For centuries, cultures across the globe have immersed themselves in organized ritual or ceremony to mark a notable life event, whether joyful or sorrowful, as a sacred moment in time. It is within these ceremonies that individuals and groups can find solidarity and hope.
For those who suffer the pain of loss, I believe it is within these ceremonies that we can find a sacred place to lay our grief. It is in ceremony that we have a unique opportunity to process our pain both internally and collectively, knowing in truth that we are not alone. And it is in the poignant moments of ritual when we can lay down our grief and know that when the pain bubbles up again we can revisit our memory of ceremony in an effort to once again move through it.
I recently attended a moving memorial tribute to a young woman my own daughters had played with as children. As I entered the church sanctuary, the congregation, made up of young and old, sat eerily quiet. Most were huddled together, shoulder to shoulder, as if gleaning strength from each other for this collective journey, all wide, glistening eyes focused on the big screen in front flashing poignant photos of the life of the young woman we had gathered to remember that afternoon.
The grief in the room was palpable as we all sat thinking of the intelligent, talented, loving girl who had recently taken her own life in a moment a deep despair that nothing, it seemed to her, could overcome. My thoughts, in great sadness, turned to unanswerable questions that I suspect many others in that room were asking themselves. “How did this happen?” “Didn’t Maddy know we loved her?” Where is God in all of this?”
As the family of this dear young woman filed in, faces pale and drawn with the numbing burden of grief, the crowd stirred as they joined their sorrow with that of Maddy’s loved ones. They were laying down their grief.
The minister elected to lead this congregation from despair to hope began Maddy’s eulogy.
His words were compassionate and consoling, reminding us that Maddy was healed now and resting in the loving arms of God. He addressed our unspoken questions — queries he said that would perhaps find no answers in this lifetime.
Maddy’s best friend took the stand to speak of their relationship through unencumbered tears that mingled with her genuine laughter at the antics she recalled. I witnessed the nods of agreement that flowed through the crowd like a soft wind in springtime as she spoke of her favorite anecdotes.
We collectively held our breath when Maddy’s only sibling was summoned to the stand. Her fierce love for her sister, matched only by her courage, spoke volumes as tears flowed generously for one who was lost to us now.
A few parting words by the minister signaled the close of the memorial. A lovely contemporary tune, one of Maddy’s favorites, played then as those witnesses to her life and death solemnly filed out to join the family, offering hugs and tears, whispers and laughter — all processing together what this untimely death would mean to Maddy’s loved ones.
The death of a loved one is agonizingly difficult at best. But death by suicide thrusts an unfathomable burden on the survivors. The stigma of taking one’s own life may cause the surviving loved ones to withdraw in shame or fear-laced confusion, when it is precisely then that genuine support is needed.
I learned that Maddy’s funeral had been held earlier in the month out of state where she had settled, married and built a life. So I was deeply grateful that her family offered this heartfelt memorial ceremony in her hometown so those who knew her here had the opportunity to come together to remember this beautiful soul, support her loved ones and lay down their grief.
I left that ceremony feeling deep sorrow for the family and all of us who knew Maddy. But I also felt a sense of solidarity with this crowd of humanity that had gathered to grieve its mutual loss. As the days and weeks have gone by since that much needed memorial, I have stopped more than once to remember the pictorial slideshow depicting a life well lived, the carefully chosen music that warmed our hearts and the words spoken that day of love and sorrow that we will always remember. It is the place in my memory where I shared my sorrow with others, the place that continues to undergird my journey through life with all its joys and challenges. It is the sacred place I laid my grief.
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