Danna D. Schmidt

Master Life-Cycle Celebrant®

Ordained Wedding Officiant

Funerals/Memorials Specialist

The Grief Bowl

pottery bowl

They are the best of days, they are the worst of days.

I speak, of course, of the late spring/cusp-of summer Hallmark holidays we have come to celebrate as Mother’s and Father’s Day. If you are a newly-minted parent with a babe in arms and said babe’s grandparents are alive and well as first witnesses, these can be glorious and Pinterest-worthy, Hallmark events, to be sure.  

But if you are like Anne Lamott, who penned a rather famous rant about Mothers’ Day, or Hope Edelman, author of the book Motherless Daughters, chances are these holidays prove grief-inducing.

I have a few loved ones who are, as I am, facing their first Mother’s and/or Father’s Day without one or both of their beloved parents this year. I know others whose cherished grandparent, grown children or spouse have recently died. I am aware of childless others who have yet to make peace with the pain and loss of their parenting dream. And I have friends who carry stories of estrangement, abandonment, trauma or of an open adoption now closed. 

For all those, and countless others who face the impending holidays with sorrow, I see you, I honor your grief, and I dedicate this poem, ”Talking to Grief,” by Denise Levertov, in your name.

Ah, Grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.
I should coax you
into the house and give you
your own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.
You think I don’t know you’ve been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before
winter comes. You need
your name,
your collar and tag. You need
the right to warn off intruders,
to consider
my house your own
and me your person
and yourself
my own dog.”

What I have come to know of grief – to be continued until my last breath – is that even and especially in the midst of joy, it asks us to set a place for it at the table.

Fresh from watching a local school production of Les Misérables, this table motif conjures an image for me of young Marius singing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” as he mourns the loss of all who used to sit there with him. If this is the bereft place you find yourself this year or in recent ones, I invite you to do as Denise Levertov does with her grief dog: invite it in, set a place or a corner for it, and give it its own bowl. When we welcome grief in, we begin to slowly say yes, however reluctantly, to what is.

To do so, of course, is to risk having it cast its flickering glow and shadow upon our days in that wholesale residency aka Rumian guest house/“crowd of sorrows” way that we have all come to dread when we usher in the unwelcomed. After a time though (which always feels endless and unbearable), this grief will begin to feel a little less obese and a little more companionable…much like the bedraggled dog we know it to be.

Yet how to welcome grief in when it’s the last thing we want to do? Sometimes we must beckon it in through the side door.

If you are feeling stuck, numb or otherwise exhausted about how to pay homage to your loved one who has died, consider the commemorative/healing ritual options below as a way to add meaning and memory to your upcoming occasions. 

A word to the wary: none of these are easy, quick-fix, grief busters. Most, in fact, will be tear-triggering. So that said, you might want to invest in an extra-luxe box of soft tissues and treat your nose with tender care.

What these are instead are small profferings, suggestions and hints for how you might sneak an initial glimpse into the belly of your own family beast in order to create new traditions that are both personal and meaningful.  

If your grief is fresh, you may be able to do little more than stay under the bedcovers until the day passes, and that is all good. You are saying yes to what is which is to say, overwhelm, so pay heed to that reality and keep this year’s plans simple and your expectations low. Conversely, if it has been years since the death of your beloved, I invite you to consider that it is never too late to begin a ritual of remembrance.

All this preamble aside, here are 10 ritual ideas for you to adopt and adapt as the commemorative spirit moves you.

  1. Set a bowl for grief. This might be as a place setting, as a centerpiece on your dining room table, or as a special altar/memorial table feature. Wherever or however you choose to set it, give it room and allow it to take on a life and artistry of its own. Selecting the right bowl warrants some deliberation. How big do you want this bowl to be and what do you want it to hold? It might be a bowl selected from your mother’s beloved china set, or a piece of pottery you made for your parent as a grade schooler. It might even be a Kintsugi bowl you purchase, as symbol of your own fractured place and golden repair work. Or it might be a ceramic bowl you choose to paint at the local DIY pottery shop. You get the point. Find a bowl that sings to you. It will look empty and hollow at first and that is as it should be – it is, after all, the bowl you have dedicated to hold your grief, the stories, the memories and the cherished tangible bits. When filled, however, with whatever your ephemera of grief contains – old photos, recipe cards, favorite candies or cookies, etc. – it becomes a living vessel of joys, sorrows and lived moments. All of these things live lively through story. And while stories do not hold the power to resurrect the dead, they do, as poet George Roberts insists, “teach us to accept the fading / of photographs, and flowers.”

  2. Consider the Story of your Grief. Just like the Levertovian dog, this grief of yours needs a name, a collar, and a tag.  Set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes, start with the prompt, “I miss…” and get it all down – that whole long litany of losses and laments. Hugs, cherished meals, trips, hilarious or tender times, hobbies, travels together, greatest gifts of love, favorite Kodak moments, shared activities, beloved collectibles…try to name and claim as many as you can.

  3. Gather the Good Memories. For every minor and monumental thing you miss about your loved one, chances are there is some tangible symbol that can serve as a placeholder for it. Begin to collect these, be these letters or emails, cards, photos, recipe cards, trinkets, jewelry, a scarf or a tie. Once gathered, you may find you have too much and that is entirely a good problem to have in the early days. Choose the most meaningful ones and create a small memory table or memento box.

  4. Buy a Card. Write a Letter. Just seeing the rows of special occasion cards in a stationery shop can be a trigger. If greeting cards are your thing, honor this instinct and select one that speaks to the love written on your heart this year. Collecting these cards, together with handwritten sentiments that you tuck away in a small journal book, can be a comforting way to keep the conversation alive and create a new annual ritual.

