Ritual

I was listening to a talk show and the host, who is Jewish, was telling about his experience sitting shiva for his recently departed mother. It was the first time he’d ever sat shiva, and he didn’t know if he would like it or not, but it turned out to be a positive experience for him–just sitting and waiting, waiting for people to come and bring his family food, sitting and talking about his mother, whom everyone loved. He expressed his gratitude for the Jewish law that required him to do this, for the wisdom of his ancient religion.

My mother died on a Sunday morning, almost thirteen years ago. On Monday morning my alarm clock went off. I could hear a fierce wind storm going on outside, and I really didn’t want to get out of bed. “My mother just died,” I thought. “I shouldn’t have to go to work, right?” So I called my editor and left a message on her voice mail: “My mother died. I won’t be in today.” Then I went back to sleep.

On Tuesday morning, I got up and went to work. I was opening the mail, and my editor came and stood by my desk. “You know, Rebecca,” she said quietly, “I appreciate your dedication, but we’ll get the paper out without you. No one expects you to be here today.”

To tell you the truth, I was a little embarrassed. It hadn’t occurred to me before that moment, but of course no one expected me to be there that day. Or any day that week. I just didn’t know what else to do. I think I said as much. Something like, “I have to do something.” I said I would go home early, maybe work another half-day on Wednesday. The funeral was Thursday, so I wouldn’t be in on Thursday. “Why don’t you stay out Friday, too,” she suggested.

A few months later I was preparing for my upcoming wedding–“preparing” being a loose term. I didn’t know any more about preparing for a wedding than I did about mourning for a dead mother. My sister offered to help me with my reception; I just had to tell her what I wanted. But I didn’t know what I wanted. I didn’t care about having a reception–I mean, I wanted one, but I didn’t care what it was like or what food was served or what decorations there were. What did it really matter, anyway? My mother was not going to see me get married. I felt her absence intensely.

At some point my roommate sat me down for a heart-to-heart. She was concerned about me because here I was, moving forward with a wedding and looking for an apartment and making all these life changes when my mother had just died a short time before, “and it seems to me,” she said, “that you never really took the time, well, to grieve for her.”

What could I say? Of course I hadn’t taken any time to grieve for her. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. What did people expect me to do? They didn’t expect me to go to work or plan a wedding or do any other normal life things, but what was I supposed to do instead? I thought everyone was supposed to deal with grief in his or her own way, which would imply that there was no wrong way, and yet apparently I had done it the wrong way. I hadn’t taken time to grieve. I didn’t have an ancient religion commanding me to sit at home for seven days, sitting and waiting, waiting for people to come and bring me food and give me their condolences and talk with me about my mother. I had to choose for myself what I was going to do, and I guess I chose poorly. But even after this was pointed out to me, I didn’t stop and try to correct it. I couldn’t do it when the loss was fresh; what was I going to do with this cold, stale grief that was already gathering dust? I figured it would keep. I had the rest of my life to get used to not having my mother.

Mormonism doesn’t give a lot of guidance so far as grieving is concerned. I supposed there are guidelines for funerals. We’re supposed to contemplate the doctrines of the gospel and draw comfort from them. In my experience this translated to an implicit commandment not to grieve, or not to grieve too much. How could you be devastated when you knew that your loved one had gone to a better place, that her spirit was still alive, that you could be reunited again someday, for eternity? This knowledge should bring you joy, even in the darkest of circumstances.

I vividly remember sitting in my parents’ living room that Sunday morning with my five-year-old niece. “My grandma is with Jesus,” she said.

“Yes,” I said.

“Are you sad?” she asked.

I worried about what to say. She was a very young child, I couldn’t burden her with my failure to draw comfort from the doctrine of eternal life. “I’m a little bit sad,” I said.

“I’m a lot sad,” she said. And that’s when it hit me. I was an idiot, and my five-year-old niece was wise.

“I’m a lot sad, too,” I said.

Mormonism is not big on ritual. We have a few ordinances that have to be done a certain way, words that have to be said in a precise order; the most holy things we do–the sacrament, baptism, laying on hands, most everything in the temple–have to be done just so, the same every time. But for the most part, as we live our religion from day to day, we eschew ritual and repetition for fear of falling into mere routine or habit, rendering our behavior empty, rote, dead; we strive to be worthy of the Spirit so we can be guided by the Spirit. The Spirit always knows the right thing to do. But if you don’t have the Spirit, what do you do then? You flounder, and you’re lost.

At least that’s how it is for me. When I have nothing to say to God, I stop praying. Sometimes I would love to have a prayer or two that has already been written for me, that I had to say, just so that I could keep up some kind of conversation with my Heavenly Father, even if it would (as my Primary and Sunday School teachers always warned) bore Him to tears. Maybe I wouldn’t meant it. Maybe it would be insincere. But guilt or some other feeling or obligation would make me say it, and maybe I wouldn’t flounder; maybe I wouldn’t be lost.

I am a slothful servant who needs to be commanded in all things. Many times I would have been grateful for a religion with 613 commandments that told me everything I needed to do, especially when it came time to mourn and I was just fresh out of ideas myself.

