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Joining our Sorrows

It’s been a long stretch of time since I last posted on this site. I’m still here in Tucson, doing the work of supporting individuals and families in times of loss, grief and ceremony. I companion folks as a fellow human tenderized by life and death, not an expert in anything. Sometimes I plain listen people into hearing themselves. Sometimes we co-create ritual or ceremony to mark milestones and acknowledge loved ones in public space as it feels safe and comfortable for them. Throughout the past few years, I’ve become more drawn to ‘tending grief’ for people both anticipating dying and mourning a death or multiple deaths. (As is sadly so often is the case during the pandemic.) I find myself bearing witness to the humility and rawness of sorrow, how it threads itself through our lives. I find myself being more closely in touch with my own sorrow, too. It feels as expansive as vast wilderness some days, much like this photo I took while traveling in Argentina.

Wild horses in Patagonia, Argentina

I recently came across a passage in the book by poet Ross Gay called “The Book of Delights” and realized I needed to share it here. As I help people join together to mourn and grieve through ritual or ceremony after times of isolation during the pandemic, it feels like there is a deeper meaning or undercurrent happening compared to before. There is a kind of necessary joining to work through sorrow into joy with community and then maybe back and forth individually, as we do our personal remembering. For example, I can hear the anxiety in peoples’ voices as a memorial draws near and then the dissipation of anxiety as it melts into joy while a ceremony occurs. So naturally, this passage spoke to me about the depths of what happens when we join our sorrow:

“Among the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard anyone say came from my student Bethany, talking about her pedagogical aspirations or ethos, how she wanted to be as a teacher, and what she wanted her classrooms to be: “What if we joined our wildernesses together?” Sit with that for a minute. That the body, the life, might carry a wilderness, an unexplored territory, and that yours and mine might somewhere, somehow, meet. Might, even, join.

And what if the wilderness – perhaps the densest wild in there – thickets, bogs, swamps, uncrossable ravines, and rivers (have I made the metaphor clear?) – is our sorrow? Or to use Smith’s term, the “intolerable.” It astonishes me sometimes – no, often – how every person I get to know – everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything – lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always, of everything. Not to mention the existential sorrow we all might be afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated. Which sounds more dramatic than it might. Let me just say dead. Is this, sorrow, of which our impending being no more might be the foundation, the great wilderness?

Is sorrow the true wild?

And if it is – and if we join them – your wild to mine – what’s that?

For joining too, is a kind of annihilation.

What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying.

I’m saying: what if that is joy?”

I do think Ross’s question is one of the best I’ve come across: “Is sorrow the true wild?” I believe it could be. And yes, joining them does bring a kind of joy that may be ephemeral at best, although from what I experience and witness: healing and completely freeing and true.

What is a living wake?

Or even a “pre-wake wake” as I’ve heard such a celebration called lately. This recent front page article in the Arizona Daily Star defines a living wake simply as:

“A party. A big, giant, messy affair where laughter filled in for tears and deep long hugs replaced casual hellos.”

Yes, this begins to describe it. The community minded gentleman highlighted in the article, Pat Connors who owned Pastiche, chose to hold his “pre-wake wake” in his restaurant. It was billed the “Wake me up; A Party for Pat.” And wake folks up, I am certain it did. Friends stood in line for hours to offer Pat their heartfelt goodbyes. What a beautiful, albeit heart wrenching story. One that affirms life midstream hearing the words, “Thank you. I love you. Goodbye.”

