Grief and Memory in Sacred Ritual

It is no secret that difficult memories can be stumbling blocks preventing us from living full and positive lives and holding us back from becoming our best authentic selves. This became clear to me when I was asked by the Rabbi of my synagogue to share memories of someone I loved during the Yizkor service on Yom Kippur.  I wanted to be able to share glowing, positive memories, but something quite different happened.

My experience during that service was recently posted as “Sacred Memory” on The Jewish Writing Project, and I hope people will be interested in reading it there.  The underlying question that plagued me was how to integrate painful memories into the religious and spiritual rituals that we have surrounding death and memory.  I found that being able to honestly portray my father and my conflicting memories within a spiritual framework was powerful and healing and enabled me to finally begin the process of mourning.

old-photo-1246910_640Grief is a difficult emotion under even the best of circumstances.  Humans have created ritualized ways to process grief and remember the dead for thousands of years. My own experience has been in the Jewish and Christian traditions and I do not know much about other cultural or religious approaches. While I would not suggest a tradition of eulogy or memorial that emphasizes misdeeds, sins or bad qualities, I have often felt that the liturgy fails people when their memories are not positive or good.

There are many talented and skillful therapists who can facilitate the processing of grief and its complications from a mental health perspective. But the spiritual component also needs to be reckoned with.  It seems challenging to create liturgy that satisfies both the need to acknowledge the pain of memory at the same time creating a sacred space for it and honoring those memories that are positive as well. Perhaps such liturgy already exists but I am simply not aware of it.

My hope is that others will be willing to share their experiences and thoughts, and perhaps identify some sources of ritual that help address this aspect of the grieving process.







Encountering An Other

I have experienced some encounters that seem to belong outside the boundaries of normal communication.  Some of these moments of contact have been between me and other humans and some have involved animals, most often wild ones.  Before anyone starts humming the theme music from The Twilight Zone, let me clarify that I am not trying to argue that there is some kind of mystical communication ability between me and some animals or with other human beings by a sort of telepathy.  This may very well exist, but I am pretty much an agnostic on the subject.  I don’t rule it out of the realm of possibility, but I also wouldn’t argue strongly one way or the other.

However, I often ponder what accounts for this connection and why some moments of contact linger in my consciousness for a long time.  They feel significant, even though I would be hard pressed to point to anything tangible resulting from those moments.

The concept of “other” has a great deal of psychological significance and is often used in a judgmental way, meaning that someone or something is alien (and therefore usually experienced with fear, hatred or discrimination).  This is not the way I am using it here; rather I use it to indicate that the encounter is significant to me specifically because it is with an “other” or in a manner that is outside the usual or “normal” framework in which I generally communicate with the world.

DREAM.   A good friend who lives several hundred miles away is nearing the end of her pregnancy. She is the first of my friends to become a mother.  I dream that we are hiking in the mountains–something that we had never done together.  The trail is steep and rugged.  She is struggling and panting and bending over in distress.   The next day her husband calls to announce the arrival of their daughter during the night.

deer-417607_640THE DEER WHO WAS NOT AFRAID.  I am waiting outside for a friend to come pick me up.  We have several apple trees in the yard and deer often come to graze there.  Deer are skittish and vigilant and even when I am in the house I have to move quietly to the window and stand very still if I want to watch them.  My eye catches movement at the boundary of the yard where it meets the overgrown field.  Several deer move cautiously toward the trees.  I hold my breath and stand motionless.  A young doe moves slowly in my direction, eating a few apples as she moves through the trees.  Suddenly she notices me and stands still observing me, as I am observing her.  Is she trying to decide if I am a threat, or is she simply learning about the creatures that inhabit her world?  At this moment my friend drives up the driveway, gets out of her car and slams the door.  The deer stays motionless, studying me.   I gesture to my friend and she walks quietly to where I am standing.  The deer does not run away, but moves closer to us.  It is as if she understands that we welcome her presence and mean her no harm.  

