Rituals for Mourning our Loss

“When words are inadequate, lean on ceremony.”

Wolfelt, A. 2020.

I recently saw a documentary about HRH Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother who was left bereft when her beloved husband, King George VI died. She was asked whether ‘it’ gets better and her response was that she didn’t know that it did, it’s just that we get better at handling ‘it.’ As difficult as mourning the loss of our loved ones is, most accept is that the way to ‘handle it’ is to live your life alongside the cherished memories of them, so that their memory becomes woven into the fabric of your days.  From day one, the need to actively keep Faye alive somehow felt very primal. She may have been torn from me, like an amputation, but I was still her mother and I still needed to parent and protect her, so if all I had left was her memory, I was going to make damn sure I protected it. As far as I was concerned she absolutely had to live on in the hearts, minds and on the tip of tongues of others. So, before her funeral, just days after her death, I wrote a poem about all her wonderful characteristics beginning each line with Remember her … face, her smile, her hair … and it ended ‘Please never forget Faye.’ It was handed out, along with pink chocolate hearts, to all those who attended her wake as I really wanted every single person there to have her memory etched on to their hearts. That’s a big ask and I don’t know whether it worked or whether that poem is now in the bin, the chocolate eaten and whether most give Faye a second thought. Sixteen years on, that primal urge has softened and it doesn’t seem to matter as much whether her world remembers her – all I care about is that she knows her family still loves and misses her.

What I’ve realised is that each time I honour Faye’s memory, I feel like I’m bridging the gap between us and spirit, between heaven and earth so that boundaries between life and death are softened and Faye feels less far away… not gone completely as long as I keep her memory alive and shared.

Rituals can help with keeping their memory alive, although, I don’t necessarily mean rituals in the sense of religious or solemn ceremonies, but more the personal tributes, gestures, words or everyday symbolic actions that can be practised to show that the life of your loved one mattered -and still matters. After the funeral, cremation and burial had taken place, most people’s lives seemed to go back to normal,where as I was living in some kind of parallel universe where time seemed suspended. Rituals were more like routines designed to keep me from the grip of chaos. Getting up, making the bed, getting dressed and brushing my teeth might not seem as though I was cherishing her memory, but it absolutely was as I felt I had to keep going, to awkwardly put one foot in front of the other; to point forward one step at a time, so she wouldn’t be upset by having to watch me fall apart. Having experienced the horror of Faye’s loss, which could not have been predicted, and having to face the unknown territory of living a life without her, the robotic, mundane ritual of routine created a simple existence that felt safe, predictable and structured. It was ground hog day – but that’s what I needed.

rituals absolutely serve a purpose. They hold your hand and guide you as you learn to cope with your loss. They provide structure, meaning and order in wearisome, deranged times.

Faye’s developmental delays meant that she was late to walk and could still be a bit unsteady on her feet, particularly with uneven pavements and so I inevitably picked her up and carried her, more than mums might typically carry a three year old child, and when I lost her, my arms literally ached with the need and longing to hold her again. So, as a gift for the first Christmas we were without our daughter, my husband had a brown mock leather shoulder tote bag made with a sepia all-over-photoprint of her smiling face on it. I adore this bag and I carried it everywhere for years, feeling that wherever we went, Faye came too – to the shops, to a restaurant, to visit friends and family, on holiday; the bag was even allowed in the theatre when I had my C-section to give birth to my youngest child and it literally felt that she was looking over us. I have a photo of me on the operating table, Rob holding Ruby next to my face and you can make out Faye’s face behind us! In fact, there are a few family photos whereby the bag has been positioned so Faye could be sneaked into the shot without anyone else knowing what I was up to. Faye’s tote bag rarely comes out with me now, but to this day, it hangs over the balustrade at the end of the stairs and is the first thing we see as we walk into the house, unless of course the teenagers have flung their coats over it! But to touch it as I make my way upstairs, often saying something to her as I pass, gives me great comfort and its little, everyday actions like this that keeps my daughter with me and my relationship with her alive. Little actions like thinking of her when one of my daughters order calamari in a restaurant, which they always do as a little nod to their big sister, remembering they have been told that, although she was a fussy eater, of all things, she loved a bit of battered squid! It’s the little things like noticing that a pink rose in the garden has suddenly come into bloom and having a little smile because that was the rose bush that her Godmother had paid to be personalised by having it named Faye. Every year, it flowers against the backdrop of leafy green bushes and it really is a beautiful, and lasting tribute. Little actions like taking Faye’s passport with us when we travel abroad to symbolise her coming along too! Which just goes to show that rituals are often the small gestures that might seem strange to others, but make perfect sense to you because they touch your heart and fit your needs and feelings at that time. It’s what we do to cope.