After sitting with this story the past week, and ironically eating at Pastiche the night after this wake, posting ideas for anybody considering this kind of celebration felt like a worthy action to take in response. I have experienced the indescribable joy and healing sorrow of helping a few families lead living wakes in Tucson. It is an event that takes a heap of work and can be life changing. In a word, I would call it courageous. It takes courage in our culture to face dying and death squarely. It takes drawing from a deep well of community support to hold a living wake from a place of love, rather than fear. Here are some questions worth looking at if the idea of a living wake resonates with you, either for yourself or somebody you love:

  • What kind of timing makes sense? Living wakes are celebrations of life held while a person with a terminal illness is still alive, alert and oriented to the world. Ideally, the honoree will still be able to hold conversations, albeit brief, and may be able to sit up or ambulate on occasion. It is important to consider whether or not the honoree can withstand the wide range of emotions that present themselves in this kind of gathering, too.
  • Where will we hold the celebration? A place that is familiar and holds meaning may make the most sense, where it won’t be too crowded; and a large comfortable chair can be placed for the honoree to be safe, at ease, to enjoy the guests’ company. One living wake I assisted with involved the honoree’s sons transporting his heavy wood recliner to the venue and placing it in the center of the space.
  • Who is invited? Whoever the honoree feels close to and wants to see before passing onto whatever he or she feels comes next. Being in person to say good bye can be a peaceful and reciprocally healing experience. I’ve witnessed this being a long list of email addresses upwards of a couple to a few hundred people and sometimes it involves a more intimate invitation list with 40-60 folks. This article from the Huffington Post gives another example of a living wake where the honoree said:

“At the party, we all just had this incredible feeling of, ‘we’re all in this together.’ I wanted them to know what a privilege it was to know them and how much they meant to me. The celebration brought me peace.’’

  • How long should a living wake last? This consideration relates directly to the condition of the honoree and how she or he is feeling physically, mentally and emotionally. (The longer the better is not true here!) And yet a range of one hour to three hours maximum, with a planned or scripted ceremony portion being a piece of the longer version as a possibility. Reflect on the time of the day where the person being celebrated has the most energy and work from there with planning.

This kind of celebration is not for everybody, it is true. But for those to whom it appeals, a living wake can truly be a magically uplifting and life-affirming way to look dying and death squarely in the eye and let it bring you to a new appreciation for living.

new moon yuccas

Encouraging Reading for a Memorial

A couple of weeks ago I worked with a family to co-create a memorial for a brilliantly multi-faceted and talented woman. Her life interconnected with many others through the arts and travel: the Tucson Art Museum, Tucson Opera League, hiking and international travel groups. Her vibrant presence right up until she passed was one of elegance and radiance. These two words kept surfacing again and again as her family members and friends retrospectively described her being in the world.

While listening to families at times like these, my thoughts often turn to how physical absence after someone dear to us passes can flood our senses with how someone was present while alive. Through absence, we may come to more fully know a presence. During grief, there may be an ebb and flow of yearning for this presence. Yet over time, as John O’Donohue wrote in the blessing “For Absence” (posted below), “absence is alive with hidden presence.” It is a paradox, yes. One I believe we may choose to draw comfort from though, after somebody we love dies.

Last month I was in retreat with the Metta Institute for a session called “Opening to Mystery.” I learned more about this paradoxical ‘absence and presence’ concept on a deeply personal and reflective level. One session involved a guided meditation with a story about being in a garden while experiencing the scent of lilacs. The session leader repeated the story twice, with ample space for listening and absorbing the story. A passage from it went something like “we wandered through the garden after a gentle rain, lilac boughs heavy with blossoms, and we were drenched with their scent.” For me, I was flooded with the presence of my late maternal Grandma. I felt as if she and I were walking through the same garden as the subjects of the story, side by side, totally delighted by “being drenched with their scent.” Her absence gave way to a purely radiant presence. And her presence comforted me beyond words. I was completely covered in goosebumps.

I’m sharing all this as a context from which to share O’Donohue’s “For Absence” – which could be very encouraging to read at a Memorial during the service – or even in a quiet period of reflection with close family during the time prior to a ceremony. It is from his book of blessings to which I continually turn, called “To Bless the Space Between Us”:

IMG_6087May you know that absence is alive with hidden

presence, that nothing is ever lost or forgotten.

May the absences in your life grow full of eternal echo.

May you sense around you the secret Elsewhere

where the presences that have left you dwell.

May you be generous in your embrace of loss.

May the sore well of grief turn into a seamless flow

of presence.

May your compassion reach out to the ones we never

hear from.

