I arrive at the Unitarian Fellowship in Big Flats, NY a little early on Sunday morning. I need spaciousness and inner quiet to set up and lead a Ritual of Remembrance for this community. This is my second visit as their guest service leader.
Inside, a few people unstack chairs and mingle as I set up a round table for an altar. I place one red candle in the center surrounded by thirty unlit votive candles.
When I was here in March, it was below zero. This November day is mild and sunny, so more than thirty arrive. They know we will deal with grief. I feel their wariness.
“May the children join us?” Jackie Wilson, the woman who invited me, asks. “They usually have their own gathering, but they might enjoy this.”
“Yes, sure,” I say. “All ages welcome.” I know this simple ritual works for everyone.
After Jackie opens the service with readings, sharing, and a song, I light the central candle and read Mary Oliver’s poem “Heavy,” including these lines.
“…It’s not the weight you carry
but how you carry it –
books, bricks, grief –
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it
when you cannot and would not,
put it down….”
“Please write the name of someone or something you love that has died on a 3×5 card,” I say while I hand around cards and pens.
“What if I want to write more than one?” someone asks.
“Write on one card or two. It will work out. It always does.” I wait as people write more names and wipe tears.
“Please pass your cards to the person on your right. Now pass to the right again.”
I begin by reading the name on the card I hold. Just one name followed by a short love note to a dog. A little girl comes to the altar with her mom and lights a candle. After they sit down, I motion for the person next to me to read a card. We soon get the rhythm of read, listen, and light a candle or two. We hear names of parents, spouses, friends, children, and pets. Hugs wait for people who need them when they return to their seats.
Someone calls, “Vic Mansfield. Husband. 1941-2008.” I light a candle for Vic and reach for another.
"This candle is for Vic’s mother. She hasn’t been able to grieve for her son, so I’ll light a candle for him in her place.” As I light my votive candle from the large candle, I’m grateful to feel tenderness for Vic’s mom, my adversary for so many years.
As we call names and light candles, the room grows quieter. I stand near the table, watching and adding candles. We need nearly sixty. Everyone, including the children, settles into the silence of sacred space.
Even in a strong community such as this one, grief isn’t part of everyday conversation unless we consciously invite it in. It isn’t easy to make our losses public and bare our souls. We quit trying when we’re met with platitudes and well-meaning instructions for getting over it.
Today, we do not ask for a way to fix grief. We simply acknowledge our losses together.
After another song and a closing of the altar, the community gathers around food. We are still hungry for life.
Have you taken part in a community grief ritual? I’m thankful for many planned and spontaneous rituals in response to the tragedy in France. I hope you’ll find useful ideas in Creating a Grief Ritual or in this article and adaptation from my book called Solstice Blessings: A Family Ritual of Remembrance and Love.
Elaine Mansfield’s book Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief won the 2015 Independent Publishers Book Award Gold Medal for Aging, Death, and Dying. Her TEDx talk is "Good Grief! What I Learned from Loss." Elaine gives presentations and workshops and has been a Hospicare volunteer since 2009 in a variety of roles.
For more information about Elaine’s book and other work, see her website and her blog.
Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief http://elainemansfield.com/about-elaine/new-release
Good Grief! What I Learned from Loss https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBzEwf1k59Y