If you asked me what is my relationship with religion, I would probably say “it’s complicated.” When I went home to bury my mom after her lost battle with lung cancer, the local priest told me that it would be better if I murdered someone and repented rather than kept offending God with adultery over and over again. Now, I never have or would cheat on my husband, but we didn’t marry in church and, according to the church, we live in sin and are therefore not worthy of God’s love. We had our reasons for not getting married in church and I feel that this particular conversation only reinforced my belief that it was the right choice. Not because I was offended, but because of how utterly ridiculous his statement was.
But I am not a religion hater. While I realize that there are a lot of fundamentalist religions out there that are simply not good for society at large, I also think that generalizing this isn’t particularly accurate or fair. I think that there is something valuable to being rooted in rituals and, on some level, we all crave the community and ceremonies to mark important life events and the passage of time, which is what religion largely is.
Standing in the chapel, beside my mom’s open casket, was an experience that definitely shifted something for me, internally. Her body was surrounded by dozens of (mostly older) people praying the rosary. And I think the reason why it wasn’t awkward was that they knew what they were doing. They had practiced it for decades at many other funerals. And they knew it had a purpose. When I first saw mom, I started sobbing uncontrollably, trying to fight the completely overpowering sensation of drowning. But in that monotonous chanting around me, I eventually found myself also repeating Hail Marys. It was like a mantra. After a while, I stopped sobbing and felt consoled by this collective prayer. I realized that the only reason why these people showed up that day was to comfort my mother’s departing soul and to sooth our family’s pain. And it was really powerful.
I have read somewhere that repetitive prayer (also meditation) has a huge effect on the part of our left brain that is responsible for how we relate to the outside environment. It reduces activity in that area, which basically blurs boundaries and makes us feel as if we are not completely separate from the world around us. In a way, we feel one with our surroundings. And that’s what it felt like to me in that chapel. This overwhelming pain I felt was being held in a much larger container than just my one body. And it is what made it bearable.
Recently, On Being had an excellent interview with Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, who lost her husband in 2015. In this interview Sandberg says, and I completely agree with her, that in grief, religion is a good thing to turn to, because it provides us with some guidance. Because otherwise, we might not know what to do, how to handle the logistics as well as the hurt.
She says “…in the face of something so sudden and so tragic, the traditions around the burial, the funeral, the shiva, impossible though they were to live through, I think, were actually very important and very comforting because without them I just would have not known what to do. That was, I think, hugely important because death ushers in such nothingness, such blank – I thought of it as a void, sucking you in and pushing on my chest so I could barely breathe. And religion was something to hang to in that void.”
Another very important thing Sandberg talks about is the feeling of isolation in the period of mourning after the funeral:
“I think people were afraid to say the wrong thing, so they often said nothing at all. So, as I moved through those days, I was feeling increasingly isolated. I would go to work and people just looked at me like I was a ghost […] They didn’t know what to say.”
This is something that was very difficult for me when I returned to the States after my mom’s funeral. People generally don’t ask about personal things of this nature. Then again, I don’t know if I necessarily would have wanted to talk… In Poland, religion provides many opportunities to get together and remember the people that we lost. They have a mass in my mom’s intention on her name day and on the anniversary of her death. They have the All Saints Day. And I feel a sort of envy of that. That they can meet to remember and honor her. And people, women in particular, learn the things you do when you know someone is mourning a loved one. My two sisters in law are really good at that. They just show up at my dad’s with homemade donuts or something. They say things like mom would have really liked that.
For months after mom died, dad went to the cemetery every single day to light a candle on her grave. And then, at some point, he missed a day for some reason. It must have been weird. He probably felt bad. But when he went the following day, he told me that there was a candle burning. A neighbor or a friend lit one in his absence. I know how much it must have meant for him. Knowing that remembering her is not something he had to do alone. He doesn’t go daily any more and he has, to some extent, rebuilt his life without mom. But I know how important it was for him to be in a community during that first year after she passed.
And I feel that it is something that we, people not affiliated with any religion, lack. A platform for coping with things like death of someone we loved.
I am not suggesting that we should all become religious. But I am saying that, even if we are not religious, we can still learn a lot from religion and use the practices that have worked for generations in our own communities.
Too often, we turn to medication, food, alcohol, or whatever else can be a distraction. We run from pain because nobody taught us how to lean into it and live through it. And we often don’t have anybody to simply hold space for us when we grieve. And if you experienced it, you know that feeling lonely in your grief makes it so much harder to deal with.
I saw this quote somewhere: attention is the most basic form of love. And I find it so true.
Sandberg also talks how she eventually reached out to the world, through a Facebook post, and how this experience of grief and mourning became a connection with many other people. She gives examples of how we can show up for someone in a way that’s genuine and caring and simply human. Someone texting you What do you not like on a burger? and bringing you dinner, or calling to say I’m in the lobby of the hospital for a hug for the next hour whether you want one or not, are such ordinary yet beautiful ways of expressing that you are not alone.
Here is a link to the On Being interview with Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant https://onbeing.org/programs/sheryl-sandberg-and-adam-grant-resilience-after-unimaginable-loss/
And here is a link to Sheryl Sandberg’s non-profit: https://optionb.org/category/grief-and-loss