Grief is a sacred journey

How to Create a Sacred Grief Ritual Many Years after a Loss

“For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.”     ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

June 3, 2018 marks a decade since my husband died.  It’s been 52 years since we met and 50 years since our wedding day on May 18, 1968. Despite passing time, the memories of our life together are as close as my heart.

Why don’t I let it go and try to forget? I don’t want to forget. I want to honor our time together and the staying power of love.

Grief is the way love feels now.

Creating Ritual Alone

Cairn is behind the oak tree in the photo above.

I wrote Vic a love letter on our Golden Wedding anniversary and shared what’s happening in our family, including our painful watch over his mother who is 102 and suffering. Sharing the news might include love and longing, but also unhealed wounds. In a private letter, we can share it all. What would you write?

That evening, I picked lilacs and cherry blossoms and walked to the forest. After placing flowers on Vic’s cairn, I wrapped the bark of his favorite red oak with a wide yellow ribbon and tucked purple lilacs in the bow. Tears dripped on the pages as I read my letter out loud, my words co-mingling with the woodland bird symphony.

My letter included a scrumptious love poem by Deborah Gregory called “The Goddess and Her Green Man.” It also included lyrics of a Willie Nelson song sent by our old friend Rufus Diamant: “It’s Something You Get Through.” My tears were messengers of Love.

… love is bigger than us all
The end is not the end at all

It’s not somethin’ you get over
But it’s somethin’ you get through.

Creating Ritual with Family or Friends

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Vic’s tenth death anniversary next week, our son Anthony and I will visit Vic’s cairn together. Lupines along the trail will shout their purple joy the way they did the day Vic died. I’m sure we’ll pick a few to take to the cairn. I’ll choose a poem. Anthony will add his own ideas. Everything is welcome, including humor and good stories. We’ll share it all in an alchemical mix of tears and gratitude.

A ritual pause that day will help me notice the beauty surrounding me. Swallowtails will sip the Dame’s Rockets. I’ll notice the moss growing green on hard stone near Vic’s cairn. I’ll open my feelings in a sacred space strong enough to contain it all. Despite life’s losses and disappointments, I’ll remember beauty, gratitude, and love.

How could you honor your love and turn a grief anniversary into a sacred day? I hope ritual will soften the sharp edges and open your heart to love. I hope you’ll remember the precious briefness of our time on earth. I hope you’ll include regrets, resentments, and lingering conflicts since these are part of grieving, too.

Vic’s oak in NC on David and Liz’s wedding day

In North Carolina, our son David and his wife Liz will create a ritual under a massive spreading oak they call “Vic’s tree.” Our family plans another woodland ritual for Vic in late July when all of us will gather here. It’s about remembering, not the timing. We want to honor the man who loved us well and taught us how to live and die.

If you’re new at creating ritual, there is no perfect way to honor grief. It’s about intention and receptivity, not getting it right. A reading, a candle, a song, or a walk to a meaningful place. Trust your intuition. Do what’s meaningful to you.

No matter what you choose, remembrance soothes pain and invites sacredness into our lives. Ritual brings those we miss close to our hearts.

***

Playing dress-up with Vic in 2005

How do you honor the ones you miss? Along with tears, remembering brings abiding love and closeness with others who grieve. For many ideas about creating grief ritual over recent years, see my Grief Ritual Archives. They begin in 2012 when I started blogging, but I’ve created a yearly ritual since 2008. For an article about creating community ritual, in this case in a Unitarian Church, see We Are Not Alone: A Community Ritual of Remembrance.

27 Comments
  1. Dear Elaine, Thank you so much for gifting us more precious ways to share our sorrow and honour the memory of our loved ones with sacred grief rituals of remembrance. In a private letter, I would (attempt to) write the deepest truth of my feelings, the good, bad and the ugly of them … I wouldn’t hold back, mind, body, or spirit! I would write things that would be kept between me and my soul alone, and I wouldn’t be able to share my deepest thoughts and feelings with others for quite a while, if at all.

