Ritual After Loss- Or, "Slab of Chocolate Cake"
This was originally posted here: http://havenadoptions.com/blog/ritual-after-loss/ in the Summer of 2015, but I wanted you all to see it as well, because it still applies.
This past year I lost my father, the #1 Dad on the planet. His birthday passed and I found myself at a loss of what to do to mark the day. I felt a desire to “celebrate” him with some kind of tradition, but since we lived 5 hours apart, we didn’t always have birthdays together and therefore we didn’t have a “thing” we always did. I really didn’t want the day to just pass but everything I thought of felt meaningless or just in name only. The day came and while talking with my brother, he mentioned that he had gotten some chocolate cake for himself. My Dad LOVED chocolate cake and would enjoy a nice “slab” every so often. Dad felt that if you were going to have a piece of cake, it should be a “slab” of cake, definitely not a dainty “slice.” And all of a sudden, I felt desperate for chocolate cake- desperate to have something to mark the day. So, I made a chocolate cake at 10PM that involved some strange substitutions for ingredients I didn’t have. (There may or may not have been coconut oil, millet flour and applesauce involved.) And then my husband sat down with me and we each had a giant “slab” of cake before the day was over.
Right after my father passed, my siblings and I busied ourselves in planning those early rituals. Together we planned a service, picked readings, and decided who would honor my Dad through their words. We ate meals, received flowers and picked our favorite pictures. I knew this ritual from when my grandmother died. We went to the funeral home. It was awful. Terrible and routine. There was a schedule- we actually had a guidebook given to us by the funeral home of what to do. So in our numbing early days, we followed a checklist that, now looking back, in many ways held us together. But in the weeks and months that followed, we were off the grid. There were no more “scheduled times” to be sad, to be comforted, to receive support. Crying happened. A lot. At first many times a day, then once a day, and now in this unpredictable pattern that continues to blindside me. We lost our sense of what to do for holidays, birthdays, Father’s Day, and Dad’s birthday. Our family split, divided by our own grief patterns. We lost our hero. We lost the person who held our family together. Our sadness became so unpredictable that we often don’t join each other in our grief anymore- we all process and handle the grief as it comes to us. A friend described it as waves- sometimes you can predict them coming, sometimes they just knock you off your feet. And they wash over you, these grief waves- forcing you to deal with the loss right then- no matter who wants your attention, or what other plans you had.
After Dad’s birthday, I felt like I needed a better plan to handle this loss- to somehow predict at the very least, the days I KNEW would make me sad. I knew his birthday, Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day and the day he died would likely be important and difficult days. So I talked to my siblings about how we should mark these days. We had to actually have the conversation about what we wanted to do. In some ways, this was allowing those days to come without the anxiety of -we should do something! So on Christmas, I know now we will all be at my sister’s house. For Dad’s birthday- cake of course. St. Patrick’s Day we will share some drinks. We are still working on the rest.
For some rituals, they are done alone and those may be the hardest to maintain and the hardest to handle. When a public holiday comes along, like Father’s Day, those who know I lost my Dad might remember and say something. My husband might give me some space and there is warning for weeks that this day is coming (thanks department stores!). Where I am still trying to find peace through ritual is with the random Tuesday where all of a sudden I realize that Dad will never see his grandkids talk, or teach them to fish like he was supposed to. How can ritual help in those moments? I’ve had to be more creative and it’s definitely a work in progress. I’m realizing that writing things down is really helpful, so that I can remember and not feel that desperation to tell the story or find someone who cares. For me it’s also self care and allowing myself the opportunity to be sad. Not filling my quiet hours with emails and videos and Facebook but allowing myself to truly be present with how I feel and how I’m doing. This is painful! It’s easier to just fill your time with activities and interactions with others and then collapse with exhaustion. It’s much harder to stop the intake of information and to write, to tell someone how you really are, to go to counseling and really dig at what is bothering you.
It’s possible to do this with the grief and heartache involved in planning an adoption too. You can move forward from the loss you have in your life and busy yourself with paperwork, home studies, clearances and autobiographies. You can spend your time researching, looking on blogs, posting and commenting. Often this movement is necessary to get you to a place of wonderful joy and hope. But there is danger in moving too quickly, in not honoring what once was, what we once hoped for and what we dreamed about. We are often moving so fast that we forget to talk about the importance of ritual and to find time to honor where we have been. It’s the reason why some cultures have days to remember the dead, have family trips to the cemetery, dinners on birthdays, light lanterns and read favorite books. There is a part of each of us that needs these traditions to feel closer to the people we miss. And part of this is to feel a part of a community and grieve together. Some of us are grieving for things that may have no dates, no cards in the pharmacy you can send. And for those who grieve for those losses- a failed adoption, infertility, long and exhausting waits to adopt- it is then even more important to build that ritual.
What is your loss ritual? What days stand out to you? Or is it a particular season? Is it every Monday for the first year after you lost your son on a Monday? Would it help to make a plan for ritual? To put it on your calendar and not just in your heart? Would you invite someone to your ritual or is it just yours? I have a friend who made herself a cup of tea every day after she lost her son. It was her five minutes of ritual for herself. She would wrap her hands around this handmade ceramic mug and let herself feel warmth and support when she truly needed it. When she went back to work, she brought this mug with her and kept it on her desk; a visual reminder of what she had lost and the realness of it. For so many people, something tangible can really help with the ritual. For the women in my life who have been through infertility, a number of them have kept baby outfits that they bought and kept. As sad as those outfits make them, they are a part of their ritual and are now part of their healing. Some baby loss mamas and papas have framed certain pictures or quotes that have made them feel whole and powerful and strong again. After a friend of mine lost her son, she had a framed picture of his name written in the sand. I’ll never forget how much it meant to her to see his name in print. It was beautiful.
I encourage you to make the time to find a ritual that makes sense to you as you balance your grief with the hope for your future. Invite people to join you. They want to join you- they often just don’t know what to say, or how to say it. Put something on your calendar TODAY. Make the ritual as unique and beautiful as the dream/person/experience you are grieving. If it makes you a little uncomfortable to tell someone else, well, then you know you are doing it right. This year, I am inviting friends to my house for chocolate cake to celebrate my Dad’s birthday. And it will be a big enough so that everyone can have a “slab.”