August 6, 2014 | My friend’s son died recently. He drowned while sailing solo to Hawaii.
My friend doesn’t connect to a faith tradition. She told me she ached for a meaningful way to grieve with others, but she could not find appropriate rituals or ceremonies. She felt Andy’s presence and senses his ongoing life.
But after these tantalizing glimpses of Andy’s mysterious presence, she had little context for sharing or pondering the experience. She was bereft again, solaced by the love of friends and family. But she was left without the wider spiritual frame for making sense of tragedy and loss that religions offer.
The rise in the number of people with no defined religious affiliation — the so-called Nones — has created something of an end-of-life spiritual dilemma for many Americans. The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey reported that nearly a third of Americans (27%) do not expect a religious funeral when they die.
That doesn’t help their loved ones to know what to do to grieve and remember them.
New resources are beginning to emerge for those — typically clergy or funeral directors — with experience helping people cope with the death of loved ones. But there’s no clear consensus on how changing patterns of spiritual identity and practice will change how we understand and ritualize the end of life.
I’m not saying that religious faith would have helped my friend understand the tragedy. I don’t think it would. A faith that claims to know why monstrous things happen seems shallow, often portraying a puppet master god, a cold judge, or a wrathful tyrant.
My own religious practices, rooted in the Christian contemplative tradition, connect me to a different sort of God, one who dwells in mystery but nonetheless affirms humanity’s efforts to love and connect.
When they’re at their best — and, even for the most dysfunctional of churches, this is often precisely during times of suffering — a faith community can come alongside those who suffer. The community can participate in the grieving, while also giving evidence of something that transcends the individual tragedy. The darkness of grief can be illuminated by flashes of hope, experienced via lasagna delivered to the door, hugs in the church hall, prayers and tears heard in the pews. A faith community can give credence to the notion that love exists and will continue to exist, offering sustenance throughout our lifetime and beyond.
The Pew ‘Nones on the Rise” report tells that most of the religiously unaffiliated aren’t interested interest in finding “a religion that would be right” for them. But that doesn’t mean they want to be alone. Certainly not at times when everything else is falling away.
Of course, Christianity itself, many argue, is in its own death throes. Once thriving churches are becoming restaurants, bed-and-breakfast inns, private residences. I suppose there’s still much to grieve in that, but there’s much new life as well. As Christians are fond of saying, “We are people of the Resurrection.”
Still, I have to wonder how the experience Christian communities have with loss can be shared with people who, at least in traditional forms, are “losing their religion,” and with it the experience of spiritual community that gathers around a grieving soul through the experience of loss and mourning.
In the case of my friend, swimming in a sea of grief, I relied on my experience as a spiritual director, someone trained to sit with others, to listen even — perhaps especially — to their silence, to wait. Simply to wait.
In that waiting, what I understand as Spirit is at work. Spirit doesn’t care if you’re sitting in a pew.
For many people, Spirit blows less and less often through traditional church communities. But that doesn’t mean the unaffiliated need community and companionship any less.
As my friend explored her grief, her longing to memorialize her son’s passing became more pronounced and clear. We started to design a ceremony that would help those who loved Andy to be present to the memory of his life and to the grief they shared in their lives without him. I took special care to be sensitive to my friend’s non-religious sensibilities, but one morning she surprised me with an email:
You know we are not a religious family, although Andy was a spiritual man. I am not accustomed to praying but have come to feel over the last week that a prayer should be included. Something that doesn’t feel alien to those not practiced in religion, like me. Prayer-lite?
In the end we designed two ceremonies, an intimate one for the family as they scattered Andy’s ashes, and a more public celebration of life where almost 100 people gathered at a family home to celebrate Andy’s life. Together, we appealed for healing, blessing, and release:
I don’t know that my friend or anyone else at Andy’s memorial was any more religious afterwards than they had been before. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t matter.
For me, at least, what mattered was that the traditions at the center of my spirituality, of my relationship with the Divine, proved themselves as “relevant,” adaptable, and grace-filled as I knew they would be.
As I know they can continue to be. After all, we’ve got centuries of spiritual skills to share.
Joan Stockbridge is a storyteller and spiritual director at the Mercy Center in Auburn, CA. Her “Brown Bag Blog” and other information about her work can be found at www.joanstockbridge.com.
A version of this article previously appeared in the Religion, Spirituality, and Philosophy collection on Medium.com. It has been substantially edited for The Narthex with the permission of the author. —Editor
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