    The image of Vic’s garlanded tree is beautiful! I love the yellow ribbon that you tied ‘around the ole oak tree’ and what deep joy to think of it today, in ancient woodland, fluttering as another did 50 years ago. The flowers are truly gorgeous! Love is much stronger than death, for when my own soulmate dies, I too will be unable let go … I knew this from the moment we first met … in a doorway of all places … hmm, there’s another love poem waiting in the wings! “Love is bigger than us all!” Such a perfect song!

    Your poetic words, cherished photos, Rilke and Nelson’s words and music all honour Vic, your beloved Green Man and turn your 10th anniversary into sacred time. On 18th May I happened to be out walking in the afternoon when I spied a gorgeous oak which I hugged and sent you my love and prayers to celebrate and honour your golden day. Trees are so special, last weekend we visited my wife’s parent’s tree which she planted after her mother died, both her parents ashes are now resting beneath.

    Thank you for teaching me the importance of dreams, most especially on grief journeys. This week I’m starting a new (Jungian themed) book and will let you know if it’s good. It’s called, “By Grief Transformed: Dreams and the Mourning Process” by Susan Olson. It’s described as a book of love and mystery! You may have come across it already, although it’s only two reviews online, it sounds promising. Lastly, may Vic’s spirit soar and kiss your heart from beyond! Warm and wild blessings, Deborah.

    • Ah, Deborah, you say so well the reason I didn’t share my Golden Anniversary letter. It was a love letter, but too personal to share and made me feel too vulnerable. It’s exquisite you met your love on a doorway–a meeting on the threshold between the two worlds of before and after. Yes, another poem.

      Thank you for hugging an oak for Vic and me–old treehuggers that we were and I still am. I’m now feeling with his coming death anniversary as my fields fill with lupine blossoms and remind me that life is cyclic and beautiful. My dreams refer specifically to this coming death day anniversary ritual as a healing experience counteracting the parts of me that are driven and tense. (Who me?) I have Susan Olson’s book, Deborah. It didn’t make a big impression, but the time might not have been right. Let me know what you think.

      I’m on page 225 of your book ‘A Liberated Sheep in a Post Shepherd World. The next poem is called “Soul.” I began at the beginning and have followed your poetic journey for many months now. Sometimes I read a few poems before coming to a stopping place. Sometimes only one fills me. I’ve marked some I want to read again and again and will talk to you about those when I’ve read everything.

      • Thank you so much Elaine for following the journey of my poems from girlhood to midlife. At times, like many a writer I’m sure, I sit down and wonder why I didn’t fill in more gaps, why I left out golden moments, but at the time they were not the ones that pressed so firmly on my heart, or perhaps they pressed a little too hard. All I know is this, everything leads to the opening and sharing and warmth of one’s heart. What an extraordinary healing journey your words and images provide for you … and for us your most fortunate readers! I’ll let you know my thoughts re Olson’s book, I’m up to chapter 3, “Incomprehensible Things.”

  2. Cliff and I met in a doorway too!

    I love thresholds, lavender lupines, lilacs, and oaks. I don’t like goodbyes, something I have had to do too often lately.

    As you mention, love is bigger than us all, enveloping us in its radiance that lasts, and lasts, and lasts. Your lovely rituals prove it so, matched by those of your sons, separately perhaps but with similar sentiments.

    This post made me wonder what ritual I can create for my brother Mark. Hmmmm . . .
    Thank you, Elaine!

    • I love that you’re thinking of a ritual for Mark. Why am I not surprised, Marian? I hope this post will help readers imagine rituals that are more personal, more sacred, and more meaningful. Also rituals that are repeated and acknowledge that we don’t forget just because it’s been 5 or 10 years. You have strong traditions from the past to feed and support your soul and imagination. I was raised in loose connection with the Presbyterian Church. My family rarely went to church, but I often attended alone until I was a teenager. It’s not surprising that the first numinous ritual I remember was at a summer church camp when we sang hymns outside during a glorious sunset.

