|Preparing the Altar for our 2nd Annual Day of the Dead Celebration, 2012|
We can all probably remember the first death we experienced, and very likely, it was a pet when we were quite young.
Beyond that very first experience -- or perhaps they are one and the same experience -- we can all name the first death that truly impacted us, felt like a threshold in time, marking "before" and "after" with a definitive demarcation made of pain and loss, a final knowing that life ends and until our own end, we are expected to continue living.
The first death that hit me in that way left me with a sense of confusion and awe that I was not dead myself. How was it that I felt so much grief and was still breathing and still walking and still eating?
I felt for a long time as if I were underwater and I could see that other people were not. I could see them moving about, living their regular lives, when each move I made felt like it took every ounce of effort. The simplest tasks left me spent and exhausted.
Over time, things began to soften. I could wake up without instantly breaking down upon the remembering.
And as we all know, eventually, life continued. Something significant had changed and would always be different but life continued.
Humans are built for surviving. It is our biological imperative hardwired into our essence, that which exists beyond the visible cellular level. When left to our own basic nature, we fight, we battle, we struggle to the last breath. Our bodies want to live. Our minds may look for a way out; our minds may be stunned at the body's capacity -- the body's drive -- to continue, but alas, the body moves forward into a future we had not considered before.
After this death, left shallow breathed and functioning at bare minimum, Marcy and I made our way to Lilydale. This was a place I would have normally made fun of -- had made fun of many times -- but I was feeling tender, raw, and desperate and looking for any help anywhere I could find it.
There I was told one of the most important things I have ever been told about death: We remain in relationship to our loved ones who have passed away, but now we are fully responsible for tending to that relationship.
This may sound like spiritual hokum at first. Feel good spirituality of the worst sort. Maybe. Maybe it sounds smart to you immediately because maybe you already know this or are just more broad minded about these things than I was.
For me...I had to figure this out. Had to make sure I wasn't being...had.
And it turns out that the medium wasn't just pulling this idea out of nowhere. It turns out that most religions have a form of this idea in them.
One of my favorites though is the Japanese idea of ancestor care. Not worship but "care."
Traditionally, there would be a shrine room in the house and your day would start there, lighting incense over the ancestor tablets, saying some prayers, or maybe just catching your ancestor up on what was going on in your life.
We integrated some of these practices into our life here at the Lilypad. As the deaths got further behind us, though, the rituals also got left behind.
I think that is a mistake.
I think our idea of grief having a timetable is a grave mistake that costs people dearly.
Culturally, we expect people to go through a process and to "finish." We don't want to hear about the death after a certain amount of time and some of us simply never want to hear. I've written about this cultural impatience with death before and about the Victorian approach to the mourning period here.
This process, this idea of finishing...this is the real hokum.
After this first death -- the one that impacts you and changes everything -- it can start to feel like this is life: a succession of deaths, a row of deaths to come until one day, it is you.
You have two choices at this moment: you can plunge into despair, living your life from here on out from a place of fear and gripping and waiting.
Or you can decide that grief is chronic to living and that it's okay. You can succumb to the inevitability that love and grief live hand in hand. In this there is freedom of the deepest sort.
This involves transitioning to a more nuanced, more spiritually mature understanding of grief not as something to get through but as something to explore.
Grief is a lifelong process of remembering.
From here on out.
Remember well, remember deeply, remember daily.
Integrate the grief into your day to day life and it will reveal itself as just another face of love.