Before my mother died, she expressed a desire to be cremated and to have her cremated remains placed close to my fathers at a family friend’s ranch in Eastern Oregon. Mom died in January, when there were 4 ft of snow on the ground at the ranch. The private road getting up to the spot was virtually impassible which made it impossible to carry out her wish at that time. We created a little home Chapel where Mom’s cremated remains could be held in honor until it was possible to bury her. Mom stayed with us for about 6 months, until my brother and sister-in-law could come from Germany to be with us when we could put her to rest next to our father.
During this time of social distancing our typical rituals for honoring our loved may not be available to us. What can individuals and families who have lost someone do to acknowledge the end of a life, when travel restrictions are in force and group gatherings have been cancelled? It is important to define an alternative than can take place now, even though plans for a larger event may be scheduled for a future time – because when a leave-taking ritual is delayed, it can lose its therapeutic/cathartic value.
People can share stories, listen to music that was a favorite of the deceased, perhaps sing or maybe just sit in silence, depending on the family tradition. Or sit in a circle around a lighted candle, symbolizing the light and life that their loved one brought to them. People can do this on their own if a small group is not possible, in the peace and quiet of home or out in nature. Another option is to write a letter to their loved one, read it out loud and then burn it. The idea is to create a kind of “threshold” experience, which marks the transition of one kind of relationship with a loved one to a new one, where the deceased is no longer physically present, but remains resident in the memories and hearts of all who mourn her or his passing.
All of these things help us to make meaning, purpose and connection at these critical times. Those of us who have the privilege of caring for people at the end of life need to help their survivors, lost in the wilderness of grief, to do three things: 1) to acknowledge that someone we know and love has died; 2) to remember and celebrate that person’s life within the context of her or his commitments. (That means more than just reciting a list of activities or hobbies. For example, Uncle Jed may have loved to go fishing, but it’s also important to get a sense of why Uncle Jed loved it so much and what we can take from his appreciation); 3) to commend our loved one to whatever may be next. For some, it can be a commendation to God. For others it may be accommodation to nature, to the universe or perhaps simply to the ground or the air. Whatever we do, these three movements, somewhat like a symphony, help us enter upon the journey to the “New Normal” which will last the rest of our lives, until we can rejoin our loved one in another realm.