How to Grieve Part 2: The Ceremony

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October 23rd marked the 20th anniversary of my mom’s death from cervical cancer. It also marked the first time that I’ve ever commemorated this date. After my mom passed away, my family grieved in our own silent ways. This past year I’ve been doing some serious processing around this loss. When I realized in August that this year marked 20 years, it felt like it was time to do something. In an earlier post I discuss how I made shrine as the first step in this grieving process. I also knew that I wanted to have some sort of ceremony — but had NO clue where to start. Not only have I never marked this occasion, but I’m not really into the more normative or traditional forms of grieving. My mom was a witchy woman, a creative woman, and a woman who didn’t care what other people thought of her. So I knew I wanted to do something different. But what?

I knew that I wanted it to be both a celebration and a time for mourning. That I wanted to incorporate some of the traditional aspects of a funeral, but with a personal touch. For example, I think it’s really beautiful when people read things that speak to the person who has passed away. But no one attending the ceremony had ever met my mom. I knew that I wanted certain pagan elements included and that I wanted the ceremony to happen on Toronto Island. Beyond that though…I was stumped.

Then my BFF was talking about this workshop she went to on non-traditional ceremonies and suggested that I connect with the person leading the workshop. Christine Lafazanos and I had our first meeting over Skype and over the course of many conversations she helped me craft  the ceremony. Christine describes herself as a “ritual maker and story weaver” and is a queer woman who supports the poly community. From our first conversation I knew that she was the perfect person to help me plan this important day.

The day of I was a bundle of nerves.

“What if it was too cold on the island?”

“What if people were having a bad time?”

“What if no one wanted to come back to my place after, where we’d listen to a playlist of my mom’s favourite songs, drink wine, and maybe have a dance party?”

“What if I was asking for too much?”

After my mom passed away I became the surrogate mother of the house. I placed my dad and brother before myself. And given our increasing decline into poverty, asking for what I needed or wanted wasn’t really an option. Over the years I’ve worked really hard in therapy to rewrite these narratives. It is okay to ask my loved ones to dedicate their evening to celebrating my mother and mourning her passing. I had to remind myself that my friends love me and felt honoured to be a part of this and proud of me for taking this step.

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I went to the island earlier in the evening. I felt like I wanted some time where I could clear my head and get grounded. I asked Gordon to take some photos of my friends on the way over. And love these photos he took of the view of Toronto and the CN tower from the ferry.

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Hearing the voices of my friends before I could see them was a bizarrely nerve-wracking but exciting experience. THEY WERE HERE! THEY CAME!

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Here’s me being really excited by the arrival of my sweet, sweet pals.

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Christine did an amazing job setting the tone for our ceremony by welcoming us and the four elements:

“We’ll begin our ritual by welcoming and recognizing the four elements—earth, air, water, fire. Through the interdependence and interplay of these elements the earth is whole. They represent too the elements that make up the interconnected whole of our own being. We are dependent on and intertwined with the elements and therefore give gratitude for our connection with nature.

Welcome earth, the north, the stones we will offer to Margeaux later, the wood which fuels our fire, the sand under our feet and ground under that which holds us. Welcome grounding, stability, growth.

Welcome air, the east, the wind we feel off the water, the smoke carried above us, our precious breath which gives power to our words and our song. Welcome knowledge, inspiration and expression.

Welcome fire, the south, the warm mesmerizing beauty of the flames, the light in the dark. Welcome transformation, the cycle of creation and destruction, passion and courage.

Welcome water, the west, the lake that surrounds us on this island, the rain which grows our food and nourishes our bodies, the tears of grief. Welcome intuition and emotion.”

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“Grief is not a one-time event, it is a process, and time alone does not replace the process of grieving. We set the intention with this ritual that whatever grief that may have been stuck can now move, flow, rise to be felt and processed, and allowed to release.”

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Christine began the ceremony by asking folks to introduce themselves and say a little something about how they know me.

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I’m probably laughing here because my partner Em introduced themselves by saying “Margeaux and I met on Tinder. It was my birthday.” Which is true. It totally was their 30th birthday and I remember asking them “so what did you get up to today?” And they told me that they went and bought the shirt they were wearing as a birthday present. And because I love birthdays so much and think that they’re such special days, I was kind of floored that this person would want to go on a date on this most special of days.

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“Here on Toronto Island we are in a space set apart from the pace and feel of the city we journeyed from to get here. The open and quiet space of the beach helps us to unwind, and bring our full, relaxed presence to our occasion. Ceremony itself is like this island, a space and time set apart from the everyday to do the work of healing and connecting.”

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After the introductions I decided to do a bit of a show and tell. While most people in my life have heard seen pictures of my mom around my apartment, I realized that I had never intentionally told any stories about her. So I selected some photographs of my brother and I posing (there are SO many photos of my brother and I posing in new clothes on Christmas morning, on family vacations, and for really no reason at all). As I was selecting the photographs I realized that my own love for posing in photos with pals was something that I learnt to do very early on — thanks to my mom.

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The next “activity” was my own version of the “read something that speaks to the person who’s passed away” funeral ritual. Because my mom passed away over a decade before I made many of these friends, I asked folks to bring a quotation that spoke about loss, grief, or family. I asked them to bring two copies. One that would be kept in the memories box my mom made for me before she passed away (a box that I have never used for any specific purpose). And another that would get placed in the fire.

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And here are all of the quotations that I received:

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The other thing I had asked everyone to do was to come with a rock or stone or something from the earth that I could then bring to my mother’s grave the following day. 

“Margeaux will place the stones on the grave as an offering, as a way to introduce each of you to her mother Gayle. The practice of placing stones on a grave also connects to Margeaux’s Jewish ancestry. In the Jewish tradition it is custom to place a small stone on a grave when you visit it. An act which commemorates the dead, where the enduring quality of stone serves a reminder of the lasting impact of the life of the person who died.”

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The final act of the ceremony was a communal activity meant to embody how I think about grief as something cyclical, individual and yet shared, and never-ending. Christine came up with the idea that we could have two jars — one empty and one with water in it. Each person would have a turn pouring the water into the empty cup. Sort of like leap frog. 

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I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the water when this was all done. I knew I wanted to keep it — as though you would the ashes of a loved one who was cremated. I thought I’d maybe look for an urn of sorts and place that urn with my shrine. And so I decided to ask the woman who is the closest thing to a mother that I’ve had since my mom passed: the mother of my most significant and long-term partner. We’ve kept in touch since that relationship ended over four years ago. She’s also experienced grief, having lost two children of her own. 

We went to a ceramics fair and once we found the vessel, I had a new idea. Because there was no lid, I decided that I would put a plant in the jar and use the water from the ceremony to water the plant. 

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And with that the ceremony closed, just in time for us all to catch the next ferry back to the mainland. 

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And here I am with the rocks that I brought to my mother’s grave the final day. I’m having a hard time figuring out how to end this post. It feels impossible to describe just how meaningful it was for me. And how emotional. And how supportive. And how draining. It was so many things. And I will hold all those things in my heart, each time I think about my mom. 

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