Sorrow, renewal and little altars

Earlier this week my friend asked me if she could share something she had been wanting to mention, but wasn’t sure I was ready to hear. Yes, I replied. I’m game. I’m good. She reminded me that as part of the loss I have experienced recently, I have lost being anyone’s daughter. Anyone on earth, that is. I acknowledged what she said, and it didn’t jar me in the moment. For after all, while I have always identified myself as my mom’s daughter, only daughter, in the recent past my position as daughter had often been augmented –overshadowed? – by that of caregiver. Less defined during this time, even though I frequently teased Mom about being my favorite mother, was my identification solely as daughter. No, it was not until later that evening after seeing this friend when I fielded a few group texts from friends mentioning upcoming plans for Mother’s Day did the reality set in. My God! It will be my first year not to have a mother to celebrate with. And I know, it is the first for many of my friends who have recently lost their own mother.

My brain naturally remembers back to my last Mother’s Day with Mom: 2020. Days that were among my most difficult prior to her death, mourning my inability to be near her during the pandemic’s early stages. As I searched for photos to remind me of that day, I located a video of the effort my brother, Mary and I made a few days ahead of the Big Day, planned because we weren’t sure we’d be able to provide a full “window visit” on Mother’s Day itself. Watching it now I do laugh, thankful to see Mom fully in the moment, laughing at her crazy kids and friend.

Prior to my reaching out to hospice earlier this year, a chaplain with Housecall Providers referred me to the book he read to Mom during his last visit with her. (Once Mom was transferred to the hospice side of Housecall Providers she was provided with a different nursing team and chaplain). He suggested that the book might speak to me as well. The synchronicity of this suggestion struck me soon after as I learned our dear friends were also reading it as they processed their loss, a loss that has also profoundly affected me, our family and community of friends.

Since then I have often recommended this book to others: The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief by Francis Weller. It is a book to take in small bits at a time, pages, not chapters, and for me with a highlighter. I imagine once I get to the back cover I will return to the beginning, rereading those marked up phrases and quotes. The book has been a perfect companion to my own method of processing grief, writing. Writing, an act I identified decades ago, but understood better after Dad’s passing, to be a remarkable way for me to process grief. Wild Edge of Sorrow has taken me beyond that. And now, designing my own mourning and renewal practices, I have a adopted a ritual. An altar for my own ritual of sorrow, renewal and release.

We are reminded how so many of us, while we mourn, are removed from lengthy and often community mourning practices that are commonly followed in many cultures. We may have a funeral or memorial service, though more difficult during the pandemic, and then assume our time of mourning to be completed. And yet, I expect most all of us have so much left to express. We need time to be sad and grieve. For, it is through grief that we find healing and gratitude. I was fortunate only a few years ago to travel to Thailand, with a visit to Laos, for work three springs in a row. It is impossible to travel through much of Asia and especially Thailand without encountering shrines and altars on the street, in hotels and certainly in people’s homes. These “spirit houses” and shrines are designed to provide shelter for spirits. Traditional Buddhist and Thai funeral practices, depending on the sect or specific beliefs, include a full week of around the clock mourning, often followed by followup periods at a week, month, year and other time periods. Some of us may be more familiar with the “Day of the Dead” (Dia de Muertos), the Mexican holiday associated with Catholic celebrations of All Saints’ Day. This celebratory event, often taking place over several days with food, family and friends, remembers friends and family members who have died.

As I read Weller’s book, which I began while Mom was on hospice, and continuing now almost two months after her death, I understood I needed to be intentional in creating my own mourning ritual. It is only now as I think back, that I recognize a ritual I created after Dad’s passing. It was mid-summer and most days I was biking to work, part of my route on River Road and the William Stafford path adjacent to the Willamette between West Linn and Lake Oswego. A part of the river that even today makes me think first of Dad. On this route, adjacent to a favorite kayaking channel, I would cry both when heading to work and then again homeward. This stretch routinely, for weeks, initiated tears of grief and loss. As I continued pedaling on after, I felt refreshed and renewed.

Most meaningful to me in Wild Edge of Sorrow are the quotes, many by others, dotting the pages. It would be impossible for me to select a favorite, however as I slowly read through the passages, they each strike me uniquely in those moments. Last night’s reading brought me this:

“I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief…
so this massive darkness makes me small.
You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:
then your great transforming will happen to me,
and my great grief cry will happen to you.”

Rilke as quoted in The Wild Edge of Sorrow by Francis Weller.

And while we need both individual and shared community rituals, the ritual I practice now is individual, speaking uniquely to me. For as long ago as I can remember, Mom and I have enjoyed music together. My most humorous yet rather awful memory is the time, perhaps 7 years ago, when I took her to a remarkable production of the musical Fiddler On the Roof at Portland Center Stage. It was an amazing display of music and talent, until she vomited (yes into my purse – what else did I have to give her?) during the standing ovation. The next hour was frankly really awful, me trying to locate a wheelchair and get assistance, but Mom was able to, quite a bit later, laugh with me. (Yes, the purse was history.) Most of our music enjoyment wasn’t nearly as exciting, but steady, beautiful and a key part of our relationship.

As I have blogged before, while Mom was living with us and even before, music was our “go-to” for sharing, generally listening to her very large musical CD collection. Music from long, long ago, in some cases. Old musicals (songs like My Cup Runneth Over and Oklahoma will likely always leave me teary), classical, and a few more newly acquired. Music that now, songs and collections we listened to during the end of her life, remind me of her, and draw tears. Almost always. And yet, they remind me of beauty. I cry. I remember. I grieve. And I renew. People throughout history have shared their grief, losses and gratitude at altars. I light the candles in my altar – adorned by photos of people I have loved that are no longer with us in body, but particularly filled for now with my memories of Mom. I sit quietly or stretch my body out of my “sitting too long each day” position on the floor. I sing softly. I cry. I play certain songs over and over. We listened to the song and collection featured below (thank you Mary!) repeatedly during Mom’s final months and hours. The song, All is well by Wild Roses” features a favorite mantra Mom had adopted during her last decade, well before she was introduced to the song that so aptly captures it.

I am grateful for so much. Even as I weep. And I thank Frances Weller for helping me understand what it is my heart aches to do.

2 thoughts on “Sorrow, renewal and little altars

  1. Pingback: A circle of caregiving | Dede's Books and blog

  2. Pingback: I love you bigger than the sky | Dede's Books and blog

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