Of course, there are also the rituals that we practice to help us get through the difficulty of birthdays, Christmas and anniversaries. Every Christmas Eve I have bought Faye a Christmas helium balloon, ready to take to the grave on Christmas day. It seems so feeble and a bit mean to just buy her a balloon – but Santa doesn’t seem to deliver to heaven so there aren’t a lot of options. However, there was one year, when it was particularly manic and I didn’t get to the cemetery, instead, the balloon stayed in the dining room and I couldn’t help feel guilty. Until that was, we sat down for our meal and I watched that balloon bob and dance about the room as if Faye was holding onto it as she weaved her way around the table to be amongst us. It turned out to be far more comforting to have the balloon in our home than at a grave and so that is now our traditional way to honour her on Christmas Day.

Rituals work when they evolve with you and it’s good to introduce new ones if, as and when they feel appropriate, as filling the continuing void with new traditions can give respite from the emptiness that will still be there, to some degree, years later.

Often people think that they need to plan how they are going to mark the firsts – the first birthdays, mothers’ day, Christmas, anniversary but often it’s the second and the third or the eighth or the twelfth that can trip you up and this is when rituals and tributes become a coping strategy for the years that follow, when the shock has worn off and the permanence on their loss sets in … and you realise they’re not coming back. To cope with this, I have found that it can feel cathartic to carry out acts of kindness in honour of our children and so, for the last few years, I have chosen to mark Faye’s birthday with a charitable donation. I am putting the money I should have spent on my daughter to good use and it feels satisfying to do so. It helps me get through a sad time knowing that I am doing something beneficial in her name. Currently, I’m pondering how I might honour her 21st birthday and given I have a small handful of her ashes, kept in a Winnie the Pooh trinket box in my bedroom, I might have jewellery made containing these ashes, but only if it feels right to do so. Because, not every ritual has and, some have even felt like a mistake. Like the time when I’d seen the Disney film Tangled, whereby the missing princess’s parents released Chinese lanterns to commemorate the day their daughter was taken and I thought it would be good to do that on Faye’s birthday. Well, we nearly set fire to the next door neighbour’s garage and so didn’t do that again! Another time, I had invited the whole extended family to gather at our home for her ‘sweet’ sixteenth birthday and had mentioned to my sister-in-law that I was thinking of getting some fireworks to light up the sky. Anyway, she said she had a firework left over from bonfire night, the month before, that was just one item but had 16 explosions. It sounded perfect so that was what we did. We gathered at one end of the garden as the firework was lit at the other. Only, it fell on its side and 16 fireworks shot right at us! Fortunately, no-one was hurt apart from a slight red mark on my mum’s foot. My God we were lucky. Can you imagine? The horror of this already sad day would have been made so much worse. Needless to say, I’m totally scared of fireworks now and the only flame I will light from now on, in Faye’s memory is a candle. Lighting a candle, producing a small flicker of light can after all, still have the power to chase away the darkness of loss and for now, that’s enough.

The immense impact of my loss claws at me, it always will, but with the benefit of rituals and the protection they offer, grief does not tear me apart.

And sometimes, all I need is to be quiet and alone. The triggers and the reminders that she’s gone happen randomly all the time but, every October, it’s as if the volume starts to get turned up, one notch at a time until I get to the end of November when I’m totally overwhelmed. I used to think that I had Seasonal Affective Disorder but I think it’s more that this time of the year has become my grief anniversary, an annual moment when I am heavily triggered and reminded that she is gone. We lost Faye in July and as we moved into our new home, just ten days earlier, children were playing in the cul-de-sac and bizarrely, on that Summer’s day, I had said that Halloween was going to be great that year, as Faye had all these children to go trick or treating with. Sure enough, children did come trick or treating that year but by then, Faye had gone.  That painful reminder has stayed with me and I now routinely associate Halloween with it. Then, throughout November, I’m increasingly aware that December looms in front of me when my birthday, her birthday and Christmas will be spent without her and I struggle to cope. Many bereaved mums will tell you that the build up to an important date is often worse than the actual date, with the days leading up to it feeling like impending doom when it becomes increasingly hard to function, to breathe, to cope. So my ritual for November is to withdraw as best I can, to nurture myself, to cry, to lose the plot, to comfort eat, to feel overwhelmed by household chores, to lie on the sofa and binge watch mindless TV. In short, I do whatever it takes for me to prepare my body for the onslaught of emotions it is about to face. July represents my own personal earthquake but October to December is when I feel the tremors and aftershocks. I handle it though. I always do.

I can’t help but picture a powerful metaphor for life where nothing is ever truly broken – the Japanese art of Kintsugi: The centuries-old art of repairing broken pottery with Gold. Yes, we’re broken, but rituals that work, can be like seams of gold, emphasizing our scars, fractures, breaks and cracks for all to see in a beautiful way. We’ll never be the same as we used to be, but how lovely would it be if we can glue ourselves back together with something precious; if we can continue our life story … with glimmers of gold.

How do you cherish the memory of your loved ones? I’d love to hear about your rituals and glimmers of gold.

Published by love-loss-and-life-ever-after

Sharing my experiences of grief after the loss of my daughter Faye.

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