at the kitchen table: on ghosts and rituals

The holidays around the change from summer to fall are rife with ancestor worship, death, and touching the spirit-world. Samhain. Halloween. All Souls’ Day. Dìa de los Muertos. Something about the end of October conjures the thinness of the veil between the land of the living and the land of the dead. In many cultures we invite the dead into our homes, places of worship, and communities. We show lost loved ones a good time, with feasting, sweets, games, and offerings. And we prepare for visits from the unloved as well—the restless, unhappy, malevolent spirits who might pop by to instill fear, extract revenge, or just toilet paper our lawns. Frightening costumes are donned to “Boo!” them back across the veil. Communities light bonfires, or pumpkins, to fight the darkness, and to guide the path home for our beloved dead.

Even in this secular community of grieving parents, we use October to remember our children, grieve our losses and remind the world that we are still here. October 15 is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day. Dìa de los Muertos blogfests will be featured in our corner of the internet later this month. Today we are sitting around the kitchen table talking about ghosts and rituals. Want to join in? Post the questions and your answers on your own blog, link to us here at Glow in the Woods meme-style, and share the link to your post in the comments below. If you don't have your own online space, simply post your answers directly in the comments. 

1.  Do you believe you can communicate with people in the afterlife, or they with you?  Do you believe you can do this with your child?

Eric: I believe in connection, if not actual communication.  It may sound strange, but I have a hard time imagining that my children and I can communicate because they weren't here long enough to learn a language.  This was a big mental block for me in the months following the loss; it may have been an emblem for everything of this world they would not be here to learn.

Angie: I want to believe, desperately.

Jenni: I used to believe, but I’m not sure any more. I no longer trust my own perceptions. I thought I had two after-death communications from Angel Mae. The messages make sense to me, but I’m no longer sure it was really her. Maybe just my brain.

Julia: I've never tried contacting anyone in the afterlife, A included. Even if I believed that I could contact them, I don't feel like I can or should bother them. The idea that the dead do or should watch over the living bugs me. I see it as imposing, as settling the dead with a responsibility to ensure the happiness of the living, and I don't like it. I don't like it for those who died as adults, and especially don't like it for dead babies. On the other hand, I do believe I've heard from A twice since his death, and both times have been sweet and comforting. I think part of that was the feeling that I didn't make him come, that he did it on his own.

Tash:  Once, while driving through a terrible snow storm, I "talked" with my husband's dead grandmother (whom I never met, but sounded like a Saint). I may have done this on other occasions like when my plane took off, or perhaps even during my pregnancies. And then I realized talking didn't help me whatsoever and if people heard me, they didn't have special powers to change things, so I lost interest. I haven't "talked" to anyone dead, Maddy or otherwise, since.

Chris: No, I don't. 

2.  Do you believe in ghosts?  Has this changed since the loss of your child(ren)?

Eric: I believe in something, though not necessarily ghosts per se.

Angie: Sometimes. I think I believed in ghosts more before Lucia's death. I am equally fascinated and skeptical of the supernatural. I did once hear a ghost scream at a local Civil War historical site during a "ghost tour." For a good month, I totally believed in ghosts.'

Jenni: I believe people have some eternal essence to them. I’m not sure that it hangs around here after death. I do not want my baby to be a ghost. I think that would be terrible for her.

Julia: I don't think I believe in ghosts per se. Especially not the part where the ghost is "stuck" in between.

Tash:  Before Maddy, I liked the idea of benevolent ghosts though I never experienced one. I asked about them, and was open to encounters on a few occasions, but nothing ever happened. Now, I just can't imagine my neurologically damaged baby as a ghost—would she just hover there immobile?  So I've sort of scrapped the whole concept entirely.

Chris: I don't believe in ghosts, but I believe that Silas's light and energy is still somehow a part of this Universe.

3.  Have your feelings changed about Halloween?  How do you respond to Halloween humor such as zombie and ghost costumes or macabre gravestones as decorations?

Eric: They appear to me with a little more... pointedness, but I would not go as far as to say my feelings about them have changed.  It was cheap plastic before and it's cheap plastic now.  What made me furious, though, was when one or more of M's colleagues, decorating the office for Halloween, strung a graveyard that ran right up to her door. Who thought that would be okay? If there is such a thing as ghosts, I would have gladly added to their numbers.

