Bold statement time: We don’t really know how to mourn in this country.
We don’t have public crying, or extravagant funeral processions, or wailing at the grave, or even the raucous drunken wakes of the Irish. The British stiff-upper lip remains firmly in place as we tell people to “be strong” and “they would want you to be happy” and “well, it’s been a year now”. We still, in the 21st Century, get well-meaning relatives saying to our children “You be strong for Mummy now, you’re the man of the house”.
We gather in our black, and sing songs that no-one really knows the words to, listening to Bible passages that the vast majority of those listening don’t believe in, read in a style of language that none of us speak anymore.
We have our wake (booze or otherwise, depending on your persuasion) and tell our stories, and deliver our flowers and lasagnes.
But then we almost expect everything to go back to normal. We might raise a glass on the 1st anniversary, or pop up a Facebook post. But, on the whole, people find it difficult to continue the remembrance in anything more than their own heads. We don’t talk about it, because it makes our chests feel all tight and awkward, and we’re not entirely sure where the conversation will go next.
If you’re a Christian or a Muslim, then you can take comfort in your lost person being up in Heaven, perhaps looking down on how you’re getting on. If you’re a Hindu, then you can imagine them re-incarnated as something else or someone else, they’re spirit not gone from the world.
At Mark’s funeral, one of his brothers talked about how energy never disappears, it just moves from one state to another; so he would take comfort in the fact that the energy which made up Mark, was just somewhere else in the Universe, doing something else, and had not been lost.
But an increasing number of people, while they may believe that the Universe is ultimately kind, or that there is a God even if he (or she) doesn’t get that involved, feel a bit vague as to what happens next. Which is fine, mystery is part of being human, I think. But it does leave us at a loss (pun intended) when we talk about the person who has died, and begin the intentional task of remembering them. And even more at sea when we find ourselves having to talk to our children about what has happened.
I’m quite a “child-led” person. Now, that doesn’t mean that Ethan rules the roost, or that he gets to do whatever he wants. It just means that, when it comes to things like how much of the food on his plate he needs to eat, how to play, or making plans for the day, or what to believe, I follow his lead (unless he comes up with something really stupid, like wanting to go abseiling in Antarctica, or just eating sweetcorn for 4 days). So when I began to help him frame his experience after Mark died, we tried out different language. We talked about how Mark might be up in Heaven, or the clouds, looking down on us. We discussed how some people looked up at the stars and thought they were their lost person.
But small children don’t do well with abstract thoughts. They need more concrete things (and to be honest, I think we all do). So rituals have worked better for us than words. My family have never been big grave-visitors. I know that for some families, this is a part of their year, a regular remembering ritual. But my family have never done that. We scattered my Dad’s ashes in one of the places we used to go on family walks. I prefer to remember things he said, places we went and ways he made me smile. When Mark and I talked about funeral plans (briefly), he wanted his ashes scattered too. He loved being outdoors and active, and being tied down to one place just didn’t seem to fit. But once he died it was the only thing I overruled him on. I didn’t take this decision lightly, but I knew that Ethan would need a physical place to come back to at different points in his life. He needed a concrete spot to form rituals around and to visit.
So we buried Mark’s ashes in the beautiful cemetery in Hungerford. There is a stone with an inscription that Ethan helped me write, wreaths and flowers laid by his parents and by us, and every year on Mark’s birthday Ethan writes a card and puts it there, sending messages to his Daddy. Now that he can write himself I don’t read them – they’re all about what he wants to say, with no pressure from me. This is one of the ways in which we help foster the connection between the two of them.
This article by psychologist and grief expert Kim Bateman is a brilliant exploration of how we can build grieving rituals into our lives.
The short term is easier, I think. There are more established processes (funerals, wakes, sympathy cards, scattering of ashes). But the long term is harder. We have to create our own rituals.
I loved this the most:
“To create your own ritual, ask yourself what brought joy to your loved one.”
Every 29th September (Mark’s birthday), after Ethan and I have visited the cemetery, all the O’Brien’s pour themselves a drink and send photos to the family WhatsApp. Usually we’re drinking rum and ginger ale – a Dark and Stormy – which was one of Mark’s favourite drinks. We’ll send memories we have, and love to each other, because keeping the connection between us is just as important as keeping our connection to Mark alive.
Ethan is learning to play the guitar. With the incentive that, if he practises hard, one day he will be able to play Mark’s guitar. We’ve started watching the few videos we have of Mark playing it – at home, on skiing holidays. Mark loved music, and this is another way that we’ll build in remembering and ritual.
And, to be honest, this blog is my ritual. It is my way of loving Mark by helping other people deal more easily with death and grief. It is how I have decided to use my meagre talents in the hope that people are a little more prepared for when they are hit by a loss.
People live for as long as stories are told about them, for as long as their faces are remembered, for as long as their names are said and those left behind smile when they are thought of. What did your person love doing? Could you do that and, in this way, remember them?