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Caring for Those Who Have Died

During this time of the pandemic when the fear of death and increased likelihood of loss is on our minds, I have been thinking of how to extend care to those who have died.  Part of this stems from living in New York State, where so many have died in the last weeks.  Part of the inquiry stems from thinking of their families, deprived of the usual vital rituals of funerals, gatherings with families and friends.  My friend Annie in Oakland, whose aged mother died of non-Covid related issues a few weeks ago, cried to me about the painful loss of the rituals that had comforted her when she lost her dad.

All of this reminds me of the agonizing period after our beloved daughter Molly died suddenly in 2006.  What I have not heard often said is how our love and concern for the wellbeing of those we love does not end with their death.  Perhaps this is truest when a child dies or when a life is lost in some way that feels premature or sudden.  Regardless– it was part of the sense of extreme isolation on the heels of loss that most broke my heart.

We created our own rituals.  For a while we put a little food on a plate near Molly’s ashes, especially when we were eating her favorites.  We told stories about her together and created a norm in our now family of four that it was just as OK to tell a story of when she made us laugh or pissed us off as it was to cry.  Authenticity felt and feels like the best way to honor her loyal, adventurous self.

For a year or more, my morning meditation routine of spiritual reading and reflection changed; I read aloud to Moll, mainly from Pema Chodron at that time.  These were the only things I could think to do for her then that offered a slight ease in the tremendous sense of worry I was carrying for her welfare.

Back then a friend gave me a book by Rudolf Steiner of selected talks and meditations on staying connected to those who have died.  I am reading it now, seeking ways to strengthen my connection to God, and to the ancestors and descendants during this unprecedented time, when things that were inconceivable just a few months ago have become the norm.  Reading spiritual texts to the dead is one suggestion Steiner makes.  Another suggestion is that our memories of those who have died offer a beautiful gift, akin to viewing art, for those who have passed.

Somehow this morning, this suggestion made a particular sense to me so I stopped to think of a gift of memory I could make to my friend Annie’s mom Rita, and began to smile.  I remember sitting at Annie’s kitchen table last fall with Rita, Annie and Annie’s daughter Chiara as Chiara wrote down a list of intended guests for her December wedding.  After Chiara’s siblings and parents, and her fiance’s parents and siblings, Rita was number 12 on the list.  I pointed that out to her and we laughed the rest of the afternoon, calling her number 12.

I pause in writing just now and look up at the blue bowl of sky outside the window.  Steiner points out that our understanding of the life of those who have died is akin to our view of the sky.  We see one thing (blue sky) and yet what is beyond it is immense space, stars and galaxies beyond description.  This feels to me like a particularly powerful time to lift our gaze, to ask for help from, and to offer it, to all beings.

This blog is dedicated to Wilma Campbell, a social justice warrior and dedicated Friend in Rochester, NY who died today May 26, 2020– and to all who have died whose spirits blazed a trail through our lives and hearts. 

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