Grief Rituals Keep Our Family Love Alive

“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.

David lifts the heavy boulders with graceful ease.  As he balances the stones, I watch his gentle hands caress the granite as though it’s his father’s warm body.

***

On Saturday, after my sons shop for groceries, David calls.

“Want me to pick you up and drive you to Anthony’s?” David asks.

“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.

Vic 1991

***

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.

 

23 Comments
  1. Dear Elaine,

    Your post today is inspiring me to sit down a pen a short poem in honour of my mother. Writing is ritual for me and the main way in which I record the events of my life. At present I’m re-reading Marion Woodman’s incredible “Bone” memoir which suits my low-energy, reflective mood as I attempt to experience her death as a passage into a new frequency … for I know I won’t be free until I allow this overwhelming sadness to pass through me.

    Following my mother’s death, a decision was made (not by me) to have no funeral … apparently my father was too upset. I have other theories; still, I did have the funeral directors info so I contacted them and drove over last Friday as I wanted one of my poems to be placed in her hands, over her heart. And so her body and my words were cremated together yesterday afternoon … and I’m so glad I have this ritual to remember.

    Your photos are wonderful, as always! I love hearing all about how you spent your family time spent together, the cooking, the cairn-ing and most of all, the family love. What joy it must’ve been for you as a mother to be together with both your sons after all those months apart … and how happy your hounds must’ve been too! I can just imagine all those wagging tails! That yellow lid, beyond words. Wow! Love that garden glitter-ball too!

    Sending much love and light across the oceans and oaks between us, Deborah. Hmm, I’m off now to start scribbling a new poem …

    • I LOVE the poem you wrote for your mother, dear Deborah. Writing is another form of ritual for me, too, but I’m not an inspired poet so I need to create many kinds of ritual. As you know, any time is a good time to honor our grief and sadness. This is my season of grief rituals as the Lupines bloom and I think of Vic as I walk through the fields of purple flowers. I don’t any reason to stop the love that comes through with the longing.

      I’m also re-reading Bone, but not quite yet. I’m grappling with Meniere’s Disease struggles and my dream therapist recommended I go back to that book. (She’s also a lover of Marion Woodman.) First, I’m finishing ‘When Women Were Birds’ by Terry Tempest Williams (about mother-daughter legacy and much more) and ‘Bone’ is next–for the second time, but I was younger when I last read it and struggled much less with my body.

      How wise of you to have your poem placed in your mom’s hands for cremation. The ultimate and most meaningful ritual of all as I remember putting things in Vic’s cremation box with my son David.

      It was wonderful being with my sons. Because of Meniere’s, I need lots of quiet energy and they have big action, stay up late energy, so we did wonderfully well having two houses. They could stay up late together while I was home snoozing with the dogs. The yellow lid overwhelmed me. I’ll have to ask Anthony if he’s had that for 13 years or if he found it in my cellar. I cherish every note Vic wrote on paper or in a book. He wrote a lot of margin notes in whatever he was reading. About oaks: we have an invasion of gypsy moth caterpillars and they love oaks. So far, only minimal damage, but the caterpillars are still small. Tell your oaks that my oaks need underground, underwater, through the air support. I look forward to your new poem and send you warm mother love, Elaine

      • Thank you so much Elaine for your warm, loving reply! I’ve made a note of the other book you mention and will no doubt add it to my ever growing wish-list. “Bone” is the perfect book for me during this time. I’m about half way through for the second time. It feels a different read from the first time I read it around nine years ago.

        Thank you once again for sharing your memories, love and wisdom with us. I always look forward to seeing what you’re working on and where your heart is at, alongside news of your beloved Monarchs returning and where they’re taking you creatively. When I first saw the yellow lid, I thought what a great metaphor for the sun it was.

        • Our impossibly long to-read lists will never run out of material. I’ll begin “Bone” tonight for a second reading. The Milkweed is here and we had a good rain, so it looks healthy and succulent. No Monarchs so far, but they usually arrive in early June. They need a south wind to ride north and migration has been slow in the Eastern United States. I’m counting on them for my summer writing project.

          Yes, you’re right about the lid. A good symbol for Father Sun. Anthony is coming over to help with a few things in the garden this afternoon, so I’ll have a chance to ask him how long he’s had that yellow orb and what it means to him.

  2. There is SO much to notice here – and to love – but what stands out for me are the hands: David’s kind hands, Vic’s fingers joined at the tips, and your “victory” sign.

