Learning the importance of ritual for life and death

Photo of the author's son, Silvio (Monica Isaac)

My grandma taught me the significance of ritual. For each significant holiday she would buy me roses: purple rare roses when I was confirmed, a mini rose bush for my front yard to remember the baby I miscarried, the beautiful, simple red rose bouquet she carefully hand-created for my wedding day. From the time I was around twelve when I received my first roses, she encouraged me to save the rose petals to remember all these many occasions. She taught me how to dry the flowers and gave me a small glass dish to keep them in.

The mound of beautiful, dried flower petals grew over the years, and I would mix them in together, eventually getting a larger dish to hold them. I was not sure what I would do with them, sometimes wondering if I should even keep them as I went off to college, feeling a little guilty for my stuff taking up space in the house after moving out. But she kept my room ready for me visit whenever I came back, dried flower petals on the dresser and Calvin Klein posters on the walls.

Then, when I was engaged she suggested we use the rose petals in some ritual. We gathered all of the rose petals, placed them in two small baskets at the entrance of the fellowship hall -- and this is what people threw instead of rice when my husband and I were welcomed at our reception on our wedding day.

She and I both love to tell people how special the month of April is in our family, four weeks of birthdays, each week celebrating a different generation. The fifth of April is my nephew's birthday, Grandma is a week later April 12, I am April 19 and my uncle -- who passed away when I was only four years old -- is the last week of April. When I was in graduate school studying sacraments I thought about the many ways my grandmother taught me to treasure the sacramental moments shared with our family. Sure she did not describe it exactly this way, but her beef and homemade noodles could draw a crowd and keep people at the table for hours, sharing stories and laughing.

Last year she joined the community of angels on April 28; she would have been 80 years old this month. I guess I should have known that she would leave in April, the month that held so much significance for her. My son was five years old when she passed. We talked to him about her death and he went to her funeral and the burial. He prayed for her each night for months after her death, sometimes crying because he said that she would visit him in his dreams and she was looking for her sweet boy. We did not know what to make of this, and continued to pray with him and talk with him, trying to honor his grief. We also talked with our children's minister who he was really close with.

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She uses Godly Play, also known as Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, in Children's Church, which is based on Montessori practices and affirms that children have spiritual experiences from the beginning of their existence. Godly Play gives children opportunities to listen to biblical stories and theological concepts, then creatively express themselves and their spiritual journeys. There are movements in their time together, with a story, feast and time for the children to process and explore further independently. I love the ritual of this method, the active wondering this type of learning provides, and that children are given the opportunity to engage in their own questions and play styles.

A few weeks after the loss of my grandmother, the children’s minister sent me a beautiful picture of my son with a text message "Silvio burying his grandma." One of the Godly Play messages uses sand to teach the children about the genealogy of Jesus, with burial as they move through the generations. When Silvio had time independently, he asked to use the sand and remembered this lesson that offered him the opportunity for ritual in his grief processing.

I am so grateful for the caring leadership our church has, and I treasure that Silvio is already coming to know his faith community as a space to share in his happiness and grief. May we all be given opportunities for ritual in the transitions of our life.

[April Gutierrez is a graduate of Boston College's School of Theology and Ministry and was previously a campus minister for First-Year Experience at Loyola University Chicago.]

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