“I love you, David,” I say when my North Carolina son arrives on Thursday night. Because of the pandemic, I haven’t seen him for 8 months, so I wrap my arms around him and press my cheek into his warm solid chest. His beard tickles my forehead.
We share a bowl of minestrone soup and discuss weekend plans. Both my sons want to create a family ritual to honor my husband and their dad’s death nearly 13 years ago.
“Let’s walk to Dad’s cairn,” David says the next morning. With our five dogs, we amble down a woodland path toward the red oak where we built a monument of shale and granite a few months after Vic’s death. The cairn held strong until a strong ice and wind storm toppled it this past winter.
On Saturday, after my sons shop for groceries, David calls.
“Sure,” I say. Anthony lives only three miles from me, but it’s a luxury to ride together.
Anthony and David will cook a Mother’s Day dinner, but we’re combining Mother’s Day with a ritual for Vic’s death day which is June 3. This works for me, since David is visiting and my wedding anniversary is May 18. We’ll remember all of it together.
It’s cool and misty as we walk through Anthony’s gardens to his do-it-yourself greenhouse shelter where he’s set up chairs and a whimsical altar.
Vic’s prayer beads circle the neck of a giraffe statue. Next to the giraffe, a red toy tractor kept since childhood reminds us how these guys adored riding on the tractor with their daddy. Vic also loved elephants so Anthony places a wooden one on the altar, plus a yellow plastic lid with Vic’s handwriting: “Decaf F (as in French) Roast.” A thirteen-year-old jar lid takes on significance when we know the person who wrote it won’t write another. Finally, Anthony lines up three votive candles.
As we light our candles, we speak of how much has changed in the thirteen years since Vic died, how present he still is, and how we feel his love. We end with laughter and stories. When Anthony speaks of an inner message he received from his dad, I weep. We all weep.
How grateful Vic would be for our sons who aren’t afraid of tenderness and can be relied on to support me and each other–even if we sometimes irritate each other just like every other family. After 13 years, ritual helps us remember our missing fourth and strengthens the power of love.
As the sky darkens, we walk to Anthony’s cabin where my sons prepare vegetables and fish to grill. They want to cook for me, but our family always cooks together, so I ask for a cutting board and a knife. The three of us prepare the meal, fill our plates, and sit together to share a feast. The day’s finale is this sunset.
I don’t give my sons advice about cooking, ritual, or prayers. I don’t run outside to pick flowers for the table. I let them lead the way and, more than ever before, this ritual gathering is ours, not mine.
Do you create shared rituals long after a family member has died? Are some family members shy about showing their feelings? As my sons get older, I notice I don’t have to encourage shared remembrance anymore. They miss their dad, too, and like sharing their memories, but our rituals are more whimsical and less serious, so there’s a sense of transformation and healing.
For other posts about family grief rituals, see A Ritual for the Seventh Season of Grief. You might also be interested in How to Create a Sacred Grief Ritual Many Years After a Loss.