Angie: Yes. I also hate/don't understand/find myself repulsed by graveyards and images of dead people in front yards, displayed as whimsy.  I don't think this is cute. Graveyards seem sacrosanct. I have a neighbor who hangs handsewn stuffed babydolls with x's for eyes off his porch. They are toddler size and done up in pink and light blue. I can't help but see them as baby effigies.

Jenni: I find it more creepy and depressing now. If most people really knew what death was, would they send their children out into the streets dressed like zombies? The origins of the holiday are sort of about looking death in the face, though, which should make feel better, but it doesn't.

Julia: I didn't grow up with Halloween, so I didn't develop deep feelings about it. It seemed fun when I was in college. But chaperoning my daughter for the last three years as she trick or treats in the same neighborhood (a close friend's) we were the year I was pregnant with A has been tough to varying degrees. Very glad I don't have to do it this year—I am out of town.

Tash:  Halloween used to be my favorite holiday.  It still may be, with some caveats.  I'm also a bit taken aback by the whole graveyard motif, because I'm working very hard to teach myself and my daughter that death is not creepy.  I actually don't mind most costumes—even zombies, mummies, and ghosts—but dressing up as though injured (disclaimer:  I actually did this one halloween a decade or so ago) bugs.

Chris: I still enjoy this holiday, but there is a deeper resonance for me now.  I feel death closer than I have ever before and it is somehow comforting to see others facing it with me for a day.

4.  Does your religious or cultural background have a day or holiday where the focus is honoring the dead? How do you use this experience to honor your own child(ren)?

Eric: On Judaism's holiest day, Yom Kippur, there is a special service called Yitzkor.  In some communities, it is traditional to leave if you are not commemorating a lost parent, spouse, sibling, or child, so children seldom stay.  That's how I was raised.  Now I stay, and it is the most adult I feel all year.

Angie: Dia de los Muertos is an important Latino holiday where the dead and ancestors are honored and celebrated. I make a day of the dead ofrenda, or altar, for Lucia. I have really created rituals for myself from all the religious and cultural backgrounds of my family.

Jenni: I was raised Protestant, among the “frozen chosen” who were going to live forever. I don’t remember any rituals for honoring the dead or for lengthy goodbyes. I remember Good Friday services really feeling like a time to grieve—but it was all over by Easter morning.

Julia: Like Eric, we stayed for Itzkor the first year, and we put A's name into the Yitzkor service program that year. Because of timing, I haven't made it to Yitzkor since, but I plan to go again in future years. That first year we also got to say kaddish, the prayer of mourning, every time we came to the synagogue. Comorting and sobering at the same time.

Tash:  As an atheist, I guess I really never thought about the dead.  Hell, it took studying military history in grad school for me to focus on Memorial Day.  Sometimes I wish I had a framework in which to go through a rite or mourn with a prescribed language.  I guess I feel Maddy's death and our reaction might have been more supported and/or accepted that way.

Chris: I don't associate Halloween with Silas, but I try to honor him and live a little extra for every day.

5.  Do you ever reach outside of your spiritual/religious framework for comfort from other practices/religions?

Eric: I don't.

Angie: I am very attracted to the Zen Buddhist bodhisattvas for stillborn, miscarried and aborted children—mizuko jizo. Personal rites or rituals associated with mizuko jizo are performed by each woman, and can range from writing, or going to a mizuko jizo park, or meditating. I paint mizuko jizo for my ritual.

Jenni: I am attracted to the mizuko jizo ceremony as well, and to Day of the Dead celebrations, but I can’t seem to find my way into them. They aren’t a comfortable fit.

Julia: I don't have much here. Except that I buy long-burning candles in tall glass jars in bulk and burn them when I feel the need, for A, for myself, for others. This seems like a rather universal thing, though, so I don't know whether this counts as reaching.

Tash:  Before Maddy, I was very interested in Buddhism, and now I find the basic lessons and tenets very frustrating so I've pretty much scrapped that line of thought.  I recently went to a Quaker memorial service for another child, and found it rather intellectual and somewhat calming, but still perhaps a bit too chipper for my taste.