May you have the courage to speak for the excluded


May you become the gracious and passionate

subject of your own life.

May you not disrespect your mystery through brittle

words of false belonging.

May you be embraced by God in whom dawn and

twilight are one.

May your longing inhabit its dreams within the

Great Belonging.

Stone Ritual for Memorial

I come from a family of rock hounds. As you might imagine, I inherently love rocks and stones of all sorts. To me, they hold countless stories. And well, no surprise, I’m also in love with storytelling. But the ritual I’m sharing below brings a whole new meaning to telling stories.

At a recent memorial for a woman who was an extraordinary Wife, Grammy, Mom, Sister, and Friend . . . the family offered this participatory ritual for guests to enjoy before and after the service. We held the ceremony at the Tucson Botanical Gardens on an early spring afternoon blessed with gentle rain. Out on the patio, these stones were set on the fountain wall for people to write messages or draw pictures upon. It was a reflective and sacred kind of space, very inviting for people as they remembered her well.


Looks beautiful and thoughtful, right?It is a wonderful idea to include in a Celebration of Life for someone who enjoyed collecting rocks. But wait, the very coolest part is WHY this ritual holds meaning for the family:

The woman we were remembering loved to draw words and pictures on rocks and randomly place them out in the yard for her grandkids (four adorable young boys) to find. From what I gathered, it was rather like an ongoing easter egg hunt in a way, full of surprise and ongoing fun for the boys to find what little treasures of rocks their Grammy hid for them around the front, sides and back of her yard. The day we met to plan the service, a family member even found one such rock with a drawing of a face on it. This felt uncanny and incredibly touching. Everyone was visibly moved when they heard this story during the storytelling in the service.

An example like this is one of many ways we can connect to each other and the person who has passed during times of remembrance. I believe having this kind of a participatory and tactile ritual, holding relevance to the people present as well as the deceased, can be a very unifying element in a memorial or celebration of life. What ideas have you seen, experienced or dreamt up that you’d like to share? I’d love to hear!

Remembrance with rocks at the Tucson Botanical Gardens

Remembrance with rocks at the Tucson Botanical Gardens


Remembrance at San Pedro Chapel

Chapel Interior

Chapel Interior

Yesterday, I was grateful to be with a circle of people to help guide a simple and tender remembrance ceremony honoring a man they intensely loved and admired. We gathered together on a humid monsoon morning in Tucson at the San Pedro Chapel, a perfect place for honoring love and life. I want to share this hidden gem with you because this historic piece of land + chapel in the Old Fort Lowell neighborhood = one naturally intimate setting for a remembrance ceremony or Celebration of Life.

Not only is this venue scenic and reflective of the essence of Tucson — as you can see from my photos —  it is also community-owned and managed, affordable and central. Does it get much better than all of this combined? You can learn more about renting the space here.

The north facing entrance to San Pedro Chapel

The north facing entrance to San Pedro Chapel

View of Catalina Mountains from Chapel

View of Catalina Mountains from Chapel

Why Memorial Rituals?

As I cruised the web doing some research today, I came across the prose included below and must share with you. It is written by Cinder Hypkie and is excerpted from this compelling article. I’m continually exploring the healing nature of rituals for the dying and after death. I treasure this kind of a find! Her poem speaks volumes to what I bear witness to, within only a few tenderly conveyed lines. I agree with her observations.

Yes, we do enter ritual “to respond to the call of the soul” and our fearless response to the call “places us in a realm of experience that we could not enter alone.”


We enter ritual to respond to the call of the soul1:

To heal ourselves,

To pay our tribute

To honor our ancestors,

our fallen warriors,

our soft spoken heroes,

To encircle our children with love and hope for a future,

To stitch our neighborhoods together one honest connection at a time.


As artists and teachers and activists,

As would-be and sometimes wounded healers:

When summoned, we walk alongside, in humility,

Open ourselves to hear deeply,

Enter in to core matters of the heart.2

We tip the soul’s basket onto the table,

Offer possibilities for mutual healing,

bring into being acts of resilience and resistance.


