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Posts from the ‘Rituals for Loss’ Category

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

Animal Companion Rituals: A conversation

I asked a recent client, Virginia, to share her thoughts about our experience working together, before, during and after her cat made his final passage. She did so quite graciously and our conversation is below. Her cat, Leopold, was an elderly gent who had quite a memorable presence. I loved meeting him! His personality came through clearly and we were able to co-create very meaningful rituals for his departure.

Cat napping

Cat napping (Photo credit: popitz)

When the time comes to face losing an animal companion and choosing to end his or her life, it is so painfully difficult. Especially when we consider this being a true family member. I’ve faced pet loss many times in the past. Experiencing the comfort of ritual first hand led me to offer services for others and their animals: to provide comfort and healing opportunities around a transition that can otherwise feel clinical, sterile and empty.

Virginia chose to perform goodbye rituals herself, at home with her long-time friend, for which I offered her guidance. She enacted these before the at-home euthanasia appointment. She also chose to have me support and guide her during and after the appointment; and when she was ready to part with him, I transported his body for cremation and also picked up his remains. Here is what Virgina shared about this passage of time:

Kristine: Please describe your desire for having ritual guidance and assistance before Leopold’s transition.

Virginia: He was my buddy for many years: I lived with him longer than I’ve lived with anyone else. I’m spiritual, but not religious, so I don’t have any prescribed rituals for honoring relationships and transitions. I needed a way to honor my relationship with him, the joy and comfort that he gave me, and his death.

Kristine: In what ways did you find ritual support helpful during his transition and afterward?

Virginia: Your guidance and support with rituals made me feel like a had a meaningful path to follow: before, during and after Leopold’s death. Before, I spent time honoring our relationship. During, we prepared and honored his body. We also allowed grief to flow, in my home. Afterward, I used some of the same rituals that you had suggested prior, and performed these to remember, celebrate and honor his spirit; and continue feeling connected to him.

Kristine: Please describe any thoughts about how your experience may have been different without choosing ritual assistance.

Virginia: Based on my previous experience with pet deaths, I probably would have felt more like I was stumbling through the process, with emptiness.

Kristine: Anything else?

Virginia: I was so grateful for your guidance: it made my dearest cat’s transition an exceptional and memorable time, which is what I wanted it to be.

Kristine: This is a gift to hear, Virginia. I am grateful for your courage and choices to make it a comforting time of remembrance. Thanks for sharing your experience with others!

Marigolds and Festal Culture

All Soul's Day procession, Tucson AZ, 2008

All Soul’s Day procession, Tucson AZ

Have you heard people mention how the ‘veil is thin’ this time of year? Ever wondered exactly what they mean by this? You’re likely not alone. This is a time of liminality throughout many cultures and belief systems, wherein the veil between the seasons of autumn and winter or between the worlds of the living and dead are very transparent.

We have our well known and candy-obsessed Halloween, when kids trick-or-treat and grown-ups go to costume parties. All this spookiness comes from ancient traditions like Samhaim and All Soul’s Day. Our neighbors in Mexico celebrate Day of the Dead with gusto and mucho marigolds. And this is just the beginning! The end of October and Early November bring us a vast collection of world holidays and celebrations rarely known by folks in our western culture.  It seems our collective death-distancing mentality in the U.S. also distances us from a whole range of opportunities for celebrating, acknowledging and honoring our dead.

Here is one gigantic exception: The All Souls Procession in Tucson, Arizona. This is a one-of-a-kind, community based, collective festal experience founded by Tucson artist Susan Kay Johnson. She began the Procession 23 years ago with a small handful of friends, to honor her Father. Today it has become a collective experience to observe one painful thread we all have in common: loss. This definition helps describe its origins and intentions:

“Festal Culture”  is the expression and fulfillment of core human needs through public celebration, ceremony, and ritual. The All Souls Procession is an event that was created to serve the public need to mourn, reflect, and celebrate the universal experience of Death, through their ancestors, loved ones, and the living.

I’ve been fortunate to live in Tucson for the past eight years and participate in the procession every year. It is always held the weekend after Halloween, to keep it authentically true and not become a big drunken costume fest. In my entire life, I have never experienced anything remotely like it. It is a collective opening, or leaning into, the experience of loss and humility we all share because one day, we will die. Some people come with a reverence and tenderness for a person, an animal or a concept they grieve. People also come to celebrate loved ones long after making the transition from life into death. And always, some people come just to stand in awe of the mystery. I am an Urn Ambassador, acting as a voice of the Urn. Ambassadors help people throughout the procession realize the significance of the Urn and how they may actively put something into it for release to the elements of fire and air.

The Urn Burns (All Souls Procession)

The Urn Burns (All Souls Procession) (Photo credit: cobalt123)

This ‘Prayer Form’ offers a remote way to download, write expressions and send these in electronically for placement into the urn. During the procession, I’ve witnessed people of all ages and beliefs drawing pictures, writing notes, offering photos and tearfully offering cremains or symbolic objects like dog collars and so on, to be placed with reverence into the Urn and burned during the Procession’s Finale.

Trying to explain this event to someone who hasn’t attended is nearly impossible. This is why as a Life-Cycle Celebrant© and avid believer in the power of healing through collective experiences during ritual and ceremony, I tirelessly call attention toward it! What is possible to sense, whether consciously or subconsciously during the Procession, is the feeling of liminal space I mentioned earlier. Being between worlds. Being vulnerable and open to complete mystery. This space is powerful beyond words. Here’s a peek into it from last year:

And here is a new peek from this year’s event:

All Souls Procession 2012 – teaser from Willow Tale Pictures on Vimeo.