My sisters and I dressed my mother for her burial. It was not the spiritual experience I’d been led to hope for. It was an experience, and I’m grateful for it; I’m grateful for the ritual and the feeling that I did something that I was supposed to do. I’d been taught to expect more, though; even if no one meant to teach me that, it was what I learned. “We are close, very close, to the spirit world at the time of death,” said Elder Boyd K. Packer. “There are tender feelings, spiritual communications really, which may easily be lost if there is not a spirit of reverence.” My sisters remarked while we were dressing her that our mother’s body was “not her.” Without a spirit, the body is just a body. But my mother’s body was my mother’s body; I didn’t want it to not be her. I wanted to feel something else.

We dedicated her grave four months after she was buried. We did it on the morning of my wedding day, in fact. The timing was odd and not ideal, but two of my sisters lived out of state and would only be there for a couple days; no other time slot would work. I told my dad I didn’t mind, and I don’t think I did. After all, what did I know about how to grieve or how to get married? What else would I do on the morning of my wedding? Would should I have done?

In my father’s prayer, he made specific mention of me getting married that day. He asked for a blessing on me, that I’d remember that true happiness would come from keeping my covenants.

My mother died early on a Sunday morning. At the time I was in the Relief Society presidency of my singles ward, and I had responsibilities that needed to be attended to. I called the Relief Society president and told her that my mother had died and that I would be there for sacrament meeting but probably not for the other two hours. “Rebecca,” she said, “you don’t have to come to sacrament meeting.”

Well, of course. Of course I didn’t have to go to sacrament meeting. No one expected me to. But I did anyway. I didn’t know what else to do.

While I was sitting there in the chapel–so unnaturally quiet without any children–and the sacrament was being passed, I had the most intense transcendent experience of my life. It’s too personal to share, but for a few seconds I knew as much as it’s possible for any mortal to know that there is a life after this one, and that God is very merciful. More merciful than I would have previously given Him credit for. It is only a memory now–a very faded memory, stale and cold and gathering dust, and most of the time I don’t know what to do with it–but I can never give it up because it is upon those few seconds in sacrament meeting that I hang my whole testimony. It has saved me more times than I can count. And I have that memory because on the Sunday that my mother died, I did the only thing I knew how to do, which was fall back on habit, on routine.

All of this is on my mind because on conference weekend I was back at my father’s house, and on Sunday we took my grandmother to the cemetery to put flowers on my grandfather’s grave, and we took that opportunity to place some on my mother’s as well. It had been years since I’d been to the cemetery. I didn’t remember where her grave was. My father couldn’t remember her plot number. It took us a while to find her. My father isn’t sentimental, but he is dutiful. He cut the flowers and put them in water, and then he left me to go tend to my grandmother.

I didn’t know what to do. My mother wasn’t there. Should I be saying something? Should I be thinking something? Should I be trying to connect with her spiritually, somehow? Would it work, or would I be disappointed, again? My experience in sacrament meeting thirteen years ago has never been repeated, and I don’t expect it ever will; I wouldn’t even dream of asking for such a thing. So there I was, in the cemetery, staring at a grave marker, and once again, I was at a loss for words.

Bookmark Ritual

Comments

  1. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

    an implicit commandment not to grieve, or not to grieve too much

    yes, yes, YES.

    It’s an awful burden. And stories like this one help alleviate it. Thank you, RJ.

  2. Steve Evans says:

    I am relatively unfamiliar with grief; I see it looming on the horizon, I know it’s inevitable and I fear its coming. I suspect that you’re right, Rebecca – we don’t have a lot of structure around our grieving. I wonder if this is a blessing or a curse.

  3. I work with funeral directors – I do PR, marketing and websites for them. I have watched people during a visitation – as they share their stories of their loved ones, they share their grief and when grief is shared – it’s lessened. Just like the shiva – it;s for the ones who are left behind.
    Alan Wolfelt is a specialist in grief therapy – and he talks about grief being a journey and no journey is alike. But, if we don’t grieve, we carry the burden inside of us forever.
    That being said – I so understand your words. As an adult child of an alcoholic, I learned at a very young age to hide my feelings. I am afraid of my grief – sometimes I feel that if I start crying, I might never stop. I am trying to slowly work through my grief – step by step. My journey is just beginning and I feel that it’s going to take some time. But, I feel better just knowing I started it. Good luck with your journey!!!

  4. Antonio Parr says:

    Jesus wept outside the tomb of Lazarus, and we should feel no shame in doing likewise.

    Although Jesus conquered permanent death, our experience with physical death nevertheless has a sense of finality about it that is quite painful. It is hard thing to grasp that, for the rest of our mortal journey, we will be sojourning without the companionship of loved ones who are so deeply connected to the deepest essence of who we are as humans.

    Richard Cracroft once told the story of going to a funeral of a beloved elderly relative, who had 2 daughters. One entered the chapel on the day of the funeral weeping unconsolably. The other was calm and composed, saying almost cheerfully that her mother was in a better place and about the Lord’s business.

    Turn the page, and months later the weeping daughter was in a safe place emotionally, while the strong-as-steel daughter was in counseling attempting to deal with the loss of her beloved mother.

    The heavens weep. Mary wept. And, as mentioned above, so did our Lord. We should do likewise whenever earth gives us painful reminders that we are not yet at that holy place and time where there will be no more death and no more sorrow and no more tears.