  3. Elaine, You will have to read me some of Deborah’s poems when I come. Love your writing and her response.

    –”Grief is the way love feels now”. How powerful. It makes love so broad, encompassing, able to hold everything.
    –We are brought into your woods so vividly with all it’s vitality and beauty. What a sacred place. And when disappointment and gratitude are held together in the way you express it, I feel like I can rest. Your big heart is so open.
    –The bridge you build from here to the other side by your attention and holding of Vic so tenderly, through time, seems so “right” –not a word I particularly like.

    As always with your words, I am left feeling touched, open to my own feelings, and respectful of your never ending willingness to look at what is in front of you and lean into it. Thanks for all your strength and inquisitive imagination.

    • I look forward to your visit, Lauren, and to reading some of Deborah’s poems together. Of course, we’ll walk to Vic’s cairn a few times because the trails lead there. Vic loved you like the sister he never had and you were with us at his death and during so much of his illness. Besides that, you always made him laugh. Yes, grief is the way love feels now. It isn’t scary or overwhelming or threatening. It just is. I recently read that if we don’t feel grief right now, all of us, even those without a personal loss, we aren’t paying attention to what’s happening in our world and to nature. As I see with you and your work tending and organizing others to take care of the Pacific beaches and water, grief energizes us to do things we wouldn’t have imagined.

      David told me an experience he had a few days ago while tending “Vic’s tree.” We laughed. Was it Vic sending a message? Was it coincidence? It doesn’t matter because Vic is present in all our hearts, especially this time of year when the lupines bloom. Thanks for your supportive words and love.

  4. This sounds like a beautiful ritual. I’m so glad it brings you comfort.

    • Thank you, Lydia. It was beautiful on May 18 and an entirely different ritual will be beautiful on Vic’s death day. Ritual works. At every community ritual I’ve led with 6 people or 40, simple rituals bring comfort. Acknowledging our grief brings us close to the heart and to each other.

  5. Thank you Elaine so much for this beautiful post. It touches me deeply. It’s lovely that there’s such bright colour and life in amongst the depth of feeling. I value ritual simple though it may be like eg lighting a candle with intention. Or placing or arranging flowers while thinking of someone.

    • Thank you in return, Susan. The lupines are blooming strong this year and in new places in the fields. My son and I will do something on Sunday in the forest. Beyond including lupines, we have no set plan, although I’m thinking of a few favorite poems. Silence works, too.

      Ritual can be simple and extremely powerful. I agree, it’s about intention. My son arranged a book reading and grief ritual for me with his friends in San Francisco at a nightclub where he often plays music. The group was larger and younger than usual. I read a few passages from my book and then we lit candles and said names of those we miss, as we placed our candles on a altar (table), one at a time. They didn’t want to stop, so fortunately I had many votive candles. Candles were lit for grandparents, dogs, lost dreams, moms, dads, friends, siblings, and many things that had died. It was deeply moving to watch so many show up with their willing hearts.

  6. Dear Elaine, I’m so grateful to have found your website via Network for Gratefulness Living. Your story is touching and the sentiments deeply moving. Not understanding the process of grief from an early age, and lacking appropriate skills, when my mother died I wanted to die too, and I was 61 years old, going through my third divorce at the same time. I was unable to sleep, lost and lonely, afraid to burn out my friends, so I isolated myself. I was saved by discovering the Grief Recovery Method, which is a time limited structured program with reading and writing assignments. Taking the actions outlined by that program gave me something specific to grab onto and that helped tremendously. I am active in a number of spiritual communities, but at that dark time, it seemed as if no loving or wise teachings could reach me. Sometimes grief is that way. For rituals, I light a candle in front of my loved ones’ photo, make tea in my grandmother’s teacups and buy a little of their favorite candy. I talk to them, thank them, I apologize to them, I shed tears and then I feel complete, until the next year, on their birthday or death anniversary. I now work with others, helping them through their grief using the same method that helped me. Bless your work. It is holy.

