forgiveness and persistence and dealing with anger without running. The hawk was an incredible exclamation point. Virginia was close to her grandsons, especially when they were younger. Recently, David tried to help from a distance but there came a point when she wasn’t interested in the phone. Anthony helped by visiting her since he moved to this area last year and he watched her rising and falling until she didn’t rise again.

      About writing: I have a Jung workshop coming up in May 2017 in Columbus Ohio about Aging, Grief, and Mythology. I was focused on writing about that rich material before Virginia’s last days and will find that focus again. I have an afternoon workshop coming up in November about ritual and the lessons of grief. I’ll let life settle and see what calls me. I’ve submitted many articles in recent months–one accepted and the others pending. Is there a book in my future? I hope so, but I’m not sure. First rest. Sending love and light back your way.

  6. Thank you for providing a loving goodbye to Aunt Virginia. I wish her peace and will miss her, especially when we are playing 31 or gathered together eating our raisin meatballs. How she touched our lives cannot be truly measured. She was a vivacious, spirited woman who both made me laugh and cry. I love her and will miss her.

    • Catherine, I appreciate your comment and also the card you sent acknowledging my dedication to her at times when she resented me deeply. I know you and Andrea were close to Virginia, and Connie, too, and she loved you. She was playful with David and Anthony, especially when they were young, but she only stopped pushing at them about great grandchildren the last year. She wanted babies. You gave her that experience. She had long days of sleeping before her death, but also a few hours here and there of happiness. She enjoyed the music at the nursing home and told me so many times how much she liked living there (true!) since everyone was so nice to her.

      Just two weeks before her death, I asked her again if she wanted her ashes buried next to Benny (her 2nd husband for others reading this), but she was clear. “No, I want my ashes near Vic.” She didn’t want a big deal made of her death and didn’t want a formal funeral mass, but asked to have her name mentioned during mass at a time when they pray for the sick and dead. I arranged for that to happen a few times. I’m glad I thought of Last Rites because she hadn’t mentioned it. Somehow I thought she’d be comforted. I hope she was. She rejected the church after Vic’s death, but in her last 8 months, I talked her into allowing visits from the priest. I thought it was good for her to make peace with her religious roots.

    • Catherine, I just realized the card I received was from Andrea and not you. I just went through cards to put them away and realized my error. Thanks so much for your comment here. Virginia was often rough on me, but I appreciated her ability to stay connected with family and old friends.

  7. Thank you, Elaine. This is inspiring. I’m moved by your honest, gracious treatment of a woman who gave you such a hard time throughout your adult life. And touched by the beautiful synchronicity of Anthony’s red-tailed hawk. You are giving your sons a legacy of humility and respect that will serve them well throughout their lives. And in sharing this you provide a healing alternative to the bitter callousness of our times. With deep appreciation, Jeanie

    • Thank you, Jeanie. We’re making this up as we go along. I knew what Virginia wanted and what she didn’t want, so I went from there. My sons and I were relieved she was able to leave her long life without days or months of suffering. She was so tenacious that we thought she’d cling and fight, but quite suddenly, her vitality ended. She stopped eating, drinking, or speaking. She didn’t gasp or struggle and was able to mouth words and knew us as she gently faded a few days and then went into deep sleep. I’m glad my son was able to see that kind of death. May we all reach a place where we practice forgiveness rather than clinging to bitterness. Like you, I believe it’s a better path, even when it’s steep.

  8. Lovely, Elaine, including the hawk. Do you think it might have been a visitation from Vic? Perhaps a thank you for caring for his mother so long and so well.

    • Thank you, Annie. The hawk was unusually large with feathers fluffed out in a way I hadn’t seen before–and it didn’t fly away when my son approached which was odd behavior and made us think it might be injured–although there was no sign of injury. There is some deep connection between the hawk, Vic, my son, and Vic’s mother’s death, but I let these things remain in the Mystery. Because of my Jungian perspective, I’d use the word synchronicity to describe the experience, but the word still doesn’t explain the Mystery. I haven’t asked my son about the experience because he was away training for his new job. Now that he’s had time to reflect, I’ll ask him more when the time is right.

