I like to pretend that people live forever because the alternative is too cruel to embrace. The truth is that I must face reality and that reality is of my mortality and that of all living beings. The only thing I can do is to seize it tightly, letting the emotions surface and accept the tears as they flow freely. One of my brothers said to me after I heard about my other brother’s death earlier this month: “We are born, live, and die, alone.” It only took me a second to understand what he meant.
We experience life independently from others. Our perspective is shaped by our brief time on this earth. No two experiences are the same, even if we experience the event with someone.
The news of my brother’s passing literally stopped my breath. My reality crumbled and shattered into tiny pieces. I had no control. The immense pressure was too strong to ignore; I could physically feel my world disappearing. At the moment I caught my breath and the realization sunk in that my life would continue without my brother, Billy, and my life was forever changed. The next few days I was in a daze as I began to go through the motions of saying good bye to Billy.
The family went into immediate action, taking care of the million things that need to be done. This process and all the activities I understand now are designed to reinforce the acceptance of death. Picking the grave plot. Preparing the wake. Praying, praying, praying so hard. Scheduling the church service. Identifying someone to do the eulogy, the reading of verse, singing and drumming. Finally, as the body is slowly leaving the church, drums beating rhythmically in step as we said our final farewell, mingled with tears and sobs. Knowing that this is final, small bursts of emotion ripple throughout the mourners. The end. Gone forever. All that remains is what is in our heart and memory, souvenirs to be safeguarded.
For me, this entire practice reinforced the value of tradition. Why we do certain things and the manner in which we do them. Why it is important to do everything with respect and honour. I now understand there is a dual purpose for undertaking certain rituals. It is for the recently departed and for those left grieving.
I believe it is important that everyone affected by the death ought to take an active part in these rituals. Not only by attending the wake and funeral but by contributing, either by helping out in the preparation of the space where the body will lay during the wake, or cleaning up, setting up the chairs. Even something as little as perhaps serving tea and coffee to the family as they mourn is helpful.
Furthermore the significance of food preparation has to be contemplated. Why do we do this? Preparing food for the wake and feast is an honour. It does not have to be elaborate, only that it be done keeping in mind this is the last meal you will offer the deceased. In my Dene culture, the drumming, prayers, and food are all meant to help the transition into the spirit world.
It is clear that actively participating in the process helps the living accept the recent death. Not only that but it unites the people grieving. In the doing, we know that everything we are doing for the loved one, who passed, is to assist in their continued journey into the spirit world. As we do, we contemplate our relationship with them, we remember stories, and we say good-bye. Someone suggested we arrange the chairs in a circle, and we went clockwise as each one of us told stories of their relationship with Billy. Some were funny stories, and it was nice to think about him in shared laugher. Billy was an ironic man, and enjoyed playing jokes on people. He wear a big smile and glint in his eye that always served to lighten my day no matter what he was going through.
I feel like these mourning rituals are essential. And to be part of this is a spiritual ritual is an enormous honour. it is important that the younger generation learn the traditions. To learn the meaning behind these rituals, the prayers, the songs, and the preparation of food are all part of the ceremony. We owe it our loved ones and to ourselves to ensure that they are given a respectful wake and funeral.
God Speed my dear brother Billy.