Footprints in the Snow

I’ve been to two different events in the past week, both presenting stories that reflect beliefs about the afterlife. One was at the synagogue — so the Jewish perspective.  The other was at a local museum, which is having an exhibition supplemented by talks related to Russia, so – beliefs from an Orthodox Christian view. Not surprisingly, both Jewish and Orthodox perspectives have clear ideas about what happens to the soul once it leaves a body.

In the Jewish tradition, there are the hours and days following death and prior to the funeral when people sit with the body. I understood this to be a way to comfort and ease the soul which may not fully understand that it no longer inhabits the body in which it had been residing. Then there’s the practice of sitting shiva in the days after the funeral. At age 15, when faced with death for the first time, that of my grandfather, my father had to take me aside and convince me to stop raging about the awfulness of people having what seemed to me to be a party. My dad explained that everyone had gathered and brought food to comfort and keep my grandmother company in the first hours of her loss. I was mollified but not completely convinced. Now, I’ve learned from a more esoteric perspective that sitting shiva is also about continuing to provide ease for the soul that may still be lingering and holding onto familiar settings. (Of course, I didn’t get this explanation from my agnostic father.) So, I’m worried now that Philip died in the completely unfamiliar setting of an intensive care unit in a hospital in San Diego. And feeling his presence evaporate from his body and the room, did I in my ignorance desert him by walking out after only a short time of sitting with his body? Was he confused and unable to find anything or anyone familiar or comforting? It’s a terrible thought.

The process of mourning in the Jewish tradition includes recognizing the first 30 days following the burial as a period in which those living through grief slowly make their way back into everyday life. The whole first year is seen as the time through which grief and recovery are acknowledged. While none of my family or friends hurried or chided me in that first year to get over it, move on, or begin a new chapter, few wanted to talk about Philip after the first weeks. I imagined they didn’t want to upset me, that their silence came out of the kindest intentions. But when you lose the central figure in your life and when you ache with missing that person who has filled your days with laughter and tears and exasperation and inspiration – you want to talk about him. Want to tell his stories, ponder his impossible inconsistencies, laugh and cry aloud with someone who will hold you and your pain without any attempt to fix or heal or advise.

At the museum program, I learned that the Orthodox also observe set phases of mourning that include a third day, a ninth day, and a 40th day. The first stories appeared to be warning tales of what might happen if one did not honor the dead in the prescribed manner. (Being blown across the yard in a furious blizzard was one.) The final tale was a more peaceful depiction of a young girl following her deceased father’s footprints in the snow as he walked away from the house on the 40th day. She followed until his footsteps were no longer seen, and she was left with the tender knowing that he had been able to travel on.

I had nothing of these ritual roadmaps to help me through my mourning. I was scrabbling to construct a cosmology out of the bits and scraps I’d picked up along the way. But it was too little, too limited. Tonight, I’m thinking that not giving a child some kind of spiritual grounding is an (unwitting) disservice. I’m sure my parents believed that the best they could teach was what they believed: be kind, be fair, be honest, be loving. And, of course, those values have served me well. But when it came to losing the most important being, I was left high and dry.

In the first few months after Philip died, on two separate occasions, his voice called me out of deep sleep. It was only my name that he called, but it was urgent and distinctly and unquestionably his voice. The first time — startled as I was, I was happy to feel that he was still somehow connected and caring to reach back for me. The second, I was upset, frustrated, bereft. “What?” I answered back. “What can I do? What do you need? Where are you? How can I respond across this unfathomable divide?” And through my tears, again and again, “Why did you leave me?” The silence that followed was heart-aching.

This Friday, March 15 is the four-year anniversary of his death. It seems like yesterday and a lifetime ago.  Have I honored the stages of his soul’s passing even without knowing how? Will an angry blizzard blow through the apartment because I have missed the crucial days and ritual practices meant to ease him on his way?  And are those stages, the third, and ninth, and thirtieth or fortieth days also for those left behind? Are we meant to allow grief to deeply reorganize our souls … our lives? And am I still (and always) doing this?

Will the love for him that still shapes and tenderly guides me through my days walk gently across the floor, leave tracks in a gentle snow that magically fills the room, and ask my heart to continue to unfold in this life where an impossible person once took my hand, walked and breathed by my side?

12 thoughts on “Footprints in the Snow

  1. Joan…perhaps this is one of your most global and meaningful blogs. Love reading your words that capture all of our thoughts and feelings. Thinking of Philip and you today.💕💕

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  2. Joan,

    Prayers go out for your comfort on this sad anniversary of Phillip’s death.

    We never get over missing the ones we love. The saddest day of my life and the one which lingers with me was the death of my younger sister in 1975. On occasion I call my daughter by my sister’s name or speak out loud to tell her I wish she was still around so we could travel together. It is the love that lingers.

    The two traditions you spoke of are not the Western beliefs about life after death. Lutheran beliefs are based on both the Old and New Testaments. Jesus answered one of the thieves on the cross beside Him, “This day you will be with me in paradise.” Based on that and other Scripture, most of Christendom, perhaps all, believe that our spirits go immediately to God, or to judgment, We believe that our resurrected, perfect, bodies will be united with our spirits at the end of time. Now you have three points of view. Lutherans see the same themes from Genesis to Revelation and we trace them backward and forward as we look for answers to age old questions.

