Ceremony: The Necessity of Honoring the Endings
Recently, my ex-husband Bill and I participated in a ceremony of completion to end our marriage. The state of Colorado legally ended our marriage back in 2004, just a few months after we split our lives into two separate homes. Back then, full of shock and heartbreak, and lacking guidance from anyone or anywhere, to honor and grieve, we simply hit the ground running. Everything and everyone around us seemed to want us to move on, and in our trauma, in our shock and the dissociative quality of that foggy numbed place, that’s exactly what we did. With the help of our respective parents and families we simply removed the extra chair from the dining room table and went on with family holidays, family vacations, and birthdays. Life moved on as if there had never been any other way. We could have almost missed the moment entirely. Almost.
I have guided and mentored people in their journeys to and through healing and wholeness for a few decades. In this process of learning and tending, I have come to understand that honoring our grief – and the required acknowledgment and honoring of endings – is a foundational requirement of all healthy human culture. We cannot grow into true adults if we are not taught (through modeling) how to grieve, how to honor and how to move through the multiple deaths that happen in any one human life (let alone a community’s life). It is a particularly sinister feature of Western Industrial Culture that it has first strip-mined and then mono-cropped organized, communal meaning-making from and in our lives. Ironically, the ceremonies we now have tend to move us all into conformity and competition rather than celebrating what is unique and necessary about us. The outcome of this cultural evisceration is that, without the regular intelligent demarcation of what once was and is no longer and what might be to come as a result, we have bankrupted our capacity to know ourselves. Meaningful, soulfully designed and conducted ceremony is a central stone in the foundation of our human wellness. Naming and honoring our human process through relevant ceremony, in community, allows us not only to grieve what has been, and is no more, it allows us to prepare our soil for what is to come. And just as critically, it allows us to tend to the ‘thread’ of our lives – that singular aspect of the entirety of The World that we each have the responsibility and fortune to tend. And, in fact, the epidemic of human ignorance concerning our responsibility and fortune is exactly what has allowed Western Industrial Culture to drive the Earth and all life to the collapse we now face.
And while I certainly could not afford to acknowledge it for very long all those years ago, during the dissolution of my marriage, there were moments when I recognized the profound death it represented. There were moments when it felt like I had been sentenced to death without the relief of actually dying. I had no words to describe this loss. I got some reflection and mirroring from others around me that this was a big deal, that divorce means a big disruption and a big reorganization. But in the same breath, I was told it would all work out, that I should just keep going with the practical aspects of the process and, before I knew it, I’d feel normal again. There is a menacing pressure to pretend a thing when everyone around you believes it to be true.
Almost 15 years after the legal end of our marriage, Bill and I revisited those two young, hopeful lovers, the ones who so joyfully and boldly set out as their culture told them to; to go forth in wedded bliss, setting up home and having adorable children, going to work, paying the mortgage, dealing with financial fears, coping with illnesses and celebrating family moments, going to cocktail parties and pretending to be adults alongside all the other pretending-to-be’s. In a ceremonial space designed to remember what never got honored, we spoke from their hearts, seeing from behind their eyes, filled with their tears, voices shaking, hearts re-breaking, the way a broken bone that was allowed to heal incorrectly must be re-broken in order to heal well.
First, we spoke to our resentments. “I resent that one night you went out with a friend and I stayed home with the boys and we had a spectacular night. We played games and did homework. We made dinner and had baths. I even got them to bed on time. All after a full-day’s work. And you came home and the one and only thing you commented on was your disappointment about the two dishes still sitting on the kitchen table.”
Then we spoke our apologies; “I am so sorry that I wasn’t able to fight for you; that I could only manage to fight you” and “I am so sorry I shamed you when we were so lost in a sea of confusion, hurt and anger about where our sex and physical intimacy went."
Then forgiveness; “I forgive you for believing, and for telling the story, that our marriage ended because I gave up.”
Then, like salve to a burn, we named what we were grateful for; “I am grateful for the music you brought into our lives, for the nights you sat at the piano and filled our home with beauty.”
And then, what we appreciated and miss; “I miss coming home to you and our endless and effortless conversations about the truly important things; about the state of the world and the Earth and about the hopeful people and innovations, all while we made delicious dinners and the children played.”
And then…we said goodbye. Because we are still so actively in each other’s lives, as friends and as co-parents of two young adult men, we imagined we would not do this part. But we realized this was an essential part of the ceremony of heartbreak and healing. And so, there we sat, knees almost touching, on and in the Earth, in the Kiva around the fire, witnessed by four women from my women’s group and two men from his men’s group – representing the ‘elders’ and witnesses we never had. With the encouragement of our people, we let those young lovers go, those innocent, enraged, betrayed, heartbroken ones of our past. Then we claimed what would now be to and for each other – co-parents of our two magnificent young men and dear friends at each other’s backs; ones who, until death do us part, will have a special connection and bond. The bond is as much the bond that comes from having made a home and raised children together as it is one that comes from having made the journey through this death to come back into the light of day to kindle a new belonging to each other and The World itself. We acknowledged that inside each of us, still and forever, dwell the ones who said, “I do” twenty-seven years ago. The healing is most certainly continuing to happen. And now in addition – thanks to the ceremony of honoring and completion, which included the loving wise witness of our community of men and women – the wholing is now happening as well.
This culture does not prepare us for the tremendous losses that have always been a natural part of being human. But worse, it cannot afford to prepare us for the impossible losses that have now become ubiquitous. It cannot afford to prepare us for them because it cannot afford to name them. It is a necessary part of the rehabilitation of initiated, responsible human culture that we name and address the endings, that we honor the endings and tend to our wounds so we can attend to the unique and necessary thread of each of our lives.
While Bill and I got essential pieces of ourselves back the other day, we unleashed a true grief that at times, feels almost unbearable. Almost. As it should be. And we have our people around us, loving us, holding us, speaking their great gratitude for our courage and care, that we returned, after so long, to bring those essential young aspects of ourselves home, leaving no part of our wholeness behind.
After our ceremony dispersed, Bill went home and sat down at his piano. Out of his heartbroken exploration came this simple composition, a tender offering to those young ones we honored and said goodbye to earlier in the day: