A couple of years ago, in the first lockdown. I passed a woman on the beach who was laying out the most beautiful arrangement of flowers in the sand. She stood for a few minutes and then silently turned and walked away. I knew I had witnessed a goodbye. Who, or what, I will never know. But the care with which she laid out the heart and the silence with which she left told their own story.
When I walked that way the next day, some of the flowers were still there, the incoming tide had not washed them away, and I wondered again, if she would come back to this place or was this a final goodbye…
When someone dies, every culture has the way to say goodbye.
The Māori have the Tangihanga – they bring the person home to the Marae – the home of the Iwi (tribe). They are laid out in their coffin on the floor of the meeting house, and everyone can come to pay the respects. Speeches are made, songs sung. They are never left alone over those days, and the tribe sleeps with them. People are welcomed and fed. Everyone is acknowledged. Often their photo is sent to other Marae, so those who could not make the journey can pay their respects. On the final day, there is often a service where the final prayers are made, and then they are laid to rest in the urupā (cemetery). A year later people gather again for the “unveiling”, when the headstone is revealed, and they are remembered once more. Mythology has it that once the person’s spirit has been honoured this way, it is free to travel to Te Rerenga Wairua, the “Leaping Place of Spirits”, found at the very Northern most tip of NZ; and they can return to their ancestral home… To me, it feels like a complete way to pay respects, grieve, and say goodbye.
The Catholic church has the Requiem Mass; very formal; comforting in its familiarity. But somehow devoid of that encompassing community embrace that other cultural funeral rites have. I think of the Irish Wake, where people gather and remember and celebrate the person’s life. More healing I think than mere incense and prayers.
When someone dies, or some tragic event takes place we often surround the people who are left behind. We offer support, words of sympathy, practical help. It is almost like we encircle them and let them grieve; trying to protect them from the world outside. But we all know grief is a long term process. And often we leave too soon. In this day and age of deadlines and timetables, we like neatness of process – but grief has its own timeline and cannot be rushed.
Often our support is limited to words. Distance prevents us from physically hugging, cooking a casserole, or vacuuming the house. When words are all we have, it can sometimes feel pretty inadequate. But when words are all we have, they are received with gratitude. It is the contact that it important. Letting those who are bereft know that they are not alone. Sometimes if you can’t find the words, sharing a memory that you have of their person, helps. It brings a bigger picture of the person they loved and reminds them that that person will live on in other memories; not just their own. The richness of a Wake is the tall tales; fond memories; snippets of a life that you knew but offering another facet to their lives. We all love it when others love the people we love….
I often ponder tho, how we grieve those passings that aren’t obvious. A miscarriage; a loss of a life dream; a friendship…. There is no rite, no ritual; and yet the loss is still there. The grieving process demands our attention. I had 2 miscarriages, and a stillbirth. 1 Miscarriage and the loss of Baby Bridie, everyone knew about. And some people were brilliant; others however did not know what to say, so said nothing. Which was ok. But I felt it was an event that I was given a very short time limit to get over. When you lose a baby – no matter where in the pregnancy is happens, you lose not just a baby, but the future you had already started living. And given that up to 1 in 4 pregnancies end before their due, that is a lot of untalked about stuff….
Sometimes the thing you grieve is the end of a relationship. The “biggies” – divorce and separation are often public. Again, some people will circle you with their actions and their words. Helping you adjust to a life you hadn’t imagined living. But some relationships just fade, or you choose to walk away because that is what is best for you. Like the miscarriage of a non-announced pregnancy; there is no outpouring of support; no gathering; no acknowledgment of your loss. You hide your grief, and “get on with life”. But that loss still needs to process…So how?
Of course, talking to close friends and whanau is paramount. But I have found it helps to Do something. Because I write, I often write a letter, or journal. Sometimes I plant something in the garden – it gives me a place to go. Sometimes its as simple as standing on the beach or a place where their memory is strongest, and saying goodbye.
We are creatures who need to say goodbye. And I have learned to give myself time. “Feel all the feels” as a friend is wont to say. Acknowledge to yourself that you have lost something dear. Let it be ok to be sad.
When our dear old dog Milly left us at the end of last year; we waited until we were all together and quietly sprinkled her ashes at the beach. Watching the incoming tide send her on her way, I was reminded of all the walks we had – when I had to chase her off the nearby golf course, or out of someone’s picnic – and it felt right. As a whanau we said our goodbyes.
Maybe that is the crux of working on grief – working out the best way to say goodbye…
Waiho kia tang ahau
Ki taku tūpāpaku;
Kāpā he uru tī e pihi ake
Let me weep for my deceased
They are not like the head of a cabbage tree that regrows