The First Year After Mom’s Death: How These Rituals Helped Me Navigate Grief and Loss

My mother died one year ago today.

I still remember our first evening without her in the world. Fred, Ron, and I rode through downtown Raleigh with the windows down, and I thought: She’ll never hear the sounds of August again—the cicadas’ song that tell us summer is nearly gone. It was a feeling of deep, visceral absence.

I’ve spent a year entrenched in grief and all its stages, feelings, and waves. I’ve read books, written about them, kept notes on my experience, and attended hospice grief counseling every two weeks. My family, closest friends, and faith communities have kept in close contact the past twelve months, offering their love and hugs, lending their ears and Kleenex.

My privilege has afforded me these grief resources. But there are many whose loved ones are plucked away and they have no one to turn to. In the fog of loss, they may not even know what they need.

Everyone’s grief journey is unique; there is no right nor wrong way to mourn a loss. We are beginners at this and everything else in life.

Here’s are some of the rituals, exercises, workshops I did and intentions I held this year that helped me; maybe it will help you or someone you know?

  • First, I scheduled an appointment with my therapist as soon as the ink was dry on the funeral home paperwork. Three days later, I sat in her office and she walked me through crisis management coping integral to calming the chaotic deluge of “Is this really happening?” Her advice on facing the brain, body, and spirit’s trauma of a sudden loss incited a failed a meditation practice that ultimately resulted into creating my own 40-day meditation guide.
  • I began a “Grief Journal” in which I could “talk” to Mom anytime—day or night. This stemmed from an emotional evening in late August in which I told Fred I wish she’d call me. “What would you want her to say?” he asked. “You’re going to be OK, Dana” I answered. The journal became the place of those “reassurance phone calls.”
  • In September, family and friends gathered for her service of remembrance at Binkley Church. Rev. Dale and I used an outline of what she wanted at her memorial. We displayed photos and ate her favorite foods. Attendees wrote down their favorite memories or stories of her; our beloved church showered us with affection.
  • In those first first months, I practiced radical self-care.
  • I attended grief workshops at Transitions LifeCare Hospice, where Mom spent the last eight days of her life after her unexpected illness. I also accepted their gracious offer of bi-monthly grief counseling that continues until one month after your loved one’s death anniversary. It was the wisest choice I’ve made in a long time.
  • During my first hospice workshop, I made a misshapen clay “garden of the heart,” a brown lump whose insides were “tiled” (scraped with a fork). It was symbolic of my own heart, which felt like it’d been mowed with cheese grater.
  • At that same autumn workshop, the counselors asked us to write on a paper heart embedded with wildflowers with a message from our loved one. Mine said:  “Bloom Dana, bloom. It’s time.” I’ve kept both hearts.
  • Fred and I attended as many family and friends gatherings as possible in the fall and as the holidays approached. We adopted an animal shelter kitty. Our Hindu community’s “Friendsgiving” was extra special—and they never hesitated to ask how grief was going.
  • During Advent, I colored mandalas with Sharon Seyfarth Garner’s Prayers, Candles, and Prayers.  I purchased LED tea lights to placed in a terribly painted glass candle holder I made at another hospice workshop focused on grieving during the holidays.  It’s the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen. When they asked me to explain it, I told them that my mother always said I liked to “tacky things up,” so I had to do that now, too.
  • In December, I took a social media sabbath and focused on family. I grieved the loss of Mom’s brother and turned inward toward spiritual practice. We relished moments with our tiny niece and nephew and all the children in our lives.
  • On Christmas Eve, at the Catholic Church, I lit a candle and prayed for her, as  Fred’s precious Catholic Aunt and Uncle had shortly after her death. On Christmas Day, we gathered with nearby family at my cousin’s home.
  • Most of all, I took all the holidays lightly—spontaneously. If I didn’t feel like doing something, I didn’t.
  • The winter offered sabbath opportunity–resting, worshiping, and being in community. I learned to lean on God for support during this journey. I wasn’t afraid to ask deep theological questions—ones that were often left unanswered.  I learned that that is part of faith—and holy mysteries.
  • All year, Mom’s sunset scatter cremation ashes box has remained in sight. It migrates from the living room to the dining room to my passenger seat for road trips. It’s big and heavy and when I need to, I hug and cradle it like a baby. It’s already been on three road trips to two states.
  • In March, my brother, sister-in-law,  Fred and I remembered Mom’s birthday with chocolate and laughter. We ate dessert first (classic Judy!) and spent time on her favorite beach.
  • Every morning, I’ve asked Mom to “show up” in some way. She usually “appears” as a vibrant rainbow reflection in the crystal sun-catcher my friend Barbara so lovingly gifted me with. Or, Truffy Jr. slams his paw against a bronze bell another friend gave us.
  • I attended Buddhist workshops on death, dying, and grieving.
  • I wrote a book about the theology of death, grief, and the afterlife. You need not do this—but a death-related project  forced me to stay present in grief all damn year.
  • At Passover, I bought a Yarzheit candle, a Jewish ritual to remember those who are no longer physically with us but whose memory remains. Though Passover has come and gone, the Yarzheit candle is still on our altar, right next to a very Jewish Jesus. I’m hoping he’d approve.
  • I kept the sympathy cards in a basket where I could read them whenever I needed to.
  • Fred set up a make-shift memorial shelf where he placed my favorite photos of her and Truffy Sr., who died just three months after Mom. I walk by them both everyday.
  • I texted with friends and family members and told them I needed them. I asked them for support and memories and check-ins.
  • I paid attention, too, to the ordinary and everyday occurrences-turned rituals—a sign of meaning-making in a time when I felt listless and uncertain that there was any meaning. It arrived in the strangest places:  pennies, numbers, songs, and people that reminded me of Mom.
  • In May, our Trent Family gathered for our first reunion in 20 years. She would have been so proud. We honored her and her siblings with stories and laughter.
  • My favorite photo of the two of us remained in my car until July. I replaced it with a rock from the Wild Goose Festival painted with “Be Brave.” That was her new message for me.

Most of all, I have trusted the process, something I’m not very good at doing. I want the end result, now—and I’ve had to learn to be patient with myself and this path.

Which, if any of these did you find useful? What grief rituals, traditions, or experiences have helped you? I love new ideas—please share below in the comments.

Please share this piece with someone who needs it. Grief (in any form) is isolating. Let someone know you care and you’re thinking of them.

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