“Be kind. Everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.”
We are here for such a short while, and never know when we may be departing. The sudden death of a friend this past week both hurts my heart, and opens me to being grateful that I am still here. I ache for her husband and family for whom this is an unfathomable loss. My spiritual belief system allows that she is more than okay, that death is not the end of all for us. However, it is the end of much – and such a profound change that every breath taken by the ones we leave behind is a learning on how to live in the strange new world without us. Right now I hold my friend and her dear husband in my heart. I don’t know what manner of ceremony will honor her yet, but for now I reflect on her kindness and fierce nature and am grateful to have known her.
Grief takes a circuitous path. Shock, anger, joy, sadness, gratitude, confusion and acceptance are all in the mix, it is not either/or, it is always both/and, opposites tumbled together. Grief is an altered state – a strange land we don’t recognize until we have gone through it. We grieve for lots of things, and it doesn’t always look like you might expect. Genuine laughter at a wake lets us know we are still alive, even as our hearts begin to grapple with our loss. In our culture we fear death so much, we try to ignore it. When that is not possible we rely on strange ideas about how long it should take someone to “Get over it.” Yet we no longer have many rituals to guide the process, no black arm bands are worn so that we may be gentle with the grieving during their time of mourning.
It is not just with death that we miss the opportunity to embrace the sacred time-space of transitions. The discipline of anthropology reports that cultures all over the world recognize rites of passage and have marked them with ritual and celebration, and often with changes in hair, clothing and/or status. Rites of passage are the crossroads of our life in which we interact with the mystery. For instance when girls transition to womanhood, or the coming of age of young men, marriage, motherhood and death. These sorts of moments represent a profound shift, and as a society we are served best when we understand and take note.
In our culture the melting pot has resulted in an eroding of such traditions, though not the elimination of all rite of passage rituals. For example, we do celebrate graduations as a coming of age of sorts. However, we give more time off for weddings than we do for the birth of a child – and many don’t ever have a wedding to mark their alliance. The ways we birth our babies often completely ignore the incredible sacred miraculous nature of birth. Death of a loved one? It results perhaps in a more flexible airline ticket and a week off from work to tidy up the details. All of it is a far cry from the beautiful and intricate rituals of our ancestors.
The persistence of bits of ritual indicates that we have a strong need to mark such times of change, even without agreeing on how to do so. On the front lines of shifting our culture towards new standards, there are those who make it their life’s work to honor the presence of the sacred as it moves through our life. For instance, I believe midwives and hospice workers help people hold sacred space at birth and death. Others gravitate towards roles of wedding officiant, monk, nun, priest, shaman or minister so they might help us better touch mystery. Food rituals are still present and participated in by many – for instance bringing food to a family with a new baby, a serious illness or death, or taking someone out to dinner to celebrate retirement.
When I look at my own life I see that I have undergone several periods of profound change – times of significant new direction marked by brushes with mystery. Moving to Oregon, meeting and marrying Joe, graduating with my BFA, giving birth, the decade long cascade of deaths . . . The most recent rite for me is the Pooka Ride of Cancer-ing. It has brought loss and gift in nearly equal measure. The treatments are a form of sacrifice. Like butchering a beautiful baby goat, or even Abraham with Isaac on the altar – I have shorn my hair, I have drunk poison, I have removed my Breast, I have removed my axillary lymph nodes . . . I have also gained. I have returned to writing, I have been surrounded by love, I have slowed down and reconnected with nature and beauty, I have stepped into mystery and glimpsed wonder. I am left feeling both joyful creativity and the anger/sadness of accepting loss.
We each will pass through our rites of passage – if we are lucky there will be those who will help us to mark them – to honor how we are changed. It is a privilege that we share these moments with one another. As I have negotiated this first week post mastectomy surgery I am reminded that I am but one of many on this path, and yet there is no priest to call in to officiate at the rituals I need to integrate the changes happening to me. I think we need to create a priest class of those who know how to walk this cancer-ing path with grace. In the mean time we are left to create for ourselves the means to celebrate our transformations as best we can.
Wherever you may be on your path, may those you need come forward, to offer comfort, to be kind, to be gentle, to be fierce – to love you and illuminate your infinite being self that it may shine as you move forward.