Have you ever considered what community has to do with our humanity? I never considered it until I experienced the loss of my grandmother. I knew we needed people, as in mom, dad, sibling, partner but it’s only until recently that I have experienced the indelible healing effect of following traditions alongside extended community.
Off to The Birth Place of Mariachi
Weeks ago my son and I flew to Mexico to attend my grandmother’s 9 day prayer vigil that followed her funeral. In the town my parents are from in Jalisco, Mexico, there is a custom practiced still, where all who knew the departed, gather for an hour every evening to pray for their peaceful journey into the afterlife.
Unbeknownst to me, this tradition that I thought was all about well wishes for the deceased loved one, I have learned since, is just as much for those left behind.
Vigils as a Backdrop to Playing
I remember having been in one of these traditions for a family member when I was around 9. It hardly meant anything to me then, the departed wasn’t anyone I personally knew and I was busy being 9. I was completely focused on the games with my cousins outside the vigil, at times weaving through the chairs as people prayed.
Child’s Play, No More
My grandmothers funeral was very different of course. I knew her, loved her and still love her very much. Re-experiencing this tradition on this occasion as an adult, took on a whole new meaning.
Although due to work reasons, I was only able to be there for 4 of the 9 days, it was immensely healing none the less to share that experience with friends and extended family.
Sidewalk Sacred Space
An altar was made of my grandmother on her front porch with a white table cloth under a big framed picture of her face at her best, smiling with her makeup and hair done. White candles were placed around her picture and at the bottom a number of beautifully arranged white flowers as well. Over one hundred chairs were placed in front of her house, in effect blocking any traffic coming through.
No Red Tape
No need for permits like in Chicago where you have to talk to the city and get permission and pay a fee, blah blah blah. It was just an understood way of doing things that when there’s that many chairs blocking the street, it means there’s a vigil being held and the cars make their u turns quietly.
Street Side Mass
Neighbors came that knew her well and brought their guitars to lead in the prayers and intermittently played devotional songs.
As the group of over one hundred people all in unison recited prayers that I am very poorly versed in, they ended every 5 minutes or so with the same verse that says something along the lines of “…and may her soul rest in eternal peace”. As I looked at her picture and prayed my own prayers, scenes like those of a film began to pass in my minds eye, one after the other.
Her jokes, her riddles, her voice when she cackled in delight, her recipes, the way she loved on babies and children, her hands, her massages and even her scoldings.
The tears began to roll over my cheeks freely as I made the effort to return to my own prayers. I looked to my left and would see cousins down the row of chairs also in tears reciting the prayers. I’d look to my right and see uncles struggling to keep their composure while their lips followed along.
It was like balm to hear the words of everyone in unison wishing her peace. I spent that hour from 7pm to 8pm regularly crying and praying for those 4 days. It felt as if my heart was opening in pain and being mended in prayer simultaneously.
The Hunger I Didn’t Know Of
The intimacy I experienced connecting with others in honor of this one amazing person was palpable. After the service some would stay to drink some of the tea, hot chocolate or coffee that was offered along with a sweet or savory snack. Stories were shared about the memories my grandmother etched in people’s minds, leaving her imprint of who she was and what she meant to them.
Letting The Love In
While some stayed for a few minutes, others stayed well into the night swapping at mosquitos while sharing stories over tequila, under the white street lamp. Seeing faces I haven’t seen in years and letting myself be embraced literally with hugs, offerings of food, listening to stories and having my listened to, was like nothing I have ever experienced.
Point of No Return
The Lorena inserting the key into my front door lock upon returning from the trip, was a different Lorena then the one who had left a few days prior.
My heart had been gauged by the big vacant space left by my grandmother. It had also been loved and prayed upon into a multilayered healing of some sort.
The Other Reality
I couldn’t help but think to myself, what would have happened had I not attended that one hour vigil in those 4 days? I think I would have felt like I was walking around with an emotional hole in my being from my neck to my navel. A big, aching, vulnerable hole. I could easily see myself spending the whole of many years trying to fill or numb that aching space.
Capitalism Crowds Out The Sacred Space
I couldn’t help but remember a coworker of mine many years ago I had mentioned in a previous post regarding facing death here.
In my twenties a coworker of mine, also in her twenties, lost her mom to cancer.
No more than a few day later she returned to work, understandably a zombie of a person. At times looking out into the distance seemingly lost in thought, we’d call her and she’d seemingly snap out of it as if we had interrupted a trance.
She had bills to pay she said, mother alive or not she needed to work.
Working alongside her I saw how cold, hard, capitalistic reality met our humanity. In truth it didn’t, it squashed it.
I remember watching a movie where a friend has real talk with her bestie’ that was dealing with the death of her husband . She said something to the effect of “Hun we’re not wealthy enough to be graced with ample amounts of time away from the bustle of every day working life to cry our hearts out”.
The Gold in Ancient Global Habits
As I have dedicated this blog to the importance of daily personal habits for the most part, I am keenly aware more than ever the importance of cultural habits or traditions. There is a reason why so many religions share similar traditions of taking big pauses in our daily life to allow community in, to allow loved ones to sit with us, acknowledge and process the big shift that has happened when someone close to us passes on.
Good Personal Habits Can’t Compensate for Lack of Community
Sure, I have my morning routine of chanting, yoga, meditation, water etc. but none of it can come even close to giving me the release, embrace, closure and healing that I experienced in those 4 days in Mexico.
Around The World
Judaism has Shiva of 7 days, Buddhism as well, Hinduism has from 13-15 days of prayer and ritual. There is a reason why humans all over the world have found similar traditions commemorating this rite of passage.
Rites of passage help us keep our humanity in tact while undergoing the big life transitions that can easily have us lose our ground otherwise.
I saw a Dia De Los Muertos skull on an ad of a magazine in the Chicago airport and remembered how good it felt to have celebrated it this past November. I looked at that skull kindled with a new level of endearment for that holiday and looking forward to the upcoming one this year.
I anticipate celebrating it again in the fall, now with the added picture of my grandmother. I look forward to the comfort and peace that without fail, this tradition has provided me every time I celebrate it.
Was there a time community played a big part in helping you through a big loss? Are you missing that?
I’d love to know.
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