Chris: I don't. I don't know why, but I don't.

6.  Is there a season or holiday, other than your child(ren)’s birthday, that inspires you to perform a ritual in memory of your child(ren)?

Eric: Like many others, lighting candles on October 15th.

Angie: Yes, as Eric said, October 15th. I also celebrate the change of seasons as a way to acknowledge us moving into another season without our daughter, who died on winter solstice.

Jenni: I find myself lighting her candle and feeling more “connected” to her at each change of season, spring to summer, summer to fall, etc. I acknowledge how she would be growing and what she is missing. We also acknowledge her due date, which is some months from her birthday.

Julia: Nothing really set in stone. I light candles when I am moved to do that, but there's rarely an obvious seasonal timing to that. I think I've forgotten what dayit was on October 15th more years than I've remembered, but some years I've remembered the December (international) date instead.

Tash:  For some reason, I always forget about October 15th.  Perhaps this is subconscious?  We always attend a memorial on the second Sunday of December, which is International (I believe) Children's Memorial Day where they light candles and read the names of children who died at Children's hospital.

Chris: The day of his birth and death is completely his day and I never know what to do.  Being with friends and family is all I can count on.

7.  Is there a ritual you perform everyday? Weekly? Monthly? Yearly?

Eric: Since losing Gus and Zoey, we were blessed with another set of twins, Ben and Ellie. Ellie's name is short for Eliana, which means, God has answered. Once a day, usually within eyesight of photographs of Gus and Zoey's names, I say her name in full, out loud. Also, when I pray, I thank God for the memory of Gus and Zoey and ask Him to bless my efforts to keep it alive.

Angie: I light candles most days on Lucy's altar. I paint jizos for her and other babies. I change her altar based on the season.

Jenni: I have a charm necklace with her name on it. It is like my rosary. I finger it and turn it on its chain many times a day. I also go to my blog daily, even if I don’t write; it is our space together, mine and hers. Now and then I burn incense on her altar.

Julia: I think of him many times a day, but no real outward rituals. Though everywhere we go, we bring back small rocks. Jewish tradition is to put small stones on graves, as a way of acknowledging that you've been there. We take some of our rocks to the cemetery, and keep some at home. The growing pile is a stark illustration of time and space since he died.

Tash:  I have a bracelet I wear all the time on my left wrist, which is where the hospitals put her bracelets.  I sometimes pause to look at her pictures, or jog by her tree.  Otherwise, no.

Chris: My only ritual is to cry when I can't handle that he's dead.

8.  Do you perform any public rituals (in real life or online) on October 15? How do your friends, family, or community respond to your acknowledgment of loss?

Eric: The first year I did, by attending a vigil.  This second year, apart from lighting candles, I did not.  We do not receive much acknowledgement from "the civilians" (but did receive one email from a good friend who had suffered a loss of her own).  This doesn't bother me.  What bothers me is when the anniversary of Gus and Zoey's births and deaths pass without much acknowledgment.

Angie: I light candles at 7:00 pm with the rest of the community. I like knowing that my private ritual is performed privately by countless families around the world. It feels important.

Jenni: This year I wrote the names of 25 babies on paper hearts, photographed them, and sent the photos to the families. That might become a ritual in the future. I also acknowledged October 15 in my FB status. Not a ritual, but a gesture. It was a big deal for me, because I am so private in my grief. It was interesting to see who responded and who did not.

Julia: I don't do it consistently, but in the past I've posted the pictures of my candles for October 15th and the December date on my blog. I've also posted some times when I've lit candles in honor of other children, to tell their stories and to support their families.

Tash:  As I said, I usually forget about this day for some reason.  We do our memorializing on the second Sunday of December, and I take the names of all my internet friends with me to simply hold close during the service.  My FIL stood us up the first year we invited him to attend this service with us, so I have a rather skewed view as to how other's must perceive this day (not remotely important and too cold to be outside) and it's importance to us.  Fortunately, I know my mother and my SIL light candles that evening at 7:00, and my aunt and uncle have attended with us in the past so maybe it's not all bad?

Chris: We light a candle and our friends and family do the same and it feels good to feel that light and warmth.