    I notice also that your sons want to make a Mother’s Day meal for you, just the two of them, but you participate too as sous chef because “your family always cooks together.” Sweet!

    My sisters and I always remember birthdays of those who have gone before: Mother, Aunt Ruthie, and brother Mark, gone too soon. Just last week I texted my sisters that our Dad would have been 106 years old on May 17. And stories: When we gathered in April, there were stories, another way families are knit together and keep the love (and the memories) alive.

    I was hoping you would write about your Mother’s Day reunion. And here it is! Thank you so much. Precious Memories: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMYqsfbZHqk

    To remember is to honor . . . the best thing we can do.

    • I responded and then made a mistake and lost it. It’s that kind of morning. I’m so glad you noticed those hands, Marian. I hadn’t noticed that and love it.
      For the sake of physical intimacy, I wanted to stand between my sons and chop vegetables rather than sit across the room. I’m sure you understand that, too. There were so many stories to tell and so much laughter and no complaints about delicious food. “To remember is to honor.” Thank you for these true words.

      I haven’t been to my son’s home in NC for 3 years as I first recovered from the Cochlear Implant and then the pandemic came. I hope the world will settle again and it will feel OK to fly there in the fall. Right now, I’m eagerly waiting for Monarchs but haven’t seen them yet. The milkweed just arrived and that comes first. With love and remembrance.

  3. The memories, the lovely memories! These are the worthiest ever, my dearest Elaine. I am so happy for you all three gathered together and have a so lovely moment full of memories.
    I actually have such a big family, but Al and I have separated ourselves from all of them after our mother’s death. Therefore, I can only keep my griefs and memories by myself. Anyway, as I look at your sons with you, I feel trust and a loving connection. It is wonderful. Thank you so much, dear friend, for sharing these moments here with us.
    PS: Here I see that we’ve lost our loving ones in the same month: June.

    • Aladin, did you have other siblings besides Al? I’m guessing cousins and aunts and uncles. I know you and Al were so close and you were also close to your mother. I had a small family with just one brother, but his wife doesn’t keep in contact since his death. I’m grateful for my sons and that I have a strong community here.

      I feel protected by both my sons and they try hard to help with my hearing struggles. We manage well because they’re willing to slow down and let me read their lips and talk one at a time. That’s love for two energetic guys who love talking and music. The music is also turned off when I’m around and I don’t have to ask–unless it’s a party. Anthony is a musician and I can hear his music remarkably well because it’s electronically based dance music. I was grateful Vic died in June because the earth was exquisite and made me know life could become beautiful again. Thanks for your loving comment.

      • I have another brother, (separated by father) Soroush, who is still living in Iran but mostly spends his time with his daughters, in the Us or Canada. As you said, Al and I were very close to each other because Soroosh is about eleven years older than me, and after our mother married our father, he was sent to Mashhad, a town in western Iran, to grow up at our aunt.
        However, Al and I had a chosen solitude, which remains forever. I always thank you, my dearest Elaine, for your wisdom and kindness. Have a leisurely weekend.

        • Now I know a little more about your family history, Aladin. So much grief in most families. I’m glad you had Al and I’m sorry he isn’t still here physically to be with you and share wisdom and kindness. The world is a harsh place and you’ve had experiences I can’t begin to imagine in my protected world. May there be healing and more healing.

  4. Elaine, this is so heartfelt and beautiful. You have found so many ways to live and create and share the symbolic life with your family. What an extraordinary gift you’ve given them. Their ritual for Vic and for you must have been completely soul-satisfying! I’m so happy for you that you have their full support and love! What a good mama you must have been and are to them!!! Thank you for sharing this with us. It’s so inspiring. Love, Jeanie

    • Jeanie, you have to love that jar lid! It was the best, along with David’s hands rebuilding Vic’s cairn.
      Anthony always finds a way to bring light-hearted laughter to a ritual and they’re both great cooks and gardeners, so we ate royally. David and Anthony are in strong inner contact with their dad and we love to tell the old stories, including some where Vic and I were not stellar parents. Ah, our human imperfection. I’m glad we could hold family together after Vic’s death and build even stronger trust for each other.

  5. Thank you, dear Elaine, for sharing these warm connections … with Vic, with David and Anthony, with rocks, with your dogs, with creating delicious food, with understanding space and needs and especially with tender evocative ritual. May the lupin seeds you scattered with Vic continue to bring real joy.

