Seventy-seven and a half is, by any measure, a long life. By the time we get this far along the spectrum, we’ve lost important people we’ve loved. We know how to grieve. And we have learned how to sit side-by-side with it – more or less, anyway. By age 77, it’s familiar territory.
Oh, who wants to talk about grief, anyway? It’s so depressing. Well, yes it is, in part. But it’s also common enough in our elderhood that pushing it away can keep us from discovering some surprising lessons. Like the presence of beautiful moments in the midst of grief. Like the sudden surge of an unexpected elation that knocks our socks off. Like the quiet calm that can descend when the storm has abated and the latest tears have been spent. Like the power of creating ritual to honor that which has been lost so that some of it can be found again.
Creating ritual. I did just that recently. I’m so glad I did. It was for the fifth anniversary of the death of my husband, who was my soulmate, my best friend, my biggest cheerleader. Somehow, five years just needed something extra to honor 22 years of loving life together. I just wondered if I could do it justice. Then I thought of my newest motto: “You’ll never know until you try.” If that was potent enough to get me to start a blog, it was a strong enough to handle this. So how to begin…
It needed something visible. It needed something palpable.
Megan Devine has become my go-to guru for all things grief journey related, and her website, www.refugeingrief.com, has taught me well. Recently, just in time for the approaching date, she posted this:
“No matter what you’ve planned, you can change your mind at any time. Keep checking in with your heart about what you might need in any given moment. None of this is easy, even if what you’ve planned goes beautifully.” My ritual needed heart.
That gave me the courage to give it a try. I began to check in with my heart. And lo and behold, it showed me the way. It wasn’t depressing. It wasn’t fearful. I wasn’t telling myself I couldn’t do it. I needed to do it. I wanted to do it.
Step by step, the ritual came into view. It would begin in the evening, since by mid-evening on December 2, 2013, I knew that the end was not going to be long in coming. I would sit vigil this night for 5 hours…the time of waiting and watching.
Heavy Swedish glass candle holders (bought in ancestral Sweden on our magical trip there in 2002); the best pictures gathered together; favorite music (YouTube has never had a better use than it did that night); a favorite dress and times of naming gratitude and remembering the best of who we were – surrounded me with a peace that I could not have imagined. Prayer and meditation knit together the past and the present and I was gently and quietly held in the power of love.
It did go beautifully. And it was painful when the time showed 12:34 am, December 3rd. But the pain of marking that moment was but a short part of the vigil, and what remained was the sacredness of the whole time and the deepest kind of peace that passes all understanding.
See? That wasn’t so bad, was it?
We homo sapiens love ritual. We thrive on it. We’re programmed to be ritual beings. Perhaps that’s because we need to be connected. We have to be connected to something, to someone to find meaning and purpose at every stage of life. And ritual is one way that we do that.
How many of us have holiday rituals? Christmas, spent with my extended family when I was growing up, was filled with little rituals, and deviating from any one of them was heresy! Fourth of July is full of patriotic rituals, connecting us with our national roots and identities. You get the picture.
Funerals and memorial services. Religious worship. Weddings and baptisms. The candlelight vigils after a communal tragedy. Family trips. Reunions. All of the trappings, all the devices, all of the words and music connect us with each other and with the things that most deeply matter in human life: love and commitment; generosity and service; life and death; victory and tragedy; compassion and embrace.
In elderhood, I’m finding that ritual takes on a new depth and a new importance because so much changes in our older years and we can easily struggle with how to live with some new realities that catch us unawares. Ritual can be one way to make sense of new life questions and unanticipated changes.
Something as simple as the decision to take a walk every day becomes a ritual of paying attention to what surrounds us in the big, big world. A Facebook friend who has difficulty walking posted about an unexpected adventure that happened when she had an unusually strong day and decided to chance a walk around a nearby lake. She was rewarded for her persistence when a beautiful blue heron wound up walking near her in the lake – for an hour! Walking is ritual when it connects us with life in all its many forms, with the grand theater that is just waiting for us to get up on stage!
Something as elemental as joining a new group, taking a trip, learning a new hobby, volunteering in a new place, taking on new work all become part of the rituals of our everyday life. Interrupting the familiar flow becomes an adventure, and the meaning of this strange time of life slowly shows its beauty.
Elderhood becomes a special new experience of life because we have been forced to find new ways to connect – to the world, to people, to time, to hope, to the reason for why we’re still alive.
At some point, we learn how to create new rituals that help us to make sense of new realities. Physical limitations, living alone after being partnered, increasing dependence when we’ve had a lifetime of independence all face us with making friends with what life is now. It’s a hearty work that we’re called to do, but doing it is life-saving.
It’s all a part of how I got here, surprised at 77 by the new ways I have found meaning and purpose. And new friends and companions on the journey. And I’m very okay with that!