Often finding meaning is not about doing things differently; it is about seeing familiar things in new ways.
~Rachel Naomi Remen
Tonight the three of us sat down to talk about how to tell our twin boys about the death of their uncle, our brother. It has been five months, and we have not spoken the words to them that he is no longer living. Simon is a real presence. We see him in photos, we talk about him in conversation. We tell stories about his childhood at the dinner table. My sister and I are also still stumbling through this boggy terrain of grief, completely new in our life experience. Our shock at his death is renewed every time a photo of his countenance pops up on Facebook or our photo steam, unexpected, true to life.
In just a few days, t and I will fly the 3,000 miles to my parents’ house. We haven’t been there since the summer. How has it changed by their son’s death? Are there new pictures of him? Will their grief be palpable to more than just me?
The question tonight was: do we need to tell the boys about their uncle before going back east?
We talked about this in some depth, the pros, the risks, what the boys might say to my parents or grandparents, what questions they might ask with the direct, tactless innocence that three-year olds summon so easily. But what was most interesting, most beautiful and unexpected, was that our conversation turned to remembrance. How will we guide these precious, tender children to connection and remembrance, to a gentle experience of the truths of this life (which includes death) where Simon’s passing is not a traumatic memory of something they couldn’t grasp as children, but a knowledge of him and of our perspective on life that was deepened over the years.
This led us to talking about ceremony, developing frameworks for rituals to hold us when we pass through traumatic and confusing times, practices that allow for growth and depth and creativity. It occurred to me as we spoke that this is one of Williams we will put down strong and enduring roots: developing practices that we all love and nurture and turn to for meaning, comfort, and identity.
We have bedtime rituals now, and they will change as our sons grow and mature. We have a little seedling of a ritual of saying a mealtime blessing that came out of the boys memorization of the blessing their teacher recites before lunch at school. This ritual sprang to mind, and I was quickly inspired to think of new variations on blessing our meal, our unity, our shared lives. What about putting a photo of someone we love as the centerpiece, focusing our stories and love on that special person during our meal? Or beginning with a love note for each family member? What about blessing our meal by showing photos or another artistic representation the leaves, blossoms, and fruit of one of the plants that added to our meal, and sharing in the beauty of that plant? So many ideas for the simple opening of our daily family meal.
My sister and I were raised in a home in transition away from their Christian roots, and we find ourselves without many customs or rituals from childhood to turn to in remembrance of our brother. We experience our love for him under the sky, amongst trees, in the wind and the air of nature. Remembering him with the boys in a practiced form will give us scaffolding, though, that we will be able to turn to when others we love depart from this life. Learning how to honor his spirit together will teach the boys reverence, depth of love, the sacredness of family and sibling relationships. More personally still, it will give me a safe way to express in front of my children a little of the sadness this loss evokes in me.
What rituals do you observe, religious or otherwise? Which ones have you carried from your childhood into adulthood, which have evolved, and which have you created to fit your life experience? I would love to learn about this idea from a larger pool as we contemplate this new structure for our children and ourselves.