Will you come with me and watch part of a sacred transformation that most of us close our eyes to and avoid? It won’t be comfortable for you and it certainly wasn’t for me. It’s not like many of the other joyous Rites of Passage that Pagans throw themselves into with wild abandon. It’s raw and painful and normally very private, but it shouldn’t be shunned like some shameful secret. I’m not sharing this to shock or repulse or thrill. I’m sharing it in honor of my grandmother, Selma, who was a most generous person.
The ritual took place over the span of 4 days in my grandmother’s room at an assisted care facility in Nebraska. I was invited to the ritual in a way that is familiar to many of us. A phone call from my mother, so choked up it was hard to understand her, saying that if I wanted to see my grandmother before she died, I needed to come now.
So I did. I jumped into the car and drove 6 hours to get there. Past a tornado which wiped out a Boy Scout camp. I had feared the worst. ‘The worst’ was not death, but the loss of my grandmother’s faith. The stroke had confused her so much she couldn’t even take solace in a pastor’s visit or a reading from the bible. My grandmother was the kindest person you would ever meet and was a devout follower of Jesus. If ever a God had a more beautiful jewel of a worshiper, I’m not aware of it.
Thankfully, by the time I got there, my grandmother had regained enough of herself that she knew who we were and once again had the comfort of her faith in her God. She couldn’t speak and couldn’t move very much, but she was still able to express herself. My sister and I rushed to her side and my sister couldn’t help the tears that flowed. My grandmother patted her hand and wiped my sister’s tears away. That’s the kind of woman she was. Even as she lay dying and struggling for every breath, she thought of us first, expending precious energy to comfort us as she always has.
Most everyone in our whole extended family are Christians, but that didn’t stop the ritual from taking place. How could it? This ritual transcends religions. It is so powerful that it manifests itself even though we do not speak of it and do not share its mysteries with one another.
We gathered in a circle with my grandmother, so frail, laying in her bed in the center. We directed our energy towards her. Focusing our Will that she be free from pain. Telling funny stories. Reminiscing about past family events. Praying for Divine aid and comfort. The words of our invocations may be different, but they all meant the same thing. We chant them endlessly. In whispers and in silence.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil; For you are with me; Your rod and Your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and loving kindness will follow me all the days of my life, And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
Her liver has shut down, her other organs are failing her. Time…ticking by. So fast and so slow. Days have gone by and more family arrive. We do not dissolve the circle. When someone has to leave, to shower, sleep, eat, cry, another takes their place. The room is always full, fresh energy is added.
Please Thanatos, enter this room. You are welcome. See my grandmother? See her laying there? Take her gently into your arms, breathe in her last breath, place your kiss upon her heart.
She has fought so hard, let her rest her head upon your shoulder, support her light frame, carry her far away from here. She is so weary. Take pity on her. Have pity on us all.
Please Thanatos, enter this room. You are welcome.
Now it is even more of a struggle for her. When she is awake she is in pain and fearful so they have begun to sedate her. Outside the room we begin to whisper about how we could convince the nurse to give her a fatal dose of morphine. We enter a period of time where it seems my grandmother has finally passed through the veil, only to come back. This happens many, many times over the next two days. Each time was just as gut wrenching as the first. She would stop breathing, struggle and seem to be gone…and then start breathing again.
This changes the ritual. Disrupts it. Channels the energies into directions other than easing grandma’s passing. I can feel it and I can see it. The close calls have brought home the reality, grandma is going to die and when she breathes her last we may never see her again. All thoughts of Heaven, reincarnation, or any other kind of afterlife feel like a lie.
There are too many people in the room, saying they wish for her release, that it’s ok for her to let go, but they are holding her with us. Willing her to breathe, to stay. My sister most of all. My sister was the favorite grandchild, you see. It was like there was a cord from my sister to my grandmother, a chain. I help clear some of the people out of the room, get spouses to take them to get something to eat. Told my sister to say goodbye to grandma, it was time for us to go home. Teri cried and held grandma and then walked out. I held grandma’s hand and put my hand on her heart and prayed as hard as I could that Death would take her.
Less than 15 minutes later, my grandmother’s blood pressure went to zero. 15 minutes after that she was pronounced dead. All I felt when I got the call on my cell while driving away was profound relief.
At 4:20pm June 13th, 2008 my grandmother died.
Her husband died at 5:40pm June 13th, 13 years earlier. Our family is in awe.
The Rite of Passage for my grandmother had ended. In a few days the ritual to help the family deal with the grief would begin.
You may think, after reading this, that going through this ritual was an experience I wish I had avoided. That perhaps we are right to turn our backs and not participate in this Rite of Passage. I can’t even begin to express how strongly I disagree. We cannot turn our backs when the end of this life approaches and we shouldn’t turn away from our loved ones when they need us most just because this ritual doesn’t have cake and balloons.
Going through this with my family, seeing my grandmother go through this, wasn’t fun. Or enjoyable. Or easy.
It was powerful. And transformative. Most of all, like all important Rites of Passage, it was needed.