  5. What a gorgeous piece of work. I agree, the gospel doesn’t help us to grieve; it helps us to celebrate and to look forward to seeing our loved ones again, but that is not a replacement for grief, and we’re kind of on our own there. . . somehow a lot of us get the message that too much sadness can represent a lack of faith. Death is a huge loss, even if we’re taught it is only temporary. And I love what you’re saying about routine. There is a place for routine when the feelings behind the action are suddenly inaccessible. Fake it till you make it. Also there is a beauty in routine that should be celebrated and not put down like we often do. In the absence of all else familiar, it is such a comfort to perform the same rituals over and over. Anyway, this was a beautiful read, and I’m so glad I found this place, it is such an uplifting part of my day now.

  6. Antonio Parr says:

    My prior posted neglected to mention my appreciation for the beauty and eloquence of Rebecca’s post.

  7. Beautiful, Rebecca. And thank you.

  8. I just lost my mom a couple months ago at age 51. She was there at my wedding, but she won’t be there for three of my siblings’. In any case, thank you so much for this beautiful story. I’ve never cried at a blog post before, but I’m crying more now than I have in weeks.

  9. Ritual and grief…
    When my disabled son died 20 years ago, my husband refused to have any of the rituals. I accepted because I hate funerals. After a simple graveside memorial with just our other children and my parents, we went home and danced to Dire Straits, “Walk of Life.” We believed he was released from a mortal body that had many problems and now he could walk and dance in another life. My parents were shocked but didn’t interfere. We spent a couple of quiet days at home together, then I went back to work to be with other people that I cared about. I didn’t know what else I was supposed to do either.

    The grief never goes away. I cry a lot at funerals and almost always when I think about my son. People say I don’t have a true testimony if I cry this easily. I disagree. The ritual of remembering and honoring a life and sharing love and remembrances with others is the only thing I like about funerals. I’m lucky to have a large family, which means I’ve been to a lot of funerals. I agree with Terri that each grief journey is unique. I don’t believe that if I’d gone through all the rituals, my grief would be any less.

    Mormonism may not be big on ritual, but Mormons are. We have a lot of explicit and implicit expectations. I agree that rituals are important, if their purpose has been explained so they are thoughtful actions. Rote prayers, hymns that you sing to yourself, family traditions all have a place if done with meaning. Habitual actions can help you get back to the meaning when you’re temporarily lost. I don’t believe in using the “shoulds” to beat yourself and think you’re not doing it right.

  10. Molly Bennion says:

    I just returned from playing golf alone on a course I used to play with my now deceased father. Playing it alone is an occasional private ritual I treasure. I talk to Dad, ask his advice on a bad shot, reach out for a high five on a good one. I rarely cry as I play anymore, but, although Dad and I both believe there is a better life beyond, and I really doubt he has time to be aware of my round, I love a little uninterrupted time to remember and cherish a great man, to acknowledge I miss him and always will, to be grateful he is my father, and to hope he’s played with Arnie and Ben on a heavenly Pebble Beach or Pine Valley.

  11. “They didn’t expect me to go to work or plan a wedding or do any other normal life things, but what was I supposed to do instead?”

    For me, when my mom died, it was the normal life things that kept me going. Dishes had to be done, washing had to be done, groceries had to be bought. That sense of normalcy and routine kept me from falling into a well of self pity. I was off work for a few days to make all the arrangements and whatnot, but then it was back to work.

    I suppose, in a way, those were my rituals. Since I was living with my mom at the time, I had to do all of those mundane, daily tasks alone, and with each one, I was able to step a little further out of grief as the new routine actually became routine.

  12. Thanks for capturing this tense, fraught moment. There is something about being mortal together–an experience not to be repeated, even if it is subsumed ineffably into eternity–that fills us with yearning and sadness when it is disrupted. To grieve the fact that we and someone we love will never be mortal together again is no lack of testimony. In a sense, it is a fervent testimony to the meaning of earthly embodiment.

    My work on Joseph Smith and the first generation of Mormons has persuaded me that there is an insoluble tension between religious aspiration and human grief, and it is life lived in that insoluble tension that makes of mere mortals the eternal beings that we so desperately hunger to become. In the sadness comes the power to believe, and in the belief comes a meaning to the sadness rather than its elimination.

    PS, if you’re interested in some of the historical background, I cite a lot of it in my introductory material. An atheist British social anthropologist named Geoffrey Gorer called the West to something like repentance in 1955, with an essay based around the concept of “the pornography of death.”

  13. This is just fantastic, Rebecca. Having had to deal with a lot of grief recently, including the death of my own mother, I understand and appreciate this intensely.

    And this:

    “It is only a memory now–a very faded memory, stale and cold and gathering dust, and most of the time I don’t know what to do with it–but I can never give it up because it is upon those few seconds in sacrament meeting that I hang my whole testimony. It has saved me more times than I can count.”

    I know exactly what you mean by this because I have had a similar experience. I often think that it’s not supposed to be so singular. We are supposed to have those experiences a lot more often and they are available if we seek them. But we usually don’t. So I just hold onto the one I have had for dear life.

  14. Thank you for this Rebecca. Your sweet experiences and willingness to be open to share touched me deeply.

  15. Beautiful post Rebecca. Thank you.

  16. Thanks.

  17. I’ll sound like a mimic, but, Rebecca, this was a beautiful post. Thanks.

    And, to Molly–I trust your father will have to wait a while yet for that celestial round with Arnie–he’s still very much alive and on this earth! :-) On the other hand, maybe Arnie gets special priveleges at those courses too because his contributions to the game.