    • Thank you, Caroline. I love writing for A Network for Grateful Living and will submit more there. You may have read “Pushing Through.” My previous piece there, “When Gratitude Holds Hands with Grief” was popular. I’m partial to that piece if you haven’t read it. http://www.dailygood.org/story/1967/when-gratitude-holds-hands-with-grief-elaine-mansfield/

      I know a little about the Grief Recovery Method, but not a lot. I know for sure it helps many. I had a strong support system and wrote, walked for hours each day, and talked to close friends in my spiritual community and my adult sons. I agree that spirituality often can’t reach the darkest places of grief. I found Nature more helpful than meditation or reading spiritual works, except after some time I received great help from Pema Chodron’s CDs. I also had lots of people from my Jungian teacher Marion Woodman. I love the ritual you create because it’s so personal and meaningful to you. Your loved ones, your grandmother, favorite treats. And talking to them (that still goes on for me with my husband and brother) and thanking them and apologizing, too.

      I’ve become quite deaf and hearing aids only help so much now. (Another huge loss that began about 20 years ago but became much worse the last five years.) This keeps me focused on writing in grief work whereas it used to be more involved with leading bereavement groups. I still give talks and function well one-on-one, but group interactions are a challenge. So my body is demanding a focus on the written word.

      You are doing similar sacred work helping people survive grief and transform with it. Thank you for all you offer others. I’m glad you found me, too, and look forward to exploring your website this weekend.

  7. What a lovely ritual Elaine. So nice that your boys participate in this remembrance ritual as well. It’s beautiful how you keep the love alive with your Vic and share your heart and thoughts in the ritual. I’m sure he’s looking down on you. <3

    • Thanks Debby. I have no idea what Vic’s doing. Maybe wings and a glass of dry red wine? I create ritual to honor the gift of love and the pain of loss. Since there are many big anniversaries this year, lots of poems get read and candles lit. Since no one in my family or community of old friends forgets Vic or stops telling stories about him, a ritual transforms our longing to gratitude and makes us feel close to each other. In north India, the Tibetans put cigarettes or small bottles of whiskey on altars created for someone who liked those things. Maybe our altar needs a glass of red wine for Vic. If nothing else, we’ll laugh–a good thing to do anytime.

      • That’s beautiful Elaine. I love the idea of placing things of a departed loved on on an altar. Perhaps you should try the wine. 🙂

  8. Thank you, once again, Elaine, for sharing your hard-earned wisdom. I was especially moved by your words, “Grief is the way love feels now.” I just went back and reread “When gratitude holds grief”–it is filled with deep sorrow and beauty.

    My thoughts are with you and your family today as you honor your love with a new ritual.

    • Anne, yesterday felt like a sacred day. I left plenty of open space to be in nature with all my feelings. Grief, yes, but even more gratitude for life as it was and as it is now. One of my sons and I washed windows and cleaned the porches (including cobwebs). Those were always my husband’s jobs, so it was my son’s way of honoring his dad and giving a gift to me.

  9. Your response just made me smile, Elaine. Washing windows and clearing away cobwebs seem both sacred and profane! It sounds like a dream image to me.
    And I am inspired that you are able to hold gratitude for life, not only as it was, but as it is now. I wonder if the depth of your gratitude is related to the depth with which you allow yourself to feel grief.

    • It felt like a dream image to me, too, Anne, but this is the way my son who lives part time about 3 miles from me chose to honor his dad. Last week I was lamenting the dirty windows (with incredible view out them) and the messy porches. I said to my son as we were gardening, “Those were your dad’s jobs. He loved to sweep the porches and keep them cleaned off for sitting outside and he wanted to see out all those windows we put in to capture the views here. I just can’t keep up with it.” So he honored his dad and gave me a gift.