IMG_3198So we build our ofrendas3 of rose petal and rosemary,

Mexican marigold and store-bought mums.

We pour our libations on the earth or the pavement –

From the waters of West Africa to the streets of Baltimore.


We paddle out into an ocean of grief,

Place a sea of flowers at the gate,

We spray the bike white,

Wrap a teddy bear tight around a pole.

Write a name in the sand, or R.I.P. Brotherman

On the wall of the rowhouse next door.

We sing a song they loved, draw a dove on their photo,

We sing and dance and eat and carry on,

Long, long after they are gone.


Art for remembering in a time of forgetting,

Art for asking: What is needed here?

Art for mending a broken heart

Finding our voice, our resolve, a new start.


Hush now, listen, and call their name.

Widen the circle; welcome them in.


Composed from research and interviews with community artists and activists by Cinder Hypki, 2011.
1 Quote by Malidoma Patrice Somé in Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community 1993.
2 Quote by Andrew Boyd, personal communication 2011.
3 Spanish: “altar,” “offering”


Summer musings

The closing line of this poem is one you might have seen before. For example, I have it on my personal email signature. Seeing life as wild and precious is a gift poet Mary Oliver gives us with each of her creations. I love her work, how it emphasizes the natural world and the cycles of life. I find myself including it often into ceremonies I write – either as alternatives for complete readings by a participant  – or just bringing in certain lines as motifs.

Have you heard her read “The Summer Day” before? If not, give yourself this gift and give a listen:

Here is the complete poem, too:

The Summer Day


Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of

up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?


~ Mary Oliver

Honesty with the Struggle

And finding a “place of rest” in the middle of things.

This theme keeps emerging for me lately: last night during Tucson Death Cafe as people shared why they came; today, while planning for a National Home Funeral Alliance board retreat; a couple of days ago during a conversation with a client about preparing for her husband’s death; or a couple of weeks ago at the International All-Choir Gathering for Threshold Choir (that I had the huge joy of attending!). Being with WHAT IS is a major thread running through all of these scenarios. Hearing people share about an experience they have had as caregiver or relative to a dying person, actively listening to their stories, bearing witness to the truth and meaning for them without trying to fix, save or advise. Being honest with the struggle and the work of it. And even still, finding a way to rest. Then continue.

Frank Ostaseski, founder of the Metta Institute speaks to this concept better than anyone I’ve ever heard:

He brings me pause.

How am I being honest with whatever struggle I face (or witness others facing)?

And how am I finding (and/or offering) a place of rest within the scene?

And naturally I wonder, how would the world be a different place if we all somehow had the courage to do this more routinely? Not only when it comes to the end of life, rather with everyday living.

A Memorial Song for a Strong Woman

Lately, this song has come to mind for a couple of memorial services I’ve co-created with families, for very strong women who inhabited their Mother Archetype with a fierce tenderness. It is an entrancing arrangement to me, composed by Bobby McFerrin. I love the passage as it stands on its own, although this gives a whole fresh breath of life into the healing qualities of the phrases. If you have ever given your voice to acapella song, you can appreciate this group’s harmonies:

The lyrics push thought boundaries as ‘he’ is replaced with ‘she’ in the Psalm’s wording — and some people bristle at this. However, it is a song McFerrin dedicated to his mother and her enduring love. A Mother’s love is for some people, the source of life, similar to the love of God (if belief in God is present). I offer this as an option for anybody who can think beyond the boundaries of he or she, beyond God having a gender. All it takes is simply relating to the divinity of LOVE. Here are the lyrics:

The Lord is my Shepard, I have all I need,
She makes me lie down in green meadows,
Beside the still waters, She will lead.

She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs, 
She leads me in a path of good things,
And fills my heart with songs.

Even though I walk, through a dark and dreary land,
There is nothing that can shake me,
She has said She won’t forsake me,
I’m in her hand.

She sets a table before me, in the presence of my foes,
She anoints my head with oil, 
And my cup overflows.

