Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Making the Transition from Family to Ancestor

My husband's grandmother is in the hospital right now - she's been there for a few weeks already - and things have been busy and scary and bittersweet.  The doctors have told us that it's pretty much time to say goodbye. I wrote a more general post over on the Patheos Pagan Families blog about talking to my children about their great-grandmother's passing - but here I want to specifically address how to make this transition as a Heathen and a Heathen parent.

Earlier this year, my own grandfather passed away, and it was an incredibly difficult time for me.  I loved him very much, but I wasn't able to say goodbye.  I feel like this made the transition so much more difficult than it needed to be - I finally felt some connection with him when I visited the place where his ashes were scattered, keeping vigil during the night and meditating on my memories of him.  So here's my recommendations for Heathen kids (or any Pagan path that values ancestor worship) - or really anyone who is going through this difficult time.  These are only recommendations, things that have made this time easier for me; and of course everyone's grieving process will be different.

First, spend as much time as you can with your loved one while they are still physically with you.  Holding their hand, brushing their hair, just being able to talk to and touch them is such a valuable experience, and something you will treasure forever.  This end-of-life time is so important for both people - it is comforting to most who are facing their own death, and it eases the transition from member of the family to ancestor for those who will survive them.

After the person passes, begin talking and making offerings soon afterwards.  If you have the opportunity to stay with their body for awhile, do so - the practice of sitting out on the grave mound seems to imply that the ancient Germanic peoples believed in a connection between body and spirit even after death.  Talk to them just as you would have before.

If there is a service held in their memory, attend it.  It can be difficult for many of us to attend religious services that remind of painful times, but don't let a few Our Fathers or the evangelical pastor scare you away.  This time is about sharing memories and communicating with other loved ones of that person, a tradition that in my opinion couldn't be more Heathen!  Tell stories, laugh and cry, talk to people about the sides of your loved one you may not have known.  Don't get defensive about others' beliefs - just steer the conversation back to the person you both love.

Make adding their picture or things to your ancestor altar into a ceremony.  Address your loved one's ancestors and your own, and ask them to be welcomed in that group.  Address your loved one directly, talking much as you did before, perhaps leaving a favorite beverage or treat out.  When I did this for my grandfather, I told him about his funeral - we hadn't planned to invite anyone but immediate family to scatter his ashes, but as more people heard, more people began planning to show up, until we had a gaggle of cousins and aunts and uncles I hadn't seen in years.  He was so fun, and so generous, and so well-loved; nobody wanted to miss a chance to say goodbye to him.

Remember to grieve.  I see this a lot in my Christian friends - they'll say "he's with God now," as if that makes everything okay.  Yes, as Heathens we love our ancestors and they hold a very special place in our hearts - but it's alright to mourn the relationship you had before their passing.  Things are not the same, and it's important to recognize that.

Tell stories.  To keep the memory of your ancestors alive, the younger generations need to know about them.  My mother and father never really tell stories of their youth or their grandparents, but my grandmother loves to talk family history with me - and I repeat every single word of it to my own children.  To find their own place in the world, they need to know where they came from.  It may be painful or difficult at first - but that's okay.  Remember it's alright to grieve, and it is essential that we preserve the legacy of the ones we love in our hearts, and in the hearts of those who come after us.

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