I want to build the casket and dig the hole. We usually hire those jobs out, but I want to do it myself. Remember the scene in Harry Potter where Harry buries Dobby, but refuses to use magic? Something about his grief compels him to use his own two hands.
I don’t know if you have noticed, since there is constantly so much else going on, but grief is all around us. I meet grief daily in my parishioner’s stories. I meet grief in the untold stories that seep from their neuroses and random outbursts and from their extraordinary gentleness with one another’s pain. I meet grief in my own memories.
I find again and again that human beings have a need to do something with their grief. We need to create a space for it, we need to show it reverence, we need to be given a safe environment and a supportive community in which to rage and weep, we need to talk and question and moan and suffer and be held. In other words, we need to build caskets and carry them to their resting place (a job we cannot do alone). We need to dig holes and to say goodbye. Even if we do not literally dress a body with our own two hands, I believe rituals are our way of engaging grief in constructive ways.
I distinctly remember the way I felt the day after one of the first funerals I ever attended: “That’s it? One ceremony? One day of grieving?” I needed more. I remember the way I felt after the loss of my marriage: “No funeral?” I needed something, and there was nothing. No ritual at all to accompany my devastation.
I do a lot of ritual-inventing these days. When there’s a loss, I find a way to build a casket. When a dream is ruined or a relationship severed, I wonder about how to create an intentional space for the grief to be unleashed, honored and perhaps released when the time is right. I wonder about how to create ongoing spaces for grief since I understand that it’s never wrapped up and over when you walk away from the fresh grave.
One of the most important things I do all year is host a grief service around the holidays for the bereaved and despairing. Since it takes courage to get that close to your grief in public, few people even attend a grief service, but that doesn’t stop me from believing in its importance. I know it is important, because I know grief.
No one warned me that ministry would make a mortician out of me. But if you had told me early on that the work would be this meaningful, this sacred, or this necessary, I wouldn’t have known to believe you. If you had told me that sitting reverently with pain would be one of my primary jobs, I might have considered a different vocation. If I knew ahead of time I would have to learn how to open enough to let the stories affect me and shape me, and then open even more to allow room for hope and joy too, I would have thought I couldn’t possibly stretch that big. I haven’t really found that grief gets any easier, but I do find that life gets richer. Wisdom grows and friendships deepen, and with enough patience, courage sprouts.
At Lake Shore we have this tradition of planting trees in honor of those who have died. Sometimes the tree planting doesn’t occur until months or even years after the funeral, which strikes me as good timing. We need additional rituals, and we need them at odd and belated times. The new life of the little tree reminds us that life is fragile, and it asks us to open even wider than the immeasurable expanse of our sorrows and allow a bit of room for something to sprout from the burial grounds. Planting is another way of digging into heartache, and if you’re fortunate, the seed falls into the ground and dies, one day bearing fruit.