  18. Molly Bennion says:

    Mark B, How embarrassing! If Dad weren’t already mortified, as it were, he’d be mortified. But I’m glad. Guess I should read the golf journals.

  19. I am at a loss for words. But thank you for this.

  20. I love this post, Rebecca. Thanks so much for writing and sharing this. I’m like Steve (#2) in that nobody close to me has ever died (unlikely, I know–probably a ticking time bomb or maybe I’ll go before anyone else). But, at least in my own little experience, I agree with Kathryn (#1) that you nailed it precisely with your point about the feeling that we’re not supposed to grieve too much.

    Also, I’m reminded of some discussion that followed fMhLisa’s posts about her father’s death last year (e.g., here). I realize commenters are a self-selected group, but lots of people definitely sounded like they needed to mourn the deaths of loved ones, cultural pressure to buck up and be happy be darned.

  21. “cultural pressure to buck up and be happy be darned”

    You know, I have to say I haven’t experienced any such cultural pressure. No one ever told me to buck up and be happy (and if they did I would have knocked them on their ass). Rather, my experience was closer to what Rebecca talked about: people saying that you need to “take time to grieve” and suggesting that you need to cry or experience grief on the surface or in a way that is recognizable to them.

    There is defininitely cultural pressure on people who lose loved ones, but it seems to me that it’s usually driven by well-meaning but ultimately ham-handed attempts to get you to grieve their way instead of your way.

  22. Latter-day Guy says:

    This was lovely. Touching, insightful, and honest –– thank you.

  23. Ah well, MCQ, like I said, I don’t have experience in this area, so I’m encouraged to hear it maybe doesn’t exist (or is weaker than I guessed).

  24. “cultural pressure……. be darned”

    OK, this made me laught harder than I have in two or three days. Ziff, I think it’s really funny that you bowed to cultural pressure and used darn. You can say damn if you want, it’s in the scriptures. :-)

  25. Rebecca, I’m sorry for your loss. I don’t want to take away from the tenderness of this post, so I hope I won’t in sharing a few thoughts.

    I find myself wondering after reading this if a ritual like shiva really addresses the core of what I feel Rebecca is talking about here. I understand the need for something predictable in the immediate time period after a death, but after that week, don’t people who have have a set, immediate ritual still have to figure out how to process their grief in their continuance of day-to-day living? And are all rituals really healing, or aren’t some possibly pretty empty in their own right?

    I actually find myself thinking that, if anything, Mormonism in a way gives us MORE ritual on which to rely, ways to invite the truth of the plan of salvation and the power of the Spirit into our lives to help us process grief and endure trials. I find great power and comfort in the need for ‘the basics’ — daily prayer and scripture study (personal and family), weekly church meetings, weekly FHE, regular temple attendance. Someone even mentioned the rituals associated with daily life, which in and of themselves have doctrinal significance in our fallen, mortal existence.

    I know with the following, now, I will be preaching to the choir, but I think it’s essential for to remember that our doctrine includes both the place for grief (“Thou shalt live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die”) as well as the peace, if not rejoicing, found in the doctrine of the resurrection. Gospel living is all about paradox, and we shouldn’t be surprised when death brings extremes of both ends of the spectrum.
    “The only way to take sorrow out of death is to take love out of life.” (from Elder Nelson)

    Back to the idea of actual death rituals — I can’t help but wonder if some of the openness of our own more general ‘rituals’ (our gospel living practices) invites us to reach out more, to connect more deliberately and personally with God in our trials. Could it be that we might lean on ritual too much if we had it?

  26. it seems to me that it’s usually driven by well-meaning but ultimately ham-handed attempts to get you to grieve their way instead of your way.

    I think sometimes it is also about sheer discomfort about not knowing what to say or do. A friend talked about how YW leaders pretty much avoided talking about her mother’s death because they were just plain uncomfortable.

    I’d be curious to hear what ‘rituals’ people have found helpful in processing death. Maybe there are things people have tried that might work for others. ??

  27. Thanks, Mark. I just didn’t want to risk feeling the heavy hand of the ban. I know how BCC is supposed to be a family blog and all. :)

  28. m&m:

    I liked your comment #24. It’s possible you’re right about that. Certainly not all rituals are healing. I found planning and doing my mother’s funeral exhausting, although some details of it were beneficial.

    My favorite thing was writing the obituary. Somehow sitting down and creating that written piece about her felt good and made me feel closer to her. There was also a surprisingly wonderful talk by her friend at her funeral that made me feel I was getting to know her in ways I never had before.

  29. Latter-day Guy says:

    “Could it be that we might lean on ritual too much if we had it?” Sure, it could happen –– but any good thing can be mis/over-used. I probably drive on occasions when it might be better to walk, but I’m not going to get rid of my car! :-)

  30. This must be why some the Law of Moses was so wanted. You knew exactly what to do and what not to do. Sometimes knowing exactly what to do can be so comforting. At other times, it my get in the way of beautiful experiences like the one you had in the Chapel. Had you been sitting Shiva you may have missed it. A very touching post. Thank you for sharing it.

  31. At other times, it my get in the way of beautiful experiences like the one you had in the Chapel.

    And yet, that beautiful experience was brought about by ritual in and of itself — just not ritual tied with death.

