“Mourning never really ends, only as time goes on, as we do our work, it may erupt less frequently.”- Ruth Davis Konigsberg
When people die, collectively we have a bad habit of putting them on a pedestal. Many ancient cultures believed that the dead become gods and goddesses, they acted as a go between from the corporal and ephemeral to the supernatural and everlasting. Some become demons or angels, acting as a revenant that refuses to remain in the grave. The dead in our collective subconscious occupy a space higher and more important that us on Earth. The lofty heights we place our dead upon can be a difficult place to reach for those the departed left behind, but we cope regardless.
As I get older I started to realize that my family also dealt with the dead in a similar method. Now in all fairness, cultures all over the world celebrate those that have passed on; some with daily vigils, others on grand festivals and some with just quiet solidarity. In Japan and China, there is Grave Sweeping Day. Mexico has Day of the Dead, Dia De Los Muertos. Catholics have All-Souls Day, a direct response to the very pagan nature of these types of holidays. Solstices are often times for the spirits to return to the land of the dead and they often need a little help getting there from gourds to candles and the long or short daylight is the sign that the spirits are closer then to us on Earth. These traditions and festivals of a day or two, never spanning more than that, but they bring together all the forces of nature, humanity and the divine in a whirlwind of emotion and reverence. They are communal, they are shared. They are universal. Death is our mutually shared fate and all humans no matter what grieve: sometimes we just do so differently than others.
My family, like most Southern families, puts a great deal of emphasis on calendar dates. Birthdays, anniversaries, graduation dates; these are all incredibly important and to be praised, celebrated and lauded. We have also taken to memorializing death dates and the days associated closely with those dearly departed.
There is only one problem with this: memorializing and deifying is not how I cope with loss and grief.
The details of losing my parents are not what this is about but the point is the difference in how some cope with loss. My family prefers outward displays, they like sharing posts on social media. Sharing pictures. Telling stories. Those are the things my family likes. This is the exact opposite of how I rather deal with it. I came to this conclusion fairly recently and the reason is very economical: if I had to mourn and rehash old feelings every day there was a death date, anniversary or birthday I’d miss out on many days of the year that have to emotionally be dedicated to the loss of an individual.
Here is how my calendar would look if I had to stop, pause and memorialize every single significant date associated with someone close to me who passed away: February 20th, the day my Father passed away. June 7th, the day my Mother passed away. June 18th, my parent’s wedding anniversary. August 14th, the day my grandfather passed away. September 19th, my grandfather’s birthday. October 1st, my Mother’s birthday. October 11th, my Father’s birthday. That’s a decent amount of my calendar that I am to stop, mourn and reflect and that isn’t even all of the dates I should maintain a small vigil on. The swirling essence and spirit of my long lost relatives permeates all the of the day’s thoughts and activities. And it turns out that it isn’t just because of the physical dates themselves but many of them have other associations. My mother also passed away on the day I graduated from high school. The last holiday I celebrated with my parents together was Valentine’s Day before my father passed six days later. Then there’s the matter of conventional holidays. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are not quite the same when neither person physically exists and you’re seen out as just a young woman ‘round town.
“Oh, are you waiting on your parents for brunch?”
“No, they’ve both passed on. I’ll have a glass of Riesling, though…”
As a Catholic I find this particularly interesting because it reminds me a lot of feast days. In Catholicism there is a great liturgy of saints (I have more than once joked and called it the litany of saints because there’s a lot of them) and each one has a feast day which is a Holy Day of Obligation (a day you SHOULD go to mass but probably don’t. I don’t go to every mass. I need to go to more masses.). St. Sebastian’s Feast Day is January 20th. St. Catherine of Sienna’s is April 29th. This list goes on and on. I went to Catholic school for many years and was raised Roman Catholic and when we as young and impressionable students asked why we didn’t miss school every day there was a feast day or Holy Day of Obligation, which I assure is basically every calendar day, we were told because it would take up too much time. These are saints, these are the individuals that the Church and our faith places on a higher platform than us and we are told that our daily lives matter more than the nearly constant vigil we’d have to maintain to obey properly every feast day. Not to ignore their sanctity and reverence but understand that living our lives as they are is truthfully another form of prayer.
In adulthood, I’ve taken to being active these days. Going out, taking in shows, writing, visiting parks and enjoying quiet dinners or brunches. That to me is the best way to honor those that have passed: to keep moving forward. To me, the greatest expression of solidarity and memory to those I lost was to continue my life. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I have a hard time not talking about it. People ask, it’s in the nature of humans to ask. And friends and family worry and are concerned on these days for me. That makes it even harder for my strategy of Keep Calm, Carry On to be put into place. And that’s not to say I never want to be outwardly expressive of certain feelings for those that have passed but those are often rare and more over they are my choice.
I’ve also struggled with this deification of the dead in a very practical sense: my parents weren’t perfect. I won’t slander them, they were lovely and I love them dearly and they loved me. They did the best with the resources that were available to them and that then produced a some what sarcastic but fairly well-adjusted young daughter to live on in their honor. I miss them since both are gone but that does not ignore the simple fact that they were mortal and fallible. They made mistakes. And one of the things that in my adulthood has become difficult to talk about and learn and grow from were the mistakes of my father and mother. My family so wishes to hold on to these perfect versions of them that we can’t discuss the at times tragic failures. How else am I as their daughter to grow? My mother made mistakes. My father did things that now I find questionable as I’ve grown into my own morals. How else am I to further myself if no one is willing to admit that those that once lived might not have been saints on Earth? In all fairness, I do tend to shut down many unsolicited negative remarks about my family entirely but I am more than open to discussion and learning. The key reason I bring up this point is that in most mythos that involve the dead not resting it is often because something is left unsaid or something that still needs to be done and that is often the result of the human agents the dead have left behind. Ghosts arise because there were tasks and purposes were left unfinished. Hungry spirits arise because of improperly burial and to silence detractors that only grew bold when the person died. Wouldn’t it make sense then to let the dead rest by reconciling their great but complicated legacies as opposed to simply making mountains of their molehills?
For a while, I’ll probably continue to be at slight odds with that aspect of communal and seasonal grieving and the over-glorification of mortals. I much rather have a day like O-bon in Japan that is a collective day to those lost. People often travel and return to their home prefectures and visit the graves of ancestors and those passed. After O-bon, they return home; they maintain their personal shrines, their personal vigils but the next ostentatious and outward display won’t come again until New Years when shrines are rededicated. As a Catholic, we have All-Souls for that but O-bon has an appeal to the dual-culturalist in me. In the meantime, my family will still send me photos, share status, call; they’ll do the things that make them feel better. I’ll accept them, their way isn’t wrong; it’s just not mine.