Monday, August 21, 2017

Suttee, Sitting Shiva and Wearing Black - Rituals of Mourning

On August 22, 2011 my beloved of 20 years died. Life support was turned off after an accident. I heard about it via voicemail a few hours before she expired. The relatives closed ranks and excluded her chosen family and friends, threatening us with arrest if we attempted to see her or gather nearby. There was no wake, no funeral, no memorial. She was cremated. Her house was emptied and rented, her beautiful things sold at a yardsale. Her dogs were killed. None of her wishes were followed except to execute her living will. None of us had the money to fight them.

Twice in my life I have experienced the unexpected death of a soulmate. One so dear to me they were as necessary as air. My initial reaction both times was a stopping of time. Not a denial or unwillingness to accept. More an inability to grasp, as if someone opened an advanced calculus book, read it aloud, and expected me to understand. 

"What?" Repeating the words did not make them any more clear. This is shock. I don't know how long it lasts. Time just stopped.  

Then panic started. I can pack my car, drive to see her, tell her I love her one more time even though I will be arrested in the attempt. I literally ran around the house grabbing wallet, keys, shoes. My roommate came home and I screamed the news. He tried to hug me which made the panic worse. So he fed me booze and cigarettes while I wailed until I passed out. In the morning there was another voicemail telling me she was dead and stay away.

In the days, weeks, months that followed, there were moments of startling clarity when calm thought prevailed and ideas occurred. I quickly learned saying these things aloud frightened people, making them say stupid shit that made me feel worse. So I kept notes and this piece is the result.

Suttee: The voluntary self-immolation of a widow on her husband's funeral pyre. (Ok not always  voluntary, google it, this really is all about me.) Now days it is the voluntary practice of doing things you know will result in self harm, like driving while keening, to a house where my  beloved no longer is, to call her relatives names and be arrested. It's quite common. And truly voluntary, the logical part of you knows self harm will result, but it's worth it. The symbolism is following the lost one, please don't leave me behind! This is when the chief mourner is often drugged into submission. "Sedated." It’s a relatively short phase in the mourning process, but valid. Now is a good time to get me drunk, take my keys and phone. Do not drug me, I need this part, too. The Wake is important. It proves to the survivors the dead will not awaken, it's not a bad dream and they really are gone. I want to hold that Beloved Body one more time, wash and dress her, take care of her. Make sure she gets exactly what she wanted. The ritual is taken from us now, but we do need it.

Sitting Shiva: Shiva means seven in Hebrew, referring to the week long mourning for first degree relatives following the funeral. Shiva begins at burial. There are lots of rules surrounding  Shiva similar to Shabbat, no use of fire, no use of tools, no cooking. It's full of symbolism meant to demonstrate mourning. Health and safety laws turned into religious tradition. 

In those first few days I nearly killed my bird with smoke leaving an empty pan heating. Minced the tip of my finger into the onions. Drove like a maniac to get orange juice. I simply could not work, thankfully self-employed and didn't have a boss demanding my physical and mental presence. People do what they need to do, and need to be allowed the time and space to do it. Our culture does not. After a week or so you are too exhausted to keep wailing.

Wearing Black for Mourning. It's too bad black is fashionable, because it was such an effective warning. The tradition says wearing mourning, black, for a year is sign of respect for the dead. It really is another health and safety rule. For that year or more you can depend on people to grieve heavily. We are also batshit crazy.

We will not react as expected, because our loss is always forefront in our minds. No outward symbol helps with the excuses when we begin leaking tears in a restaurant because our dinner partner orders her favorite vodka. Inconvenient if her favorite song is on the Musak loop at the grocery store. But no one says, well, she is in mourning because they have no way of knowing. 

Temper tantrums are another unrecognized but important part - I am so fucking pissed my life is wrecked. With an outward symbol of mourning people are careful, respectful of our delicacy. By discarding that symbol you are now on you own to accept my meltdown without explanation, because I surely do not want to explain. Now I may have to. After I hurl this can of tomatoes through that plate glass window.

About the time wearing black became fashionable, grieving went out of style. Call a funeral a Celebration of Life, it's becomes a party because someone died. The message is don't grieve, don't mourn, do not display the hopeless flayed salt poured sadness because what a wonderful life the dead person had. Fuck that shit. One of the most cruel things said to me was, "Sandy wouldn't want you to feel that way." I freaked. I screamed, I wailed, I wept myself into dehydration. Shrieked how the hell would you know, you didn't know her and she is dead so how can that even fucking matter? Picked up my keys to drive to the tall bridge until my old dog asked to ride along. Dissolved into a snotty puddle on the floor with my dog licking my tears instead.

While I appreciate the caring now, that is the worst thing you can say to the grieving. The kind intent is not noticed, the words inflict further misery, and forces us to behave to make other people feel more comfortable. Which really is none of your business unless I am committing a serious crime. Progress is now saying this gently. Also, go blow those rainbows out your ass somewhere else.

Maybe I'll become an abuella who wears black forever. I'm well on my way to becoming an alcoholic pet hoarding hermit. I redefined 'family.' I redefined 'friend.' I stopped laying curses on her relatives, the ones I laid will do, even if I forgot to put in a time frame. So healing? No. Just getting used to the idea that my life will stretch on without her. There is no end to grief. The tears have not stopped. I still wake up to thoughts of the tall bridge, but now recognize that's not following her. Just ending my own misery.

Originally published by Oral Fixation in the anthology A Collection of New Voices From Tampa Bay (2015)

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