    I think your point about the law of Moses captures some of what I was thinking. Sometimes we seek for comfort in the defined when it’s really in the tension and the unknown space that we can often find God.

    I guess in a way, I’m sort of contradicting myself, but more, in a way, I think we have both structure and the lack thereof as a sort of balance to help us both keep on track and keep connected with God, and not lean too hard on anything but God.

  32. Antonio Parr says:

    Here is one LDS ritual/quasi-ritual that I find a bit unsettling, and which seems to exemplify the trend in some LDS circles to shun mourning: Family reunion photos at the gravesite.

    The fist time that I experienced this was at the gravesite of a beloved LDS in-law. As fate would have it, I was called over for the family group shot during a private, tearful moment, and then was left with the dilemma as we were posing for the picture over whether I should allow the camera to capture my grief, or smile cheerfully, or take a neutral pose. It felt quite unnatural to me.

    I know that this practice is quite common in LDS circles, and chalk it up to the unfortunate perception by some of our fellow saints that a display of grief is somehow a display of an absence of faith/testimony.

    As for my funeral rituals, they are simple: I participate in the planning of the funeral, which includes beautiful, hopeful music; expressions of faith and gratitude for the atonement of Christ; and warm rememberances of the loved one who has left our mortal sides.

    And I embrace the pain, and, in so doing, feel a deeper sense of wonder and worship for the one who so bravely and purely conquered the unfathonable collective weight of sin and death. Thanks be to Christ.

  33. esodhiambo says:

    I loved this; like Steve and Ziff, I have not grieved. I hope I deal with it as well as many of you have.

    Our modern American life is relatively estranged from death, isn’t it? I did not attend a funeral until I was 22, and then it was the funeral of my great grandmother, whose quality of life had abandoned her several years previously. Her funeral was much more a celebration/family reunion than what I expected of a funeral.

    When I lived in Africa, my community was on a first-name basis with death. I could have attended a funeral every week. We (teachers, although not me, personally) actually vetted the people for whom our students could go and mourn for, otherwise many could easily miss most school days. That community had rigorous social rituals for death: they were strongly enforced by the community through taboos. The repercussions for not, for example, paying of any remaining bride price owed a (dead) wifes’ family, shaving your head to signal your mourning for a dead husband, killing a cow to feed everyone who appeared for the funeral, or staying up 3 (for females) or four (for males) nights to mourn (accompanied by music and dance), etc. could have had social repercussions that lasted your whole life.

    Anyway–sorry–that is a tangent. The feeling I always got when I observed the socially proscribed mourning, though, was that it was kind of a cop out. When you do all that, and really have no choice about doing it, it probably isn’t that helpful for you personally–it is just your job at that time. That said, prolonged mourning rituals like that at least give you TIME, and with that time, although you might be doing things that are not that helpful to you, at least you are dedicating some time to your loved one, and maybe it would help a bit.

    Anyway–I don’t know anything, but I appreciate this thread. Thanks.

  34. “When I have nothing to say to God, I stop praying. Sometimes I would love to have a prayer or two that has already been written for me, that I had to say, just so that I could keep up some kind of conversation with my Heavenly Father”

    I feel the same way. Maybe next time I’m in a valley of not being able to pray, I’ll use the Lord’s Prayer as a substitute for my own prayer. Thanks for sparking that idea, Rebecca – your post was lovely.

  35. So timely for me. That was beautiful. Thank you.

  36. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

    There is defininitely cultural pressure on people who lose loved ones, but it seems to me that it’s usually driven by well-meaning but ultimately ham-handed attempts to get you to grieve their way instead of your way.

    Well said, MCQ.

    From what I’ve experienced there’s certainly room in our culture for surface grief. But the kind that rips your life and perhaps your faith to shreds? Not so much.

    We reject others for feeling quantities and/or qualities of emotion we fear for ourselves.

  37. Antonio Parr says:

    No. 33 – You may appreciate the following poem by Steven Wright, entitled “Borrowed Words”:

    It is a justifiable theft
    This praying of borrowed words.
    My own words gave out years ago
    Like the wind when a ship hits the doldrums.
    I drifted
    Prayerless
    Until I learned to borrow words.

    Now the pleas of Heman and Solomon,
    The plaints of Asaph and David
    Propel me on
    As they leap from my lips
    Heavenward.
    Carried by Christ.

    They were his words first,
    Borrowed by psalmists
    And borrowed back when
    Hanging on the cross he cried,
    My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?
    Surely, my God,
    Thou wilt not forsake me
    If I borrow Thy words
    And offer them back to Thee.

  38. When my grandfather died a few years ago, my five brothers and I all managed to gather back on the farm. We went to the family viewing at the mortuary and it was hard. Death hadn’t been kind. Grandpa looked like he’d had a really rough time, and it weighed rather heavily on us.

    Later that night found the six of us out in the field, putting fireworks on a clay pigeon thrower, lighting them, and sending them soaring through the cold February night. It helped like nothing else could. Bottle rockets, Roman candles, fountains, firecrackers, our entire stash of illegal goods went sailing through the air spewing sparks and flames in every possible direction.

