A Meditation on Grief; an Invitation to Vigil

Photo taken by AN Gorniak, March 30th, 2020

I cannot, of course, speak for anyone other than me. We each have our own prism of self through which our inner and outer experiences refract to create a unique shape in the world. And like a suncatcher in the window or a bottle in the ocean, the currents of air and sea can twist us about so that our usual shapes spin wildly, dizzying. We may feel lost, without our usual orientation, the key of our maps no longer applicable to the situations in which we find ourselves. These events- pandemic, severe economic uncertainty, lack of access to resources, social isolation, seemingly constant waves of fear all around- are things many of us have been privileged to avoid thus far in our lives. To those of us for whom that is not the case, the added layers of these events may make the struggle to survive and thrive in the world even more complex.

There is so much in the air right now… we are numbering our sick and our dead, publicizing the lack of rites and of ritual grieving. Social and community safety nets may be disintegrating even as we finally manage to connect into them. There is not only the grieving of loved ones passing, but also of other losses, losses we may see as smaller, less important. We grieve our lack of touch, engagement with a broader community, cancelled plans and rites of passage and celebrations. We grieve for our lost resources, our jobs or fixed incomes, our insurance or medication access, our hopes and plans for the future, not even knowing if the shape of that future we dreamed will fit somehow in the world After This. We grieve that we cannot even grieve with those we love, cannot grieve for the people and experiences we have lost, cannot grieve in the ways that are most meaningful to us. The losses are so constant, ongoing, that we can get caught spinning ever faster in an effort to keep up, or to just stop. There is a potentially overwhelming wave waiting for us, of the many losses we are experiencing as individuals, as families of blood and heart and spirit, and as communities. The compass for which north seems to have disappeared only adds to the disorientation of Self and Situation.

I am by no means exempt from this. Where I am in the South Central United States, the pandemic really became central to our collective attention around the first week of March, although I had been following it in the news since January. As a doctoral student in psychology, I live in another city about 4 hours away from my husband and family, so when Spring Break occurred the second full week of March, I went home. Within days, school was suddenly transitioning to fully online, my teaching was moving online, my service provision was transitioning to telehealth, and the simple touchstones of my day were gone. As wonderful as it has been to BE home with my husband, being ripped unceremoniously from the Land and Waters with whom I had formed relationships and the family I built there just added to the difficulty in finding my feet. Everything felt storm tossed and strangely alien, as though something had been knocked ever so slightly askew- as though my prism was spinning wildly and I was frantically trying to Be Still in the middle of a situation I could not dictate.

It was the recognition of grief that showed me a path not so much forward as back to center. I was reading about a mass grave being dug in Iran, about people dying in Italy without religious rites, with no one to hold their hand or sit vigil. Memories of loss arose for me. When my mother died, it was both slowly from cancer and all at once as that cancer spread; between one day and the next she was delirious and then, a few days later, gone. With Dad and Papa it was different; we knew long in advance it was coming, had some time to gird ourselves and to begin to know what the shape of the world might be without them in it. With all three of them, I sat vigil on their last day in the world, and sat vigil after, holding their hands, smoothing their brows, singing to them, telling stories, offering comfort to my family. I did not make space to offer myself comfort, and yet I found it in the small moments of care for my dead, and later for the living who remained. As I write this, tears fall gently. I look out at green grass and greening trees and there is a gentle pattering of rain and swishing breeze. It is March and the unseasonable coolness feels as though all the world around me grieves too; it feels like an invitation to grieve together, wrapped in a blanket of tenderness as the wind strokes cheeks and brushes the hair back from my damp face. When I finish this writing, I am going to take a blanket outside and accept that invitation, sit in my self and my life, and let the prism move as it will. Trying to control its spinning seems in these moments like nothing more than an invitation to the delusion of separation and a solitary confinement in sorrow. Better to share it; better to let my own rain fall and water the greening of my life, my spirit, my soul.

It was a moment like this one, reading about the world’s dead, when I asked myself where I was and what I could do about it. Even as I was transplanted from one home to another, I felt the dead around me, the very stuff of the soil in which we all are rooted. Feeling that grief well up in me, feeling it link back to my own beloved dead, I thought about the vigils I had sat. I felt the healing that had arisen from them. And so I began that night, and each night since. There is a tree stump in my back yard from the base of which a new tree is growing. The center of that stump is slightly hollowed in such a way as to perfectly hold a stemless wineglass. Each night, I pour a bit of drink- whiskey or rum or clear, cool water. Sometimes I bring a bit of bread or a slice of cake. To begin, I pour out the offerings of the previous night and say simply, “Hail the travelers!” I breathe in whatever way is most comfortable in that moment. I root my feet down into the greening Earth, hold my offering, and pray:

Ancestors, I call you!
You among my lineages who are whole and well,
Mighty and Beloved Dead, Heroes and Allies,
You who were the first to step on any path,
I call you! Offering I make as I pray for and to you.
I pray that you be blessed.
I pray that you bless in turn our kith, our kin, our community.
I pray for you to aid those among our lineages
Who are not themselves healed and hale and whole and well.
And I pray for the world’s dead,
For all those dying alone, dying without rites, dying without ritual:
May they find the paths that are theirs to walk;
May they find the Gods Who claim them;
And may they, too, be healed and hale and whole and well in death
Even if they were not able to be in life.
Ancestors, Heroes and Allies,
Offering I make as I pray to and for you.
Ancestors, accept my offering!
For what is remembered lives.

This is the form my own vigil has taken. Each night as I speak these words and give these offerings, I feel myself rooting again deeply not only into the Earth on which I stand but into the lineages in which I am situated. I feel the grief welling up and I give it to the Earth, and to the Dead; I give it ultimately, as well, to myself. As I feel that it is right, I place the offering cup upon the tree, situated neatly among the profusion of limbs. I walk back inside having given the gift of my attention, my heart, my words and breath, to the Dead– having sat vigil. I pet the dogs, drink some water, and carry in myself the knowing that comes with having found that Stillness, with having re-oriented myself in the fecund soil from which we all of us arose.

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