Honoring the recently deceased

My Papa died at the end of June. He was my mother’s father.

At times like these, I feel relieved that honoring my ancestors is part of my daily life. The death of a loved one is difficult enough. Going through it without the stability of a spiritual practice that encompasses death, grief, and memory is even more difficult.

I’d like to share with you some of the ways that I have been honoring him as a recently deceased ancestor. I hope that anyone else who is grieving a loved one right now will find some comfort and support in hearing about my process.

Of course, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Your practice may look different from mine. But I hope to inspire those who feel uncertain or stuck by providing an intimate look at how I do things. If you have ideas for an entirely different way to do things, then I encourage you to follow your intuition.

Let your body do the heavy lifting

The body does so much for us without conscious effort. The heart doesn’t need to be told to beat, it just beats. The liver doesn’t need to be told to cleanse the blood, it just cleanses. It’s the same with helping our loved ones pass over to the other side.

The body doesn’t need to be told to grieve, it just grieves. We cry, we rest, and we breathe: these are some of the living body’s ways of facilitating the transition that occurs when a member of its community dies. Ritual technologies and metaphysical knowledge can assist this natural process. But the process happens, regardless, even if we don’t have access to special rituals or knowledge. Because the majority of the work is done by the body without conscious effort, treating the body well is especially important during this time. Sleep, eat well, move regularly.

It’s also important to remember that grief, like any emotion, comes in waves. You can feel fine one minute, and then extremely sad the next. Sometimes, these waves are triggered by an external stimulus. Other times, they seem to come out of nowhere. There’s no need to justify when and why a wave of sadness comes to visit. The sadness just is.

I found myself swimming, showering, and bathing more frequently in the weeks following Papa’s death. None of these were spiritual baths with special ingredients (which I’m usually a fan of). They were must moments when my body wanted to be immersed in water, so that’s what I did.

Assess the situation

Many cultures recognize that some deaths are easier than others. My Papa was lucky. His death ticked every box on the “easy” checklist that I have learned over the years:

  • The death was expected and came after a long decline that gave him and his family plenty of time to accept it

  • He did not leave any major loose ends undone in this world

  • He died at home, surrounded by family

  • He died peacefully, without extreme suffering

Even though I did not immediately know the details of his death, I could feel that the transition had been smooth enough. I did not feel deeply disturbed, I did not suffer nightmares, and I did not witness any ghostly phenomena.

If the opposite had been true--if his death had been more challenging, or if I was experiencing symptoms that indicated there were complications--I would have planned around that. I might have taken more time off from work to let my body do its thing in peace, or asked my spiritually-inclined friends to pray for him, or even planned more intense ritual work to assist the process.

Make space for private mourning

Having a space for private mourning practices is important. Especially if you’re the “black sheep” of your family. As my family’s resident black sheep, I knew that not everyone would understand my personal mourning process. So I needed a place to mourn that was just for me to do whatever I need to do, whether that’s praying the rosary or eating magic mushrooms and sobbing for a couple of hours.

I was moving to a new apartment when my Papa died. I knew my ancestor altar would be undergoing a major transition as part of this move. I was losing the surface I had used for it, and I wanted to downsize the amount of stuff that had accumulated on it in the four years that I lived in my previous home.

One of the first things I did when I entered my new home was to set up a temporary ancestor altar on my kitchen counter. I chose that location for the temporary altar because I wanted something that would disrupt my life enough that I wouldn’t get used to it, and would instead be forced to find something more permanent after the chaos of moving and the trip to my parents’ home for the funeral was over.

I kept this ancestor altar very simple: white cloth, photos of my Papa and my grandmother who passed several years ago, a glass of water, a white candle, and some white flowers. I already had everything but the candle and the flowers, and those I bought from a bodega on my block. It’s easy for me to overcomplicate things, especially when there is something happening in my life that I don’t want to face. So I wanted to keep it simple so that building the altar wouldn’t distract from me from my grief.

Participate in public mourning rites

Public mourning rites assist the soul’s transition from this world to the next. But they also help the living, who are experiencing their own transition. The living social structures that the deceased participated in need to find a new equilibrium without them.

We had a wake, a Catholic Mass, and a funeral for my Papa. Attending these events was the hardest part of his death for me. Much harder, even, then the private moments of grief where it felt like a part of me was dying too.

It wasn’t that I felt uncomfortable being exposed to Catholic religious practice, although I understand that can be difficult for many people (and rightfully so). It was more difficult for me to meet so many new people for the first time: to shake their hands and make small talk when what I really wanted to do was cry or jump in the ocean or call all of my friends back in New York and tell them how much I loved them and missed them. Small talk just isn’t my thing, and if you’re reading a blog about ancestor veneration, I bet it’s not your thing either.

What got me through the public mourning rites was finding my own meaning in them. I sat back and observed what was happening around me as a ritualist. For example, I came to understand through personal experience how a wake is about saying good-bye to a loved one’s body. It was an opportunity for me to thank my Papa’s body for everything it did for him before we gave that body back to our mother, the earth. That understanding helped me to participate in a rite that felt foreign, even though it was hosted by my own family.

Commit to longer-term healing

When energy is tied up in a physical form--whether that’s a living body or an inanimate object--it is anchored to this world by that form. When that form disappears from our perception--a body is buried or burned, an object is donated or discarded--the energy is liberated and can return in a new form. Thus, when a loved one dies, there is an energetic shift that the living family feels.

For the last ten years of his life, my Papa suffered from dementia. Dementia is the disease of forgetting. The last time I saw him, he did not remember who I was.

In a way, I had this disease too. Ten years is a third of my life right now. I had forgotten who he was when I was a child, and he was still vitally engaged in this world. Those memories had been overridden by the more recent ones in which he was sick.

Returning home to celebrate his life helped me to remember. I got to walk in the yard where we had so many summer cookouts. I got to see the pictures of him distributing presents at Christmas. And I got to hear my parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins sharing their memories of him.

None of these memories were particularly profound. They did not reveal the ultimate meaning of life. They were simple things, like his preferred slice of cake (corner slice, extra frosting) and his love of cinnamon raisin bread and how he called soda “tonic”. But I could hear his voice in my head again. I started to remember the way he moved before he slowed down and then stopped moving entirely.

His death, while sad, was also a catalyst for me to heal from the disease of forgetting. I can picture the Papa I knew and loved again. And now I can see the things I inherited from him more clearly. I love to play host the way he did. I care about public welfare the way he did. I have his sense of humor and his work ethic. In many ways, I am more like him than any of my other grandparents, or even my parents. I had just momentarily forgotten.

This is just the beginning. I don’t know what else I will remember next, or how else the energy he was anchoring will return into my life. I just know he was my Papa, and I miss him; but his presence in my childhood made me the woman I am today, and the things I miss about him are the things I will keep making more of in the world for future generations to enjoy.

With much love to those who grieve,