    Have a Blessed day. I hope your thoughts this day flood your heart and mind with beautiful memories.

    Ernestine

    ________________________________

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    1. Thank you, Ernestine. I am glad to receive a third perspective. I think, though I’m not sure, that the perspectives I heard in the two presentations were more akin to Jewish and Russian folk stories and personal experiences colored by those tales. I should not have presented them as the religions. Possibly, they spring from the more esoteric sides of personal spiritual experience?
      At this time in my spiritual life — unaffiliated to any organized religion — I am most of the time believing that Love is what matters (whether one calls Love by the name of Jesus, or Allah, or Buddha — ultimately they are all Love). Love is what makes a life and Love is what ultimately takes us home. Thank you for being a faithful reader and a friend.

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  3. Dear Joan

    Thank you for this touching blog, full of vulnerable honesty. I remember you and Philip often.

    In our Orthodox Christian Tradition (Glenn, Mya and I have been Orthodox for four years), we chant/read the entire Psalter for the departed in the first seven days to help the soul’s journey. There are also services on the 40th day and anniversaries. There are many traditions similar to the Jewish. Despite all the practices, I’m not aware of any dogma concerning what happens after departing this world for sure, except that the soul will rest and wake at the resurrection. The only thing we can do is to trust in the compassion of Christ God that’s beyond our imagination, who is the only Lover of Man, and pray for the departed in our remembrance.

    I want you to know that I commemorate Philip together with all my other departed family and friends in my prayer, at every Divine Liturgy, when both the living and the dead are remembered before God, on every Sunday—the day of Christ’s Resurrection, the day he has defeated death.

    With love, and a big hug,
    Lydia xxx

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    1. Lydia, thank you. I have just responded to a Lutheran friend’s response to my blog, and now I have called out a response from an Orthodox Christian friend. A Jewish friend texted thanking me and saying that she had shared my blog with her rabbi. So, it would seem that I have unwittingly stepped into some deep waters here. Your words seem to reflect at least something of what I surmised from the Russian folk stories. Both presentations, I now wish I’d made clearer, were perhaps from the more esoteric sides of the religions — largely colored by country tales that … in turn … are colored by personal/spiritual experience, and round and round. In your response, you speak of the compassion and love of Christ. At least at this point in my spiritual life (unaffiliated with any religion but intrigued by all), I am believing that Love is what matters (whether one calls Love by the name of Jesus, or Allah, or Buddha — ultimately they are all Love). Love is what makes a life and Love is what ultimately takes us home. Thank you — from my heart, for including Philip in your prayers and for staying a friend to me.

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  4. It’s not that I didn’t want to comment, I wanted to have time to read and digest your blog. I’m still of the belief dead is dead. As the survivors we grieve the loss of loved ones and have other family members and friends grieve and comfort us through tough times. The old saying, time heals does make sense to me. At the beginning of the mourning period we can’t believe it or even forget it has happened. We cry and can’t figure out why. As time goes by, the hurt does heal and we are left with memories. I’m sorry you are forced to remember the 4th anniversary of Philip’s death. All we can do is remember and honor our loved ones as I hope you have. L-D

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  5. Thank you for reading and digesting my thoughts. I seem to have evoked responses from all my more religious friends (other than you :)). I did not really hear the tales in those presentations as religious. More as folk experiences colored by religion, culture, and custom. At least at this point in my spiritual life (without religion), I believe that Love is what matters (whether one calls Love by the name of Jesus, or Allah, God, or Buddha — ultimately they are all Love). Love is what makes a life, and Love is what ultimately takes us home. Memories and love are, as you say, the way to stay connected and to honor the people we love who are alive and those who are gone.

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  6. So hard to believe that it’s been that many years. Like you, I was raised outside of a religious faith. Like you, I was taught to believe that being good and loving towards others is what matters most. And, like you, on difficult days, and faced with times of unbearable loss, I struggle to make sense of life and have a hard time letting go. I used to think that universal love was enough. I have come to see however that faith in something more could be an anchor, and a way to unite with others on a more meaningful level. That feeling of strong community is missing from my life. Who knows, perhaps one day we will find our place in all of this. Love and light.

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  7. And what if that someday were this day! In the fleeting sense I sometimes feel so grateful for … there is the knowing that the beloved community, the belonging, and the love are — right now — within us and in every tiny (macro-photography) instance of beauty and compassion that we feel for the beings of light that surround us. Awareness of this is hard to hold onto, but it is there. Love and light.

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  8. Much love to you, my friend! The grieving doesn’t end, does it? It changes, and we carry on, but it’s still there.
    I grew up with different religious traditions around death, didn’t understand that grief doesn’t end after the “funeral.” Now I understand how it changes how and who you are in the world where we still have to live.

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    1. How very true! And … despite occasional falls into doubt (as in this last post), more often, I am grateful for the ways grief and an unexpected kind of grace have changed me. Much love and gratitude to you for having reached out in your very wise comment.

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