Surely, surely goodness and kindness will follow me,
All the days of my life,
And I will live in her house,
Forever, forever and ever.

Glory be to our Mother, and Daughter,
And to the Holy of Holies,
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be,
World, without end. Amen

By, Bobby McFerrin

Southern Arizona Memorial Gem: Marana Mortuary

I am excited to share that we have a NEW location for natural burial in Southern Arizona: located at the Marana Mortuary and Cemetery in Marana, just northwest of Tucson. I recently met with Douglas Joseph, Funeral Director Manager and Larry VanHorn, Director of Outreach & Marketing, to discuss this welcome news.

Where the farmer parked his tractor.

Where the farmer parked his tractor.

When you visit their facility, you are surrounded by agricultural land and views of the Tortolita mountains. Cows stand like sentries by big old mesquite trees near the natural burial section of the cemetery. Larry shared that the first natural burial to occur in their cemetery was for a local farmer who liked to park his tractor and rest a bit under the shade of this tree. This location thus made perfect sense for his family to provide his final resting place.

Marana Mortuary & Cemetery offers an open, spacious and at once welcoming series of spaces for families to either make arrangements for, grieve, honor or celebrate the lives of their departed. The architecture is modern, the colors are cheerful, plus the interior spaces are all open and flooded by soothing natural light. (Definitely not the gloomy funeral parlor that might come to mind, with doilies and frumpy upholstery!) What I really appreciate is the non-corporate, completely genuine and caring demeanor of everyone I meet when I’ve visited this special place. The calm and pleasing physical environment is merely the icing on the cake.

Entryway at Marana Mortuary

Entryway at Marana Mortuary

Here is bit of the conversation Larry graciously shared with me:

KB: What makes Marana Mortuary and Cemetery unique among other funeral service providers in southern Arizona?

LVH: We are unique because we are only two years old and innovative; with fourteen acres to expand into so we can create new areas of interment and inurnment. We offer several options for cremated remains to be placed in , such as glass front niches indoors, brick niches outdoors or estates. We have a small and friendly staff with a combined experience of over 100 years in the funeral industry. We treat each family with respect and dignity, regardless of their finances. Plus, we are situated in a beautiful country setting.

KB: When did you begin offering green burial and how are families receiving it as a new option?

LVH: We started the project in October 2013 and opened the new portion of the cemetery in January 2014. Most families we serve have expressed an interest and think it is a good idea. Last week, we already experienced our fourth natural burial.

KB: Congratulations! I imagine families appreciate knowing they have this option. You’ve mentioned your chapel is a community gathering place for ceremonies and celebrations beyond remembrance. Can you explain more?

LVH: Our chapel is available for community events of all kinds. For example, those we’ve had range from dance practice, quilting groups, church functions, prayer and bible study groups, non-profit functions and a couple of weddings.

The chapel set for guests.

The chapel set for guests.

KB: That is wonderful! The space is so beautiful I can see how a variety of groups would enjoy it. Can you share any advice for individuals or families as they handle funeral or memorial arrangements for their personal plans or in support of others?

LVH: First, to pre-plan if possible with a Thoughtful Decision Guide (TDG) – which includes pre-planning information for individuals like vital statistics and final wishes you would like fulfilled. We offer these to families at no charge. You can fill this out and make arrangement choices to lock in a price and ease the financial burden on the family. This may also control over spending because of grief or guilt. I also recommend having some type of public memorial or celebration of life. This service optimally includes a circle of family or close kin AND their community of friends. I think it is often overlooked how, if folks choose not to have a public service or memorial, for the next several months the principle mourner(s) may encounter people in the community who just found out or didn’t know about the passing. This may present more of a series of emotional challenges than holding one big meaningful and supportive celebration. We encourage families to find a sense of completion in honoring the life lived — within their community circles — by offering a range of options for holding services or memorials.

KB: This is clear in the work you and your team are doing, Larry. Thank you for sharing your time and knowledge with us today! I look forward to hearing more about your innovative work and seeing our community benefit from what you offer.