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Praising what once was - how we honor Death

Updated: Nov 8, 2022

Every year for the last decade, I've facilitated a Day of the Dead gathering at my home. This isn't a tradition I was raised with in my family of origin, but through the years, mainly from a Mexica grandmother and a dear sister, I've had the blessing to receive some teachings about this ritual and received the permission to share with others. What I continue to arrive to is how important these ceremonies are, both for honoring what was, and for coming to terms with the reality that death is a part of life.

What I learn from these spaces of honoring the dead is that there are few spaces to actually grieve in our contemporary Western culture. Grieving is necessary and it's a process, whether it's been one month, 9 months or 6 years.

Grieving is a form of praising what once was.

For those of you who've experienced death in your close circles, you know that you are never fully the same afterwards. Death changes us. Sometimes in positive ways - we understand we cannot take life for granted. Time gets pulled into sharp focus. Sometimes in negative ways, things we wish we'd said, regrets, a sense of being broken ever since. This past month I lost my Chilean Aunt Helga, my mother's sister, and her daughter, my cousin Bettina. They were 12,414 km apart, my 54 year old cousin in Leipzig, Germany and my almost 80 year old aunt in Viña del Mar, Chile. They were estranged. And yet, on the same day, possibly the same hour, my aunt took her life and my cousin had a severe brain hemorrhage that left her brain dead.

I have grieved them both and I'm aware of a void there, a void where they were. I'm present to this portal that's been opened - an awareness that death is happening all the time, at any moment. My teachers will die, my parents will die, my sister and brother will die, some point me too.

How do we make the best use of this precious time we have left together?

In conversation with a dear friend who lost her dad this year she shared this.

"You can't know what it's like until you're in it. If you don't embrace death you can't embrace life. It's only painful because of the loss of love, or maybe because of unmet desires. Death, however, is actually very alive. When my dad was dying and after his death I was so present, so in the moment, there was nothing else I cared about except what was just right in front of me. That is a gift and that is beautiful. There are kernels of light within the dark. Don't go away from it. Go towards it, the cracks of light that come through. That light is your heart exploding with grief, joy and gratitude."

If you've never experienced death close-in, it can be a good idea to check on your friends and family who've gone through this in their lives. Certainly many cultures; Jewish, Indian, Mexica, Lakota as example, have clearly defined rituals and traditions to acknowledge death. For the Lakota, grief is something to be valued. It brings a person closer to God. When a person has suffered great loss and is grieving, they are considered ‘the most holy.’ Their prayers are believed to be especially powerful and others would ask the grievers to pray on their behalf.

For many of us raised in a contemporary Western way, there's a wake, a funeral, and then you put your bootstraps on and get back to work. When death first happens, everyone comes around. Pretty quickly, people move on. I have a dear friend who lost her mom and her two sisters this year. It's on me to check on her. I have three friends who's fathers have died this past year. What is that experience like? How are they changed? It's on me to ask.

Think about someone you know that has had a recent death. Maybe you can give a call and say hello. For those of you with elders in your life, perhaps there are questions you'd like to ask before they go. Maybe it's a moment to think about who you'd like to spend more time with and make that a priority.

If not now, when?

Some resources on traditional ways to honor death. I was not raised with these ways so I can only share these writings from the experience of people from those traditions. I'm highly attuned to cultural appropriation so I recommend that if you know someone who lives these traditions you might ask them and learn directly from them.

Shiva tradition in Jewish culture


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