Seeing Opportunities for Transformation

I believe we can transform the way we view end of life passages. Today. Not next year or a few years from now. As this article points out, in western culture we are making changes both individually and collectively about how we handle death and remembrance. Says Judith Johnson,

“People are choosing memorial services and celebrations in addition to or instead of a traditional funeral. This allows for a more personalized ritual customized to the particular beliefs and sensibilities of the deceased. It also allows for both mourning the loss of a loved one and celebrating the life he or she lived.”

And I add to her observation: people finding opportunity in holding Celebrations of Life as a support ritual for caregivers, family and friends. A celebration may occur prior to a final transition (aka a Living Funeral) or afterward. The motivation here is tapping into a mutual sense of connection – a safe place to pause, remember or celebrate – in whatever belief framework is relevant.

Hip hip horray! Artists celebrating at Skagen ...

Image via Wikipedia

Often a person will request no funeral, no service, nothing – in their final wishes. Maybe this is due to being a very private person. It is more likely though, his or her request has more to do with having sat through one too many drawn out funeral services where afterlife of the deceased was the focus, not supporting the mourners through storytelling and truly celebrating the life of someone well-loved.

Here is where I see the opportunity for transformation: shifting our focus. Viewing death as a natural part of life and thereby choosing rituals or services that fit our stories, values and belief systems. It takes work, yes. And I’ll keep posting ideas and resources about why it is worthwhile.

Celebrating life via Day of the Dead

La Catrina – In Mexican folk culture, the Catr...

Image via Wikipedia ~ La Catrina ~ She is often a symbol of Day of the Dead festivities.

Here it is – October already – and our minds naturally turn to celebrations of harvest, Yom Kippur, Halloween, or Thanksgiving. For me, it all starts with baking loaves of pumpkin mesquite bread!

I’m adding one of my favorite holidays to the autumnal mix: Dia de los Muertos. For those of you who may already be enthusiasts or who are just now learning about this holiday, I’m excited to share ideas and resources with you.

Since I practice funeral celebrancy in the southwest and live in Tucson, I pay a lot of attention to rites, rituals and celebrations about death. I am fortunate beyond belief to live near the rich traditions of Mexico, where celebrating the Day of the Dead is central to many family and community traditions. In Tucson, we experience the holiday to various degrees.

For example, this exhibit at Tohono Chul Park is currently running until November 6, 2011. I just visited with a group last week and it is WONDERFUL. If you visit the gallery main page, I encourage you to watch the brief video. In it, I love love love how Curator Ben Johnson says:

Dia de los Muertos is a holiday of remembrance, but it is not one full of sorrow  . . . it is very much about celebrating life and offering thanks to those whom we have loved.

The end date of Tohono Chul’s exhibit is also the day of the famous All Souls Procession here in Tucson. Through a series of festal culture events the culminate in the procession, we celebrate our ancestors and those we love who have departed. (I am really honored to be volunteering as an urn attendant in this year’s procession!)

If you are curious and would like to learn more, the following links provide LOTS of background about the key ingredients for celebrating life by observing this holiday:

  • Altar building ~ creating a doorway where the lands of living and dead can symbolically meet.
  • Food offerings and candlelight vigils ~ at the altars and in the cemeteries within a community.
  • Candy skulls ~ Calaveras made from sugar mostly – or chocolate sometimes – decorate the altars and are loved by children especially.
  • Flowers ~ garlands of marigolds and other specialty flowers of gold and orange become beautiful decorations for altars and cemeteries.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, really! Let me know how you’ve experienced Day of the Dead . . . and if you’ve noticed yourself celebrating life in the midst of doing so.

Losing a dear friend

At the very core of grieving is the act of letting go.

It may be one of the biggest challenges we have. I am convinced that ritual and ceremony help us face this bittersweet challenge. To convey this idea here, I may reflect upon relevant stories from around the world. When clients permit me, I will share their powerful stories. Today, I will share a very personal story with you.

The morning of September 16th, my Tiny Girl died. She was a long-lived greyhound at 12+ years old. It is unsurprising that when I wrote my first blog entry in 2009, I mentioned her and posted our picture together. She and I ‘were a team’ as one friend often says. We met each new day together for the past 10+ years. She facilitated countless life learnings for me. She licked tears off of my face when I cried, purred like a cat when we cuddled, shared my yoga mat with me and made me guffaw with her goofy games. She holds a very tender place in my heart as a dear friend. Letting her go seemed impossible.

This is tough to write, yet vital for me to share with you. What we did after her death has helped me grieve in a healthy way and begin letting go.

We kept her body at home for the afternoon. I surrounded her with bunches of dried sage and other native plants, candles, and incense. Friends (she had a big fan club!) came to visit and say good-bye. They noticed how peaceful she looked after seeing her during recent physical struggles. My partner Brian and a close friend dug her grave in our yard. At sunset, Brian played the cello as I sat with Tiny’s body to let the day sink in a bit. I felt exhausted. Friends came over for a humble burial ceremony. We blessed Tiny’s grave in a way only she would appreciate and shared some stories about her life. I cried big bitter tears. And then, together, we covered her shell with fresh earth and flowers.

Taking these steps helped me deeply in the process of letting her go. I created a remembrance upon her grave, with a candle that remained lit for five days and nights after her burial. Whenever I miss her, I go sit there in thanks for her presence in my life and for the blessings of good friends who help me along this journey. Here is a glimpse of Tiny’s grave the morning after her burial:

morning after her burial

Tiny's grave the morning after her burial.

I hope this story inspires you. Our animal companions are such dear friends, yes? After they die, giving thoughtful time and loving energy to our grieving processes for them is extremely important. Ultimately, it will help us open up to the ache of losing them and then summon the courage to let them go.