A Simple Ritual to Ease My Grief

The Aramaic word for grief can also mean “to wander.” When I was left wandering and bewildered after the death of my niece a small ritual helped me find my way again.

A few months ago my niece died of breast cancer at the young age of 47. I was somewhat prepared for her death because of her 14-year journey with cancer and the inevitable decline she had been experiencing for several months. Yet in reality death always arrives like a lightning bolt that pierces to the core.

There is no way to prepare for death’s appearance or to be unmoved by the jolt: your loved one is next to you in one moment and then gone after a single breath. You don’t know you are at the end until the end has already passed.

So the news of Tracey’s death hit me hard with a mixture of emotions—disbelief that she could really be dead at such a young age, pain for her son and her parents as they coped with this loss, guilt that I hadn’t done more to help, and a trace of relief that finally there was no more uncertainty and no more agonizing over what suffering the next hour or the next day would bring to her. Her journey here was finished.

As life would have it, with its curious synchronicities and juxtapositions, I was scheduled to do an interview with two women who had written a guidebook to end-of-life rituals just a few hours after news of Tracey’s death reached me. I didn’t even consider postponing our conversation because I knew that this timing, though difficult, was perfect.

My guests, Donna Belk and Kateyanne Unillisi, talked about the importance of rituals for making sense of life’s tragedies and painful events and they shared their suggestions for creating our own simple rituals. I understood deeply the importance of this subject and that I needed to somehow find a way to mark this day with some special ceremony, though I had no idea where to begin.

The next morning I took a long walk on a path next to the Blue River and thought about Tracey. I was filled with regrets – Why hadn’t I visited her one last time? Why hadn’t I called her for that talk about forgiveness that I knew she wanted to have? Why hadn’t I been there more for my brother?

As I walked more and more slowly, weighed down with all of the guilt I was heaping on myself I suddenly heard laughter—and it was unmistakably Tracey’s laugh. I felt as if she were standing right next to me and I heard her say “I understand everything now! It’s all okay.”

In that moment I was surrounded by joy, peace and love. I looked down and saw beautiful flowers I hadn’t noticed before at the side of the path: fragrant wild roses in bright pink, Tracey’s favorite color. I instantly knew what to do next and asked Tracey to join me.

I began to gather wildflowers from the banks of the river and was surprised by the variety I found growing there when I really stopped to look: mountain lupine, bluebells, yellow daisies, poppies, chicory, cinquefoil, wild geranium, blue flax, columbine and more.

By the time I reached a small stream that flowed gently into the rushing river I had a handful of blossoms of many colors. I spread them out on a tree stump to create a mandala of sorts—an array of beauty and a reminder that life changes constantly but ultimately continues on.

I said a prayer for Tracey and for all of our broken hearts that were missing her so dearly on that day. Then I dropped each blossom—one at a time—into the stream and watched it drift gently away. With each flower that tumbled into the stream I felt a lessening of the burden of grief and a gradual influx of peace. And all the while I heard the faintest hint of laughter floating on the breeze.

 

 

 

 

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A Farewell Letter From a Dying Monk

As part of an ongoing series on various religious and cultural perspectives on death, I recently interviewed a priest about the Catholic approach to dying and after-death care. During the interview he shared with our audience a letter that had been written recently by a fellow monk from his monastery, Father Mark, who was dying of stomach cancer.

That letter was a poignant and instructive guide for how to approach death with three virtues that Father Mark said he valued most in his last days on earth: comfort, grace and gratitude. Father Mark, who has subsequently died, agreed to share his words and his wisdom with people far and wide, with a humble wish that others might be helped by reading about his experience.

Father Mark’s letter can be read in full here, but the following is a summary of the lessons shared by Father Mark as he lived his final days:

“Keep death before your eyes daily.”

Father Mark interpreted this quote from Saint Benedict quite literally as he recommended a meditative approach to death to help ease fear and live fully. He himself was able to find joy and positivity even within the natural anxiety that comes from facing death full on and acknowledging its inevitability.

Be willing to hear the truth.

Father Mark described unflinchingly how his doctors told him truthfully that there was nothing more they could do for him. He listened to their prognosis and embraced the limited time left for his life without fear.

Let go of curative treatment at the right time.

When it was clear that the cancer was spreading quickly Father Mark recognized that it was time to stop treatment and focus on saying goodbye, which was the motivation for writing the letter.

Embrace palliative care.

Father Mark described how helpful his palliative caregivers were in guiding his decisions for the last chapter of his life. With their advice he expressed his love to others, made amends and planned meaningful activities while he still had enough energy to pursue them.

Be grateful for everything.

In his letter Father Mark expressed his deep gratitude for life itself, love, his community, career, and spiritual life. He looked back upon his years of life as a blessing filled with rich meaning and growth.

See beyond sadness.

Because of his belief in an afterlife, Father Mark could express his sadness for all that was coming to an end in his physical existence but also look forward to something more that would continue on. His great faith allowed him to embrace his death with wonder and awe as he prepared for whatever lies next.

Through his thoughtful words Father Mark was able to translate his dying experience into meaningful advice that can change the perspective of all who read it from fear to peaceful acceptance of death. Indeed Father Mark accomplished his goal of achieving comfort, grace and gratitude in his own final days and also transmitted those three virtues to each of us who have received them.

We don’t need to be Catholic or even religious to grasp the meaning of Father Mark’s teaching, for he is communicating the universal language of death:

 These are the words we were born to hear; this is the lesson we came here to learn: embrace life fully and look death in the face every day.

Thank you Father Mark for so generously sharing your last days and thoughts of life with us and for continuing, even in your death, to be an enlightened teacher.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician who writes extensively on spirituality and medicine, especially at the end-of-life. She is the host of End-of-Life University and the author of “The Tao of Death” and the award-winning book “What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying” Connect with her at karenwyattmd.com, on Facebook at fb.com/WhatReallyMattersWithKarenWyatt and on Twitter @spiritualmd

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