During the last Great Plague of London (1665-6), church bells rang every time a community member died. Residents got used to hearing the bell toll, first intermittently, then around the clock. It was a time of mourning, and everyone knew it.

In our context today, we need to mourn and grieve. Even if we are not close-up witnesses to death and suffering, we hear about it all the time. We feel it in the air. We need rituals to allow ourselves to grieve and feel the personal toll of this pandemic.

The Governor of New York has implemented a rule that all flags fly at half-mast. But what can we do as individuals to ritually mourn these losses and grieve for our world right now?

In my family, we have started a new ritual. On Sunday nights we stage a family memorial. We light a candle and let it burn for hours, to bear witness to this time of grieving and loss.

Together, we bear witness to the toll of this pandemic. We share the big picture numbers that we know – the number of deaths in CA, NY, OR, WA, and CO, the states in which our family resides. We talk about the demographic trends – how our most vulnerable populations are hardest hit in these states. And how men are dying slightly more than women and why that might be the case. We talk about the rates of recovery as well.

Then, we make the pandemic personal. We express compassion for those we know who are suffering in some way. This may mean that they are sick and alone in a hospital room, a dorm room, or a bedroom. Or our friends who are struggling with anxiety or depression, who have a hard time eating. Though we haven’t yet talked together about our own struggles and ups and downs, I hope we will do this soon. I know my daughter and I are journaling about this individually.

Ironically, it was late last Sunday night that I learned of a close friend’s loss, the first local death of someone we had known.

As a good friend and mentor has reminded me, we must all embrace the darkness just as we embrace the light in this terrifying time. And this takes practice.

And so, at the moment, this is our family practice. It is a work in progress, but it stops us in our ritualized tracks and shakes us, helping us to bear witness to what is going on around us. And especially for the 12-year-old, the one member of the family who isn’t reading the news constantly, it is a reminder that this isn’t a “staycation.” We are learning to sit with uncertainty and loss together.

This year on Easter, our extended family has planned a socially distanced walk through the local Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, NY. It is a gorgeous peaceful place with meandering pathways, full of giant headstones and seemingly ancient trees. I see this as a way to be closer to death and dying, as well as to appreciate life and living. Now, more than ever, we must embrace our own mortality.

Oakwood Cemetery

I’d love to know your rituals for embracing darkness and loss in this time. Please share below!

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