    For some people in the Church, ritual consists of peeling potatoes, putting water on to boil, and getting ham out of the freezer. Other people have rituals of running through the home of the deceased, scooping up anything that might have a place on Antiques Roadshow someday. My brothers and I have a new ritual – sending Chinese gunpowder sailing through the air, letting everyone for miles around know that “those boys are all home”, sending a signal to the heavens that a great man with a rich legacy is headed home, and his boots are ready to kick the tail of anyone who stands in his way. Later on, we lamented how dumb it was that we didn’t do things right, and get a dozen sticks of dynamite, some blasting caps, and plenty of primer cord. Grandpa had, after all, taught us the Proper Method for getting rocks out of the fields. I imagine that the next time we have a family funeral, we’re going to be sorely disappointed if we don’t have a visit from the county sheriff.

    The best part of not having established mourning rituals is that we have the freedom to create our own.

  39. ummquestion says:

    “In my experience this translated to an implicit commandment”

    So often when I translate things through the individual complexities of my own experiences I end up implying things to God’s gospel that He never intended.

    Because Mormonism doesn’t tell us “how to grieve”, or dictate what we are “supposed to do” it allows for each individual to walk that painful path according to their own capacities and sensitivities. For example, if I found myself unable to sit for seven days I might feel guilty or be viewed as disrespectful by others. If I found myself unable to utter a specific prayer due to the condition of my heart, would I have to choose between offering it as a hypocrite or avoiding it altogether and feeling unable to gain comfort from my own religion when I needed it most?

    He plainly tells us to “mourn with those who mourn”-which seems to create more mourning, not less of it. As someone else stated, Jesus wept, more than once. It seems to me that those with “broken hearts” and contrite spirits are the ones that the scriptures declare have the greatest, most immediate access to God’s comfort and peace.

    #36 said- “From what I’ve experienced there’s certainly room in our culture for surface grief. But the kind that rips your life and perhaps your faith to shreds? Not so much.
    We reject others for feeling quantities and/or qualities of emotion we fear for ourselves.”

    May I add the perspective that what might look or feel like rejection could be something else? Like a lack of knowing how to help or relate to a person going through a situation that hasn’t been experienced personally? Most people choose to say nothing (or do nothing) out of the “fear” that they will make things worse or more painful by saying or doing the WRONG thing.

  40. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

    #39, the “implicit commandment” is cultural, not doctrinal. It has nothing to do with God or his gospel.

    Most people choose to say nothing (or do nothing) out of the “fear” that they will make things worse or more painful by saying or doing the WRONG thing.

    Yes. But I maintain that we reject others for having emotional reactions that frighten or unsettle us.

  41. But I maintain that we reject others for having emotional reactions that frighten or unsettle us.

    I think *some* may do this, but I am not a fan of wide, sweeping generalizations. There are plenty of people who are willing to embrace others’ pain right along with them.

    Like you. :)

  42. Antonio Parr –

    Thank you for posting that poem. It really enriched my day.

  43. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

    Thanks, m&m. But I’m not so sure that’s true. I’m eager to embrace those whose pain I understand or approve of. But when someone’s emotional state frightens or unsettles me, I rarely embrace them. I tend to avoid them, criticize them (under the guise of loving concern), and/or try to talk them out of what they’re experiencing so I can feel better.

    Perhaps I’m in the minority.

  44. This was such a helpful post, along with all the comments that went along with it. Thanks, Rebecca, for sharing. We have so little familiarity in dealing with grief before it actually happens to us, this type of story telling seems to me to be very helpful. In that spirit, I’ll share a bit of my experience.

    My wife and I each lost our mothers within about 10 days of each other about 8 years ago. What with having to explain things at work, arrange for our family to all get to Utah, come back home to Washington, and then repeat it all a week and a half later left us a little bit stunned, I think. We barely had time to think about it all, but it was the small amounts of ritual that held us all together.

    I ended up speaking at both funerals, which helped me to look at the whole process of death from an eternal perspective. The public viewings, the graveside dedication, and family meals provided by the wards our parents lived in helped us to deal with the immediate sense of loss. Like Rebecca, it only took one look to see that my mother’s body was empty of all the vitality and presence that I loved her for, and I knew she was elsewhere.

    I really felt that I had dealt with it all fairly well, and then my Dad died about 18 months later, the same day my daughter got married. Another quick trip to Utah, the funeral, graveside viewing, and meal in the cultural hall, then back in the car and head home. Even then, I felt I was doing okay.

    About two years later, as I was pulling on to the freeway to head to work one morning, it hit me just how much I missed both of my parents, and my wife’s mom, and I had to pull over and just let the tears go. After a couple of minutes, I was okay again. Grief is a funny thing, and we each deal with it differently. Why it took several years for it to finally reach ripeness, I have no idea, but I’m glad I had the experience.

  45. OK, so Kathy, is what you are describing a *Mormon* thing or a *human* thing? Where it exists, I think it’s human, not particularly peculiar to LDS culture.

    I think at some level it’s hard to expect humans to be able to respond to every situation. Empathy is earned through the crucible of experience, not something easily developed simply by choice, or on demand face with the needs of others.

    Our doctrine does give us the motivation to seek for gifts and help with charity and compassion, though. But I can’t help but wonder if we expect a little much from each other sometimes within our culture.

  46. ummquestion says:

    To Kathryn L.S.-

    #39, the “implicit commandment” is cultural, not doctrinal. It has nothing to do with God or his gospel.

