Mourning in the Month of Ancestors

Some weeks ago, I did a tarot reading for myself because I’d been trapped in a mire of low moods for several weeks. I recently moved to a new town and started a new internship in the same week, just after arriving back home to begin with, so I expected to have some lag in adjusting to all the changes — but not a month’s worth. Another mass shooting and 45 mishandling the devastation in Puerto Rico, along with the rollback of protections for transgender workers, and multiple clients coming in to report sexual assaults has all been resting on my shoulders like lead.

The cards always soothe me. The Wildwood deck in particular is a balm, even when it delivers tough lessons. I asked the deck, “What do I need?” It responded with a card I never expect anytime I’ve drawn it: the 7 of vessels, for mourning.

Mourning, I thought, for what? Why? I looked through the book and scribbled some points: it is time to honor what is dead and mourn for what’s gone, lessons of letting go, and mourning serves to ritualize the process of being at peace with loss.

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What is gone? What have I lost? What even is mourning?

Is the deck telling me to grieve? I wondered, committing to sit with it instead of doing what I usually do with this card (sliding it unceremoniously and with side-eye back into the deck). That’s what mourning is, after all, isn’t it? Grieving, feeling the emotions of loss? I don’t feel like grieving. I’m too tired to grieve, I thought, and grieving doesn’t do anything for the suffering of others. I don’t have the energy to produce the number of tears it would take to grieve for this fucked up presidency, this fucked up white supremacist patriarchy, this polar-bears-starving global bullshit.

And that’s when the lightbulb went on. While grieving serves as a personal release for the person grieving, ritualized grief — which we call mourning — sends energy back into the community and cosmos, affecting more than the self. It provides a processing point for individuals and communities to deal with loss. And there’s been so much fucking loss. But as an American white woman with no religious affiliation, my experience with mourning is, well, nil.

I remembered reading in Malidoma Patrice Some’s Ritual that his experience of Western mourning was incredibly bizarre: that, typically, the one or two people most devastated by the death of a loved one are exactly the ones who are expected to arrange funerals and burials, manage wills and distribution of possessions, and manage the finances of the entire endeavor. God forbid the deceased died unexpectedly, then the mourners must also simultaneously process the shock of an unanticipated loss. We pump our dead full of chemicals to keep them artificially preserved, place them in a two-inch thick box separated from the earth that would reclaim them as part of the natural cycle, and then line them all up in an expansive, barren green lot where you’re often not allowed to plant flowers or leave offerings.

This is my template for mourning; no wonder I don’t know how to fucking do it.

considered the immense loss and suffering happening in the world between corrupt governments and natural disasters. I wrote in my tarot journal, what has been lost? The answers came easily: innocence, lives, homes, security, loved ones, time, illusion, livelihoods, landscapes, comfort, and “progress.”

A ritual to mourn these losses, I thought, is what the 7 of vessels is telling me to do. Burn offerings for the innocent dead — all the black people lynched by police, refugees refused by wealthy nations, Puerto Ricans abandoned beneath floodwater — and their surviving loved ones. Ask their ancestors to come and receive them from their violent and unjust ends, soothe their spirits and their lineages. Bind the agencies responsible, and breathe power and resolve into tired activists.

Public rituals are important, surely, but private, personal rituals offer a special kind of, well, privacy, and meaningfulness that is extremely individual to the person doing them. There’s plenty of ways I can imagine mourning that I wouldn’t want to have to explain to others around me. Apparently, there’s even some budding research to suggest that folks who have their own private rituals for loss cope better than those who do not.

I’ve done plenty of rituals before, but never for mourning the catastrophic space that we find ourselves in now. It seems almost pointless — one could mourn for a thousand years and still not have processed the despair. Where to begin? I’m not sure, but I feel strongly that we are in the right time of year for such a ritual. Some really quick and superficial Googling tells me that Catholics dedicate the colors black, white, and purple for mourning, and that Jews spend seven days holding “shiva,” a ritualized mourning where loved ones sit in contemplation of their deceased. In ancient times, coins were placed upon the eyes of the deceased so that their soul could pay whatever being would ferry them into the next world. Some cultures believe that tears are a sign of respect, while others believe that tears are a distraction.

I journal: At a grotto I visit every few years, visitors can choose one or several candles out of a great wide grid to light in prayer. Candles and incense feel right to me. Black, although likely because it’s been embedded in my mind as the color for mourning, feels appropriately somber and serious. But something about the focus on suffering and loss doesn’t feel completely right — the people we’ve lost to corruption and natural disasters were parents, children, beings of joy as much as they were beings of despair. It feels right to celebrate that, too, somehow.

I feel some trepidation as I plan: loosening the bind around the kind of sadness I feel about the unjust deaths happening so frequently in my own country and elsewhere is a tidal wave being kept behind a dam. But I think a flood of tears would be okay, too. There’s catharsis in that. And catharsis gives us the energy to keep going. We need all the energy we can get, now more than ever.