Updated: Aug 14, 2022
photo: Ana Maria Alvarado Porras @Unsplash
Grief: a deep sorrow caused by loss. The word 'grief' comes from the Latin verb gravāre, meaning to burden, from gravis, heavy. The same root forms the basis of the words gravity and the adjective grave, meaning serious.
I sit writing a memorial service. The person who died was 40. Her mother, who has been disrupted by Lewy body dementia, lost her daughter and moved from the family home to assisted living in the same month. With her universe so upended she no longer recognizes her surviving child. To cause her less agitation there will only be eight people attending the memorial service and burial. There will be 'elephants in the room' that no one will name, still we will find our way to release her daughter to the great mystery.
Yesterday I presided at a celebration of life. The person who died was 57. There was a cookout in the park. He had four sisters and four daughters. Exes, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews. Friends. Family dogs. His mother came from across the country, his father Zoomed in. Together, we embraced the stillness and released him to the great mystery. By mutual consent the elephants in the room were invited guests.
In order to honor a person's journey across the arc of their incarnation I learn as much as I can from the people left to tell of them. I lean in to hear the stories their loved ones carry, and then, later, I sit and listen for the in-betweens. In order to help their people release them I reach to intuit the self they might have expressed. In the bright spots and from the shadows the stories the dead tell of themselves, in correction or on reflection, are adjusted a few degrees in any direction. During a service, when the release happens I witness an awareness of letting-go crossing the faces around me, a tangible shift in the weight each person carries. The emotional and relational mechanics of all of this constitutes the juju-physics of ceremony work. Its all a trust exercise.
When we are deeply grieving, to authentically release a loved one to the infinity of death requires us to defy gravity. With life and death laying heavy on our hearts and the floors of the memory palace sagging from the heavy load of all the elephants in the room, I have the audacity to ask people to let go? Yes! Gently, tenderly, and so fiercely. It is my service to the living and to the dead.
It is worth noting that the dead folks in my care this week had some shared elephants. Though their talents and life trajectories were quite different, both grappled with depression and lived at the margins of society. Both struggled to manage in the world day to day. Both drank hard. On the face of things the drinking took them down but I think it was not the booze that pushed them into critical health. This is evidence of another layer of pandemic fallout. People who lived ok on the margins, who were able to eke out a meaningful life even while failing the challenge of 'making it' in the world, are being squashed by the isolation, loss of work, and delayed health care caused by Covid. When alcohol is your medicine for loneliness, and drinking distances you from the people who love you, you have the key ingredients of a tragic death.
Without the pandemic these are people who would have had another best case scenario up their sleeve, another pass at redemption with their families, another opportunity for recovery. There are so many falling through 'the cracks' right now. Folks on the margins who were getting by but gas is too expensive now to keep a job, and medicine is too expensive so they ration, and food is so expensive that they do with less. And all of this affects their mental health. In order to survive the crushing weight of pandemic social consequences, we are going to have to talk about these elephants in the room. A sibling's alcoholism, a parent's depression, a friends crippling anxiety. What can we do with all these elephants? I spent a lot of time this week listening to the stories relatives tell about their dead loved ones. Sifting through their memories, insights, regrets, and last wishes I come away with three suggestions:
Encourage one another to be honest when someone asks how we're doing.
Get much better at asking for help.
Be more willing to give help. Be generous.
I sit writing a memorial service, an interpreter of life's impermanence bowing in a minuet with the permanence of death. Gently breathing solace into words on the page, words to ease even the raw sorrow of the elephants in the room. The capacity for grief implies having memories of the past and the ability to imagine a future. As I reach to grasp the infinity of death in the context of the here and now, and to encourage a family's gesture of authentic release (e.g. juju-physics that even transcends dementia), I am reminded that elephants also grieve. As I witness these stories from the margins of difficult lives that ended sorrowfully, I'm not sure why grieving elephants comfort me so. But they do. I imagine our ceremony lifting off the burdens of existing in this rapidly changing world. I imagine the trunks of the elephants in the room blowing away the gritty ash of regret. And I imagine even our elephants are included in our gesture of letting go. I imagine some best-next-adventure for the soul we are releasing. I imagine we can all defy gravity.
The elephants in the room. ;-)
photo by David Clode @Unsplash