Finding Your Voice: Death Rituals

Lauren Anderson is an Assistant Professor in Developmental Education here at National Louis.

“Lauren, are you sitting down? Are you with someone right now?” comes my brother’s voice on the other end of line. The chill that runs down my spine is that familiar and feared feeling when you realize the moment has come for you again. Pain and loss had arrived again, in this case, with the death of my mom. Whether I was ready for it or not, my life entered a period of grief. Grief is always difficult. It is a process of finding uneasy peace with a pain we know we’ll live with forever. During the time of global pandemics like COVID-19 and systemic racism, all of humanity is reckoning with grief. The pain is happening at levels both personal and universal for many people. Yet we can’t use the typical tools that our ancestors have handed down to deal with this kind of pain. We can’t come together and gather to share our grief in the ways we always have. We can’t even get to the point where the pain and trauma stop in order to think about moving forward. What does grief look like when the world is upside down?

The celebration of the life and death of the person you loved is key to the process of grieving. When my siblings and I worked together to plan the funeral, it felt surreal. I sat in the church office with ten wooden statues of Jesus looking down on me from the agony of the final moments on the cross. I looked at Bible verses in a specially prepared Funeral Binder and tried to decide which ones best represented my mom’s life. At one point it occurred to me that I should just call and ask her, and then I remembered I couldn’t. Because grief is a strange thing, this made me laugh hysterically. I was able to pull it together enough to make sure that all the steps happened: the wake, the funeral, the burial, the lunch. At the time, it made no sense and seemed like a dream. Looking back, it makes perfect sense and fits in with my memory of every loss in my life.

A few months later, watching my aunt’s zoom funeral after her long and painful battle with COVID was like watching a TV show. I was grateful to be able to participate safely; it was a modern miracle that we could all “be” there with many family members affected by the virus. Hearing the stories of her life, told by her loved ones, was beautiful even though it was over the funeral parlor security camera live feed. However, I realize now that being physically present to share in the ritual is part of what makes the unreal feeling of losing someone seem real. You’re forced to feel the grief that you have been holding as you stand there among others who are sharing your feeling of disorientation. It’s being in the space that has been set aside, among the people who are sharing your sense of being lost, where you can orient yourself in your grief.

Another way humans have dealt with grief is to create a marker of it in a physical place. Much like elephants, humans return to the site of the bones of a loved one as an outlet for the ongoing pain of separation. The tradition in my family dictates that you stand at the grave of the deceased member and stare. It had always felt a bit awkward when I was a kid. Everyone just stands and cries and stares at a tombstone while the overly pungent smell of the flowers we brought sweetens the air in a way that will always make me think of death. Now, I get it. Of course, it is still awkward. When I go for the first time on All Saint’s Day, I will be faced with every thought I have been avoiding for the 10 months since she died. But there I will stand, and I will be forced to have this conversation with her in my head as I stare at the place where her bones rest.

“You know, it really hurt me when you…”

“I just wish I could understand why you…”

“I need to tell you that…”

I’ll stand there and silently scream in my heart and let it all out. I’ll finish by telling her that I love her and I’ll feel better for having let some of my emotions out. A few months later, it will all build up again, just in time for the anniversary of her death or Mother’s Day or some other day to come again. This part of my past will never let go, so I have to learn to live with it. Visiting the grave is one of the tools I have been given to try and live with it.

There are traditions throughout history of wearing black or some other visible signifier when a close loved one has died. It is a way to show the world that this person is grieving so that strangers, without having to ask, will know to go easy on the person, for they are grieving. Right now, it might not even help because we are all wearing black. So many people are suffering on a personal level as well as a community level. The pandemic continues on with its uncertainty and fear. The country moves far too slowly in taking steps to address racism and white supremacy. We know we can’t really begin to move forward until we have safety and justice. Each of us also still deals with the tragedies, big and small, in our own lives. The grief will not relent. We need to treat each other gently and show up for ourselves and others. We are all sleepwalking around in this grief, separated from the time, space, and people we need to heal.

Author: Lauren Anderson, Assistant Professor – Developmental Education

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