      Reading and re-reading Etty Hillesum’s ‘An Interrupted Life’ and her diaries taught me the practice of holding on to the good and beautiful at the darkest hour. She was a young Jewish woman in Amsterdam in the 1930s and 40s and was eventually killed in concentration camps. Her diaries were saved. They are a spectacular teaching for me. Then my mythology class studied Orpheus when my husband was sick and after his death. In “Sonnets to Orpheus,” Rilke shows the power of seeing both sides of experiences–the green moss growing on stones in a cemetery, for example. When stuck in a dark world of stem cell transplants, chemotherapy, and fear about a coming loss, I kept myself from sinking into depression by watching for beauty, love, kindness–a woman holding her aging mother’s hand during chemotherapy, the Amish family in the stem cell transplant, the way my husband took love as the most important spiritual practice and transformed stern doctors with his kindness (and jokes), the way light poured in through a window into a darkened room. There was always something. I’m grateful for Hillesum and Rilke.

      • I keep thinking about what a wonderful gift that was for your son to give you and, also, what a beautiful way to honor his dad.

        Etty Hillesum’s “An Interrupted Life” has been such a source of inspiration for me as well. I’ve only read a few poems by Rilke, and now, thanks to you, I’ve just ordered a copy of “Sonnets to Orpheus.”

        I wonder if those bluebird fledglings you mentioned in another thread have hung around at all. The barn swallows on our porch are still feathering their nest!

        • ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’ is dense and rich. It helped to go through it with my mythology class and work with one poem each time we met. We also painted an image from that poem, so I have 51 or 52 images–or as many as there are sonnets. It was a great way to bring the story of Orpheus home–the demigod who tried to fix grief and death but failed. The poems are not always associated with the myth in a direct way.

          I’m so glad you’ve been inspired by Etty Hillesum, too. I suggested the book for by book group and we read it, but they were a bit overwhelmed by her and the darkness of the last parts of the book. I found her inspiring, but my Jungian background probably helped me appreciate her.

          Five bluebirds fledged last week and saw the last two fly through my telescope. I just wrote about it and might post in a few weeks. The Meniere’s piece went up today. I cleaned out the box and the female decided to build again in the same spot which is unusual. So I watched her build a new nest last week. He’s guarding and she comes and goes, often spending a long time in the nest in the morning. I hope laying eggs. They lay one a day and begin incubating when the last egg is laid. I have two nesting boxes about 50 feet apart. Usually a tree swallow takes one and the bluebirds in the other. This year the swallows are in the box further from the house and they’re feeding the little ones now. Such beautiful feathers in those nests.

  10. Yow, a decade already, Elaine. Amazing. Even more amazing is Virginia, going on and on, 102 years.
    And you, with a decade of rituals. I’ve learned to love creating rituals too, and I look forward to them as my times of “being with” my loved ones. For some reason, these days my rituals seem to focus on fire and the sky. I seem to always be burning things, or sending things (lanterns, bubbles, ashes,…) up. Must have something to do with lifting my own spirits. It feels so good to be doing something, and doing something I know I’ll come back to and do over and over, over time. Still looking for perfectly beautiful poems that “fit.” Reading a poem aloud would make a very special part of a ritual but it has to fit. Working on that. But meanwhile, I love your words,”Grief is the way love feels now.” Thank you for this.

    • Nice. What I love most about ritual is it’s different every time–and if someone wants to make it the same every time, that’s OK, too. The poems I use change, but some come up repeatedly. It helps to pause and feel what I feel. The details seem to matter less. Fire feels universally basic to ritual, but I rarely build one outside. Maybe all the wood carrying chores and fire tending rituals to stay warm in the winter make me happy to light a candle. Thank you, Robin.

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