“Ellie, are we going to pray today?” a tenth grader at church asked me during programming last Wednesday.
“Yes, we are going to close in prayer today. Why?”
Her chin quivered first for a moment before she broke down into tears. She found out at the end of her school day that a classmate of hers had committed suicide. She was confused and hurting. “I don’t understand. He was happy and well liked, involved in school. I don’t get it.”
When young people lose a peer, it is uniquely devastating. They themselves realize they are mortal. And they don’t have much practice, yet, in grieving. I have found, in working with young people, that it can even be a divide. There are some who know death and others who just don’t yet. And it’s not the latter groups’ fault, but it can be isolating for the former.
All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day is an annual opportunity to remember, to light a candle, to say a prayer, to articulate a memory. It helps teach us how to grieve and continue living. We need these times and spaces created to validate our hurt and loss and offer tangible ways to invite us into active grieving. This liturgical celebration came at just the right time for the grieving tenth grader, but it made me think of other assistance to grief that we lean on throughout the year.
In her touching New York Times article, “Wild Messengers,” Jennifer Holland writes: “Many describe the experience of being ‘visited’ by a wild animal soon after a loved one’s death or on an important anniversary of that death.” She herself had been visited by nine bald eagles on a winter drive on the ninth of the month while her mother was dying from cancer. “I couldn’t help but think that those birds were nature’s messenger, sharing what was coming. Perhaps even telling me that final exhale was a good thing, powerful and beautiful in its lasting quiet.”
I lost a good friend to cancer when she was too young. On her first missed birthday, when she was supposed to be with us turning twenty-five, I was in Iguazu National Park in South America surrounded by the beauty of waterfalls. For two days, butterflies accompanied me, ticking my face. My friend loved butterflies and had one tattooed on her foot, so I chose to feel her presence in those butterflies, experiencing beauty with me and continuing our relationship. The gorgeous wild creatures offered me comfort and helped me grieve. In my mind and heart, they were wild messengers. As Holland says:
When we mourn, isn’t it not just for our relationship with a person, but also for the physical presence of her, her aliveness? The voice, smell, textures and warmth, the gestures we know intimately, all of these are replaced with their opposites in death. We are left with a hole that the energy that powered the person through life once filled. And so I think many of us seek signs of that energy at work somewhere else. A butterfly keeps circling you and perching on your arm. A deer raises its head from grazing, landing its gaze on you. A dog you’ve never seen before makes a beeline to you from nowhere, demands a little love, then moves on. I admit to taking an extra look at a particularly tame squirrel or a bird chirping right outside my back door, thinking, Mom, is that you? I feel a little silly, yes, but even a quick connection with that warm, energetic thing soothes me in that moment.
God offers us spaces of comfort in and outside of the church building and liturgical calendar, in All Saints’ Day and in the wild, to name two. We miss the energy of the ones we lost. We want to believe that some of the energy of our loved ones is conserved in the living around us. While we grieve, we are vulnerable and open. We are looking outside of ourselves for meaning. We live in this space between worlds. We are open and hungry to see things we do not normally see. In this way, the grieving are living in a state of holiness.