    I agree that it is not doctrinal-that’s why I said “So often when I translate things through the individual complexities of my own experiences I end up implying things to God’s gospel that He never intended.”

    While there may well be some cultures that define how much grief is appropriate and how much is not, my response was directed at how I as an individual create my own implications.

    I think perhaps my argument is against the word “reject”. I might avoid getting involved further with someone whose grief is so pervasive that all attempts have proven that I can bring no comfort, or provide no alleviation. But “avoiding” a specific circumstance is not the same thing as rejecting the person IN that circumstance. I would still pray for that person and see if I could aid them in other, non direct ways.

    The only emotional state I can think of that would “scare” me would be one where violence or suicidal behavior is present. In both cases I wouldn’t feel better unless I was sure that the person in question was in the hands of those qualified to help them work through it.

  47. or on demand face with the needs of others.

    Er, that should have been ‘on demand when faced with….’

  48. And I also should have said that empathy often comes as a result of experience — I don’t know that it’s really ‘earned.’

  49. Antonio Parr says:

    The few times that I have sat shiva with Jewish friends, they relied heavily upon recitations of scripture during various times in the evening. Latter-Day Saints, of course, shun rote prayers of any kind. That being said, I ask forgiveness of all for reposting this beautiful and intriguing poem by Steven Wright (a Presbyterian minister), and asking those who read it whether the sentiment has a place in Mormonism:

    It is a justifiable theft
    This praying of borrowed words.
    My own words gave out years ago
    Like the wind when a ship hits the doldrums.
    I drifted
    Prayerless
    Until I learned to borrow words.

    Now the pleas of Heman and Solomon,
    The plaints of Asaph and David
    Propel me on
    As they leap from my lips
    Heavenward.
    Carried by Christ.

    They were his words first,
    Borrowed by psalmists
    And borrowed back when
    Hanging on the cross he cried,
    My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?
    Surely, my God,
    Thou wilt not forsake me
    If I borrow Thy words
    And offer them back to Thee.

  50. Antonio Parr says:

    And speaking of feeling forsaken . . .

    Mormons seem programed to avoid even the appearance of doubt or feelings of abandonment. That being said, why was it OK for Jesus to express a feeling of being forsaken, but not us? I think that the Lord has a great deal of tolerance for us as we voice our frustration over our separation from Him, and such feelings are often strongest when we are separated by death from each other.

  51. Latter-day Guy says:

    “…why was it OK for Jesus to express a feeling of being forsaken, but not us?”

    This is precisely why I think our religious experience might benefit from having more “liturgy”. When Jesus expressed that feeling, he did it through words the community held in common (as you mention in #49). Frequent use of the psalms (as in the Liturgy of the Hours) brings one into contact with a great breadth of emotion… much of which is frequently considered “inappropriate” or even “faithless” when expressed by LDSaints in their own words. Having these common texts in more frequent use would, I suspect, validate some difficult emotions/experiences that we do not deal with very well currently.

  52. Absolutely beautiful. I’ve had my own experience like you describe in the chapel and there are many days where I grip it tight with all my strength. And some days I wish it hadn’t come because then I wouldn’t know any different.

    Kathryn #36 –
    “We reject others for feeling quantities and/or qualities of emotion we fear for ourselves.”

    Amen and hallelujah! Boy is that ever the truth. Obviously we reach for empathy when we can, but there is always that superstitious lizard brain afraid of catching what we fear.

  53. #46, this is going in circles.

    If you’ve never disapproved of another person’s emotional state, give yourself a gold star.

    If you’ve never selfishly avoided, criticized, or tried to “fix” someone in pain, give yourself another gold star.

  54. I wonder if part of the lack of death and funerary ritual isn’t a western cultural thing, as well (like reduced-form wedding receptions). A few years ago my great grandmother, a Colorado methodist, died at 95. The viewing at the mortuary on the day before the funeral was only an hour long, but what was so striking to me was that several (non-LDS) family members though it odd that we should all go and stay there for the duration. In contrast, when my Irish catholic grandmother in WV died at 90, it was seen as only natural that the entire extended family be there for the entire viewing period–about 4 hours. Moreover, particularly after the formal wake, it was actually a rather lively time–something my father remembered from the wakes of his childhood in rural west virginia.

  55. m&m, rejecting people whose emotions scare or unsettle us is, of course, a human thing. But my experience has taught me that in addition to common-lot fears and insecurities, we Mormons have a unique package of our own, and this complicates our emotional code of conduct.

  56. I don’t know if it is still in the handbook, but a few years ago there was explicit instruction for whoever was presiding at funerals to make sure the talks focused on the hope to be found in the resurrection and to avoid excessive displays of grief. Who know what an excessive display of grief looks like, though? I know that when my father and mother died, I bawled my eyes out, and to hell with the handbook.

    I also think it really is possible that our most recognizable ritual surrounding death is the serving of funeral potatoes in the cultural hall after the grave is dedicated. We poke a lot of fun at this lowly dish, but there is a lot going on there, and I’m convinced that it is good.

  57. That was beautiful, Rebecca. It is so kind of you offer your story as a lesson for the rest of us. They are dark waters none of us know how to navigate but I believe this is the best and maybe only thing we can do; help others with what we learn. Thank you.
    Kathryn I loved what you wrote- then I clicked on your link. It’s a pathetic bit of synchronicity but I pick up your book all.the.time. And never read it. Having a child with Down’s tops the list of things I am terrified about, react with denial and just can’t bring myself to face. Its hard to know when I am being a coward and should just face my fears and when I am right to be gentle with myself, give myself more time before I take more grief on. Thanks for writing what you did.