  9. Virginia went out like the Grand Prix. A beautiful goodbye Elaine. It’s funny how we think about some things about a person close to us when they’re alive and then start to have reassessed feelings after they’re gone from things we took for granted, things we didn’t like, and a life lesson from the shared relationship. <3

    • Many years ago when Virginia was being particularly outrageous and aggressive, I said to my sons, “We’ll tell stories about this later and laugh.” So here we are. She was one tough cookie with a great sense of humor in earlier years–and she was fierce and judgmental, especially toward me. She softened in her last years but then required constant attention and care. Even when others were doing the hands-on care-giving, someone had to watch over them. I talked with every nurse and the social worker in her nursing home when the dying process began to make sure no one would send her to the hospital or disturb her obvious peace. Comfort care only. Hospice style. They got it, but I was still making sure.

  10. Elaine, There is so much about this post that is healing for heart and soul. The story of the red-tailed hawk, alone, is magical and synchronistic, and then there are layers upon layers of beauty in your forgiveness, honesty, and deep caring. And, of course, the moments of humor regarding the Grand Prix celebration and Burt Reynolds were a sprinkling of delight. Thank you for sharing it all so generously.

    • Thank you, Anne. My family is good at weeping and laughing at the same time. The hawk was the crowning moment. I picked up her ashes yesterday, so a burial ritual will happen next time both my sons and I are together. No plans. It will be a quiet gathering our woodland cathedral of big oak trees.

  11. Thank you for this gentle post. Your generous spirit shines brightly.

    • Thank you, Janet. I’ve been generous, especially in recent years. I’ve also complained a lot for a long time, but in the end I knew I had to heal the wounds and stop being reactive. It’s nice to be without regret in the most challenging relationship of my life.

  12. May you be blessed with serenity and also with powerful new energy that hawk wants to bring you!

    • Thank you, Shirley. May it be so. I believe (but don’t know) that hawk was my son’s image. He’s been right there for his dad’s death and now his grandma’s. I came home after our ritual and released a Monarch butterfly (“Precious Transformer” in preHispanic Toltec language). Yesterday after releasing my last of the season (90-95 total), I saw 6 or 7 in the field, so my straggler will join the caravan. I first saw my first Monarch on June 17 this year and have been collecting, nurturing, feeding, watching, and admiring them since then. Before that, the bluebirds.

  13. Beautiful, Elaine. Sharing it in my social media. Sending blessings, B.

    • Thanks so much, Barbara. I appreciate your kindness. I’m giving a talk and workshop on grief at a senior living center in a few weeks. One hour will be devoted to a grief ritual because it’s so helpful no matter what the loss or how long it’s been.

  14. I think your honoring your departed loved one in ways she enjoyed is so very special, not only to her. But in your own healing. She appreciates it too.
    The presence of a large bird is significant also.
    I had a sweetheart who departed in 2003. He claimed to be a nonbeliever. I never tried to change him. I saw love in his spirit.
    When the funeral home came & picked him up for cremation, a huge pileated woodpecker appeared high in the trees.
    He was letting me know that he’s fine, and by having such a large bird, he affirmed that he is larger than life, and death.
    Thank you for your inspiration. Please keep it going.

    • Thank you for your kind and generous thoughts and for sharing a little of your story, Clara. My husband and I experienced powerful death rituals in India, sometimes Hindu, sometimes Buddhist, and occasionally Christian. We brought those memories home. My community helped me and my sons give my husband a meaningful send-off 10 years ago and, this time, we did the same for his mother. Yes, the hawk felt very significant.

      People often tell me of bird experiences after the death of someone they love. Ancient mythology is filled with birds as symbols of spirit. Your words about your husband remind me of the Dalai Lama saying, “Kindness is my Religion.” I think that’s the most important quality a person can have. I imagine your husband is still very alive within you as mine is within me.

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