    • Thank you, Catherine. The lupines began blooming this week and usually bloom for about 3 weeks. They’ll be at peak to honor Vic’s death date. I’m grateful my sons are joining me in ritual with enthusiasm–and with their own additions, stories, and sense of humor.

  6. Beautiful ceremonies in remembrance of your beloved Elaine. As a ‘new widow’ I’m just finding my way around this journey of grief. I speak to my husband like he’s still here with me. I light candles, meditate, and reading many books on how to deal with this unbearable journey. I hope in time I’ll find my ritual. <3

    • I’m sad your heart aches, Debby. This is a hard experience. It helped me to talk to women who had survived this and eventually to find a bereavement group which I didn’t think I’d like–but I did. I talk to Vic a lot, including complaining that he’s not here to help me with something as silly as getting a tight lid off a jar. I send him love constantly. It sounds to me as though you’re finding your ritual by doing what comes most natural to you. My main ritual for the first months was walking, walking, and walking more while muttering mantra to myself and observing the beauty of nature, including the intense colors just before Her winter sleep. Blessings to you and may you be surrounded by support.

      • Thank you so much Elaine. Yes, I tell my husband several times a day how much I love him. It somehow makes me feel we’re still connected. <3

        • I think we’re forever connected by love–even though it’s so painful to be separated in body. Sending you a circle of comfort.

  7. Elaine, your post on the beautiful ritual you share with your boys came at the right time, yet again. We lost our Josie dog a month ago. The lymphoma reappeared with a vengance, it overwhelmed her. She bravely stayed with us as long as she could, then one evening she told me that she was ready to go. How terrible lymphoma is, I’m so sorry your family has had it as an unwelcome visitor.
    She peacefully left us with a sigh of release, we knew it was right. We build her a heart made of little stones on the backyard and I’m rooting a pussy willow tree to plant there. Since her death we’ve all had dreams of her. In mine she was running happily greeting visitors at the door. My little girl dreamt of her two mornings ago and woke calling for her. My husband and sister have seen her too. Her happy little soul has visited up on the way.
    We’ll be having speghetti and meatballs every August 18 in honor of her adoption day. These actions are practices for our hearts. When I make my Grandmother’s fried chicken, play dominoes or make a mistake knitting, or find the scent of vanilla tobacco, my heart aches for those who have gone then grows stronger and more full. They are with me, helping me along. Thank you again, Elaine. Your timing is always perfect.

    • Betsy, our first intentional family grief ritual was for our dog Leo. It helps so much to remember them in these ways. Leo is buried out near my garden. Since Vic’s death, a few dogs have joined his ashes in the forest. I’m glad this was helpful. It was helpful for me to be with both my sons for the first time in 8 months and to remember together. I have a 12 year old dog now and she’s showing her age. My younger dog will be lost without her but I won’t know how to help until we get there. Blessings to all the dogs who teach us how to die with grace. Thanks for letting me know this post came at the right time.

  8. What a beautiful entry, Elaine, on so many levels. And, like many have already commented, the hands are what jumped out at me. I was especially captivated by the photo of David’s strong hands gently balancing the boulders, along with your comment, “I watch his gentle hands caress the granite as though it’s his father’s warm body.”

    I am thinking of you and sending blessings on Vic’s death day, imagining you and the dogs visiting the cairn that has been recently built, with the lupines in full bloom. Writing that brought to mind the lines from Mark Nepo’s poem “Adrift”:

    “Everything is beautiful and I am so sad. This is how the heart makes a duet of wonder and grief.”

    • Thank you, Anne. I also loved the photo of David’s strong gentle hands the most. Thank you for thinking of me. Yesterday, I walked out to Vic’s cairn, created an altar with Lupines and stones, read a few of our favorite poems, and sang “Let It Be.” I LOVE the Mark Nepo quote. I’ll look up the poem. I’ve known for a long time that beauty and wonder do a lot to help me endure sadness. Blessings to you on these spring days. I have 4 Monarch caterpillars and 3 more unhatched egg but haven’t seen one Monarch butterfly. One impregnated female obviously flew through one of my Monarch patches, maybe on her way north. I only found eggs in one area and haven’t found new eggs on the underside of Milkweed leaves for a few days. More Monarchs should be here soon, but even if only 1 of my 7 eggs is a female, she’ll lay 300 – 500 eggs and start the season earlier than usual.

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