  58. Steve Evans says:

    Mark, I think if you have started to gather kindling, wives, possessions and livestock for the pyre, you’ve hit the “excessive display” phase.

  59. Steve, yes we realized those steps would be excessive, so we drew a hard line. Funeral pyres are out, but the ululating is cathartic.

  60. Thank you, Rebecca.

    At my age, when I look at the near future, I see a lot of death and the accompanying grief coming – for both myself and my wife. As someone who tends to live in the moment and “let things roll off me”, I’m not sure how I will handle it – and I deeply appreciate this post.

  61. ummquestion says:

    #53

    I apologize for whatever I said that causes you to insinuate that I seek gold stars for any reason.

    You seem to either be missing my point or ignoring it to prove your own. I believe it is entirely possible to disapprove of someone’s behavior or be critical or try to “fix” another person without REJECTING that person outright.

    You believe what you believe, and I believe differently.

    #50 and #51
    A few scholars believe that the statement you refer to is a mistranslation or a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic (which most scholars believe was language spoken by Jesus) which means “My God, My God, for this I was kept [this was My destiny-I was born for this].” If Christ had been quoting Psalms 22 (and David’s feeling of being “forsaken” by God) His words would have been in Hebrew.

    Either way, (to me) it does not reveal a “loss of faith” or lack of it because moments later He asks God to forgive those who crucified Him and commends His spirit into the hands of His Father.

    No one wants to feel pain. No one enjoys being separated from those they love. The loss of a loved one creates profound grief, and loss no matter how much faith you have. I believe that “some” Mormons have a hard time understanding why the loss of a loved one causes “other” Mormons to lose or lessen their faith in God or the Church because they accept that separation and suffering and pain is PART of mortality and thus part of God’s plan. Because these Mormons find their fullest joy and comfort in Christ, and embrace Him more in times of trial and suffering, they struggle to understand why someone else wouldn’t do the same thing.

    But that doesn’t mean they don’t ask “why?” That doesn’t mean they don’t mourn, and cry, and experience the same profound loss and grief as anyone else.

  62. #57: Hugs and blessings.

    #61: I believe disapproval, criticism, and selfish attempts at fixing others are forms of rejection. Your mileage may vary.

  63. Latter-day Guy says:

    If Christ had been quoting Psalms 22 (and David’s feeling of being “forsaken” by God) His words would have been in Hebrew.

    That’s surprising. After all, I can quote the 22nd psalm in English! Are you suggesting that Jesus was not familiar with the Septuagint?

    In any case, that is all beside the point. The Psalms are still canon (regardless of what Christ was actually saying/quoting); I still believe that greater exposure to them (and some other biblical texts) would help LDSaints to better accept various emotions/reactions without feeling the need to reject, disapprove, criticize, condemn, etc. those who feel them.

  64. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

    That doesn’t mean they don’t mourn, and cry, and experience the same profound loss and grief as anyone else.

    I respectfully disagree. Grief that shreds your worldview is far more traumatic than grief that does not. Hopefully you’ll never have to find this out for yourself.

    Struggling to understand what others have experienced is an admirable struggle. But if you’re truly interested in learning by proxy, it’s vital to accept that you’re on the outside looking in.

    “We’re just as sad as you–the difference is, we turn to the Savior and you don’t” is an incredibly naive line of thinking. But I can’t certainly can’t point any fingers.

  65. Thank you for this beautiful post.

  66. I lost my father in ’96 when he passed away without warning, I receiving a phone call from my brother-in-law about 2:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning (Gen. Conf. week-end). I was and the only member of my immediate family to have joined the Church.
    My mother asked me to do the eulogy. And as I think back, that made me focus on a task, a duty so that I had to set aside my own grief for I was very close to my father even though we never saw eye to eye on some point.
    And Rebecca, I wholly heartedly agree that as a Church we as a whole seem to give little to those who find themselves under such circumstances. As individuals we do share but even then it seems as though some tell us that the individual died for a purpose, that God needed him or her somewhere else and yet, I ask, but didn’t I need him here for me? for my children? for my grandchildren?
    I must also share that my “brethren” in the priesthood let me down. The Relief Society was there with the food for the wake after the funeral so that we could share time and the sisters who assisted with that showed their compassion through the efforts. But no calls, no nothing from my EQ or Bishopric other than the Bishop coming up to me a few weeks later and saying, sorry to hear you lost your father, nothing more.
    And when I go to Church and sit in lessons (such as last Sunday) where they talk of forever families, I ask what about those whose families never accepted the gospel in this life? How are we comforted with that message?
    Yes, I know, I know. They will be given the opportunity in the spirit world to be taught but on the other hand, we teach that when we leave this earth, we take our weaknesses and our strengths, our vices and our victories with us. It just makes it hard to think my father who liked his whiskey dry, who chewed on cigars but never smoked them and who was more “frisky” than my mom liked, will suddenly change….
    But I know, I KNOW he is in a better place and it is up to me to deal with my grief, my loss even years later…..
    And for that I wish we had something more than the repeated talks that seem not to apply to us….

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,472 other followers