  5. Create a Cabinet of Their Curiosities. Family historians and storycatchers are few and far between but if this form of artifact curation happens to be your foray, undertaking such a project can be the greatest gift you bestow upon your grief. Beginning with the box of items you will have just collected, assign each a story title and write a small story or anecdote about that item, its significance or an indelible moment that stands out for you about your loved one when you think of that treasured item. Upon completion, this project can and should resemble a museum exhibit and heirloom showcase. The salient thing about this, ritually speaking, is that each item lends itself to becoming a featured Show & Tell piece for a future family gathering. (See Show & Tell below)

  6. Retrieve, Repurpose, Remember. My father died this past November but sadly, left little in the way of possessions. He and Mom had recently downsized to their respective care facility residences and as such, he had only a few pieces of clothing remaining. I took the liberty of grabbing one of his blue pinstriped shirts, whose future incarnation will soon be as a memory pillow cushion. It’s not everybody’s aesthetic but the concept resonates with me. I know others who have created memory quilts from scraps of clothing, scarves, neck ties, T-shirts, aprons, etc. Similarly, adding a shirt pocket to some other significant fabric creates the perfect background for a memory or shadow box. Pins and pens can be added to the pocket, photos and significant documents can be stitched to the fabric background – ideas abound. And speaking of stitching, craftier types might want to consider repurposing old papers and fabric into mixed-media flowers. Chances are, most every remnant of your loved one’s belongings is just a Google, Pinterest or Etsy click away for an inspiring idea of how to give it new life and fresh purpose as a gift for self or others. So before you take those items to Goodwill, decide which among them might live anew in a frame, on a mantel or draped over a sofa.

  7. Begin a New Holiday Tradition. This is a tried and true grief ritual and I mention it following the repurpose project because it is a variation thereof. You might want to think about how to radically or slightly repurpose the holiday itself in accordance with the hole in your heart. Some people undertake a service project in dedication to their loved one, some opt to deliver flowers to senior care facilities, others choose to plant a tree, a shrub or flowers (or visit a tree they’ve planted); and some start an annual outing (baseball game, art gallery visit, picnic in the park). Whatever you choose, let it have something to do with the one true bliss your loved one most enjoyed on this planet, and start a tradition with that theme in mind.

  8. Make Time for Show & Tell. In the weeks and days before Mother’s Day of 2008 and 2009, just one slim year apart and in the blink of an eye, death claimed both sons of our former neighbors, Bob and Sue, who have come to be like surrogate parents to us. Sadly, we didn’t get to know either of their sons in life, except to watch their younger son re-build their porch stairway during a nasty snowstorm as a surprise Christmas gift that penultimate holiday season year to his parents, who had flown back east. I loved bearing witness to this gift of love, which would prove to be one of his last labors of love yet one of the first bespoken at his celebration of life, as testament to his character and work ethic. In the years since, I have cherished getting to know Robby and Rusty by storycatching tales of their antics and legacy as good sons, proud fathers and great friends. Their sister, Deb, an artist and photographer, keeps her brothers’ memory alive so poignantly by posting vintage photos of their childhood selves. Each photo is so alive with mischief and personality, and speaks volumes to who they were in this lifetime. 

    I believe in the power of show and tell such as Deb’s memory lane photos. This is the kind of thing you might choose to introduce as a Mother’s or Father’s Day dinner table sharing. Begin by setting a place, or your grief bowl as centerpiece, filled with slips of paper, pictures or small symbols that invite stories or grace notes (things you most appreciated and were thankful for about that parent or child). Invite all family members to contribute a story snippet, a photo or small treasured item to the bowl, and to share their memory as the bowl is passed to them. As time goes on, this collection of Show & Tell stories will grow, migrate to social media or for some, morph into volumes that might then form the basis for a memoir or biography.

  9. Eat, Play, Love. Setting aside a special day, be it a holiday, birthday or other, amongst siblings and extended family if they are nearby is a Show & Tell variation that is celebratory and powerful. Some heartfelt honorings include preparing your loved one’s favorite dishes, hosting an afternoon Mother’s Day tea ritual, playing their best-loved board or card game, featuring their favorite music, and engaging in a small gift exchange with them in mind. For the gift exchange, I recommend picking names, setting a price limit and exchanging small tokens that are symbolic of your loved one’s sense of humor, talents or interests.  
  10. Be Extra Kind to Yourself. As the good, wise doctor (Carl Jung) cautioned, be sure to stand first in line for the alms of your own kindness. This means circling your wellness wagon, letting yourself off the hook at the beginning and end of each day, acting a tad bit more self-indulgent than is comfortable, and paying extra special attention to your physical and mental health. If you’re not sure what such a self-sustenance ritual might look like, think spa, rest, retreat and family and/or friend fun time.

Grief is a needy, unruly creature – ask any grief tender and they will agree. Attempt to compare notes on the bag of tricks and treats each of us use to distract and tame said grief will invariably elicit as many responses as there are stewards of grief in this world; no two grievers ever the same…and I mean that in both its understated and overstated sense. 

For Father’s Day this year, I sense I will be looking for my grief bowl to serve double-duty as both burning bowl for an earth-offering ceremony (see pages 7-9 here for the story of my last grief bundle ritual) and as a floating candle and flower petal centerpiece. Young spring leaves will line the bundle packet and adorn the table, in seasonal juxtaposition to the autumn leaves who fell in tandem with Dad last November.

And assuredly and as promised in the oft-quoted Jewish litany of remembrance, “in the opening of the buds and rebirth of spring,” we/I will remember him.

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