ollantaytambo-225150_640A GLANCE ACROSS CULTURAL BOUNDARIES.  We are in the marketplace in Pisac in the Sacred Valley of the Incas.  We are there with our first child, a daughter we are adopting from Peru.  After several years of infertility, I am ecstatic to be carrying an infant in a Snuggli.  The market is lively and colorful, the fruits and vegetables amazing in their size and freshness.  I am looking through the eyes of a tourist, someone who has the unearned fortune to live in a rich country and the means to travel thousands of miles to fulfill my dream of motherhood.  A Quechua woman, beautiful in her dignity and splendid in the colorful clothing and headpiece that identifies her origin, sits on the ground next to a large array of vegetables.  She is holding a child.  Our eyes meet and she smiles at me.  I smile back.  Our lives and experiences are so different that we might be from different planets.  And yet in our smiles we speak the same language.  We are mothers and we know what that means to the other.  It has been almost 30 years, but that smile still brings tears to my eyes.

Why do these and similar moments of connection linger and acquire significance?  Is it because we live restricted by boundaries–whether self-imposed or placed on us by the social conventions we are taught?  When these boundaries are blurred we are able to expand our concept of reality, see the world from a different perspective, and the “other” becomes simply another.


Motherhood and Retirement

Writing about being a mother on Mother’s Day seemed too much of a cliche.  But here I am anyway, adding my own limited perspective to what is probably one of the most emotionally charged, personal, yet universal experiences–being a parent. I clearly cannot write from personal experience about being a father. But I know many of them–my own father, the father of my children, brothers, grandfathers, uncles, cousins and in-laws.  While there are certainly important differences–the intense physical involvement of a mother in pregnancy, childbirth and nursing being the most obvious–at its most fundamental level the emotional aspects of being a parent are not ultimately gender specific.

There is no shortage of advice meant to prepare you for motherhood.  While the old joke about babies not coming with a manual may be true in the specific, there is enough information out there to overload even the most skillful researcher.  Ranging from professional “experts” to blogs from women and men on the front lines of parenthood there is no area of child rearing left unexplored. But all this information and advice seems flimsy and inadequate when a real child moves into your life.

I digress for a moment of humor about one of the most common experiences of early parenthood.  SLEEP??  I have heard rumors that there are babies who sleep through the night before they are six months old. Neither of my children did, and I became president of Zombie Nation in a landslide election.  Not only did neither of them sleep through the night for a very long time, but after the arrival of our second child, I think they conspired with each other to arrange the timing of their awakenings to guarantee that I would never experience more than three or four hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Prior to becoming a mother, I could have won an Olympic event in sleeping through thunder, television, traffic noise and even a minor earthquake.  My husband woke to the slightest sound, alert in moments to assess if there was any real danger threatening his home and family.  So, was it not logical for me to assume that a baby’s wail at 2 AM would create a similar response?

late-riser-149016_640Instead, my gold medal in sleeping was cruelly snatched away and given to him.  He could now sleep through screeching, wailing and sobbing, while I snapped instantly awake–not at the screeching and wailing part, but when the child inhaled the breath that precedes it. Even after she learned to talk and would call out “Dada, DADA,” he just muttered “She means Mama.”

The biggest surprise that came with parenthood, however, was this one overwhelming reality.   I am now emotionally bonded to another human being for the rest of my life.  I became a mother through adoption and I remember well the judge asking “Do you understand that this is forever?”  How quickly I replied that, of course, I knew it was forever.  But knowing and understanding are not precisely the same.  Understanding came often like a punch to the solar plexus, this realization that I would do anything in my power to nurture and protect these children that had been entrusted to me.   The frightening truth that I would not or could not always protect them, that despite my best efforts I would fail them in ways that I often did not even understand.


Now, many years later, I am still a mother.  There is no retirement option, no two-week notice, no hiring someone else to take over.  I still worry about them and wish I could protect them from all the hurts, fears and bad things that inevitably happen in the course of human life.  There is no happiness in my own life that matches the feelings of joy when their lives are good and successful, or the sadness when they are not.  As I grow older, my greatest sorrow is that I will not always be here to protect them, even though that protection is now mostly just loving them, listening to them when they want to talk about their lives, and, yes, praying that angels watch over them in the dark of night.

The judge was right.  FOREVER.