Signs, Symbols, Stories we tell ourselves vs. Being the Witness: through the lens of grief and loss
Rowan passed away at home on a Monday in April. The morning after, we brought him to the backyard to share last moments with him in a reflective, loving ceremony. We did a few things that were meaningful to us. One of them was to put a final offering of his hair trimmings into the woods. He had been with us for about 12 years. He was a Shihtzu, so he needed a haircut every three months that yielded a pile easily shaped into a dense silhouette of him. His hair was very fine, soft. Throughout his life, every time we trimmed his hair, we put it in the woods for nature to use. To me, it seemed more strange, a shame really, to throw it out like garbage. He wasn’t garbage. It was more normal to offer this piece of him back to nature like some kind of gratitude and recognition that he was shared with us, not "ours." It was always sweet to get a glimpse of him in crevices, the wood pile or an a leftover nest. At first Jon thought I was kind of kooky, but he respected it, respected me, and would do it too. We enjoyed seeing him everywhere, because that was his nature, caring and everywhere. It made sense that this was part of his final ceremony. It symbolized our normal patterns and returning him, thanking nature for trusting his beautiful being with us. As we spread his hair in the woods this final time, we reflected on what that meant, the responsibility we had been given for his life and experiences.
While we were in the yard, two nuthatches were scrumbling at the base of a pine in full view of us. I noticed one had a full beak of Rowan's hair and began walking up and down the tree while, the other, who seemed to be the partner, was at the base of the tree, sifting around. I was a little tearful because I had never seen this before and at this moment it was a gift to see a peek of Rowan’s continuation in action. We were held in a very precious silence as we watched them. I felt this was some kind of sign. I don't know what kind. I'm not an easy sell for signs, but I felt an electric warmth rivet to my heart. Something in my core of sorrows, in the confusion of the -me without him- was going to be OK, that he was Ok. It was as if Nature itself had joined us to celebrate his life, recognize his return and his passing, comfort our sadness with this hint of tomorrows.
We went on with his short ceremony, sharing thoughts, laughs, even secret troubled thoughts, and a few more tender actions. We prepared him, placed him gently in the car and drove the hour and a half to the crematorium we chose, tucked deeply in the north woods. This seemed part of the ceremony, too. Since we were always together, we stayed for the 3 hours of his transformation to ash and brought him home. It was the natural order of our lifelong commitment. We didn't question it as an option.
We watched as he was placed in the oven. It was very startling, but also helped us connect with him being released. That wasn't him anymore. He was finished with this part of himself. Many cultures witness this with their human loved-ones. The man was very kind. We spoke a little, but he respected our privacy. He brought his dogs up, one at a time, to meet with us, each a different age and personality, reminding us how unique each being is, of any species, and they shared themselves with us as we waited in the woods for Rowan’s changes to complete. The embodied him is now represented in the hidden contents of this little box handed back to us. It’s carved with symbolic flowers in bloom on the branches of the tree of life, oddly, a representation of his name, Rowan, the Tree of Life. We didn’t choose this box. We thought we would find something just right later and accept the box that was given to us. Now we wouldn’t want anything else. We drove home holding it, his bed empty in the back seat. When we got home, we placed it in a special place, lit a candle, cried, and sat a long time quietly. That was a Tuesday.
Wednesday I shattered. The days, weeks, months of supporting, and being for another cracked through, and I burst open. I shook, I yowled something primal, and it came out of the depths of me. Thursday and Friday I was tearfully still. In the weekend, I painted.
I decided a painting of this scene with the nuthatches in the tree with a giant tuft of his hair was a more befitting portrait of his legacy of life well-lived and his continuing than one of his body looking at me or doing something fun. I have zillions of photos of him to fill that space. The cross-cultural and spiritual symbolism of nuthatches was also not lost on me or this time. They are known for seeing things from a new perspective, having faith while trusting within, being devoted and tenacious, resourceful and a few other great bits. It’s a deeply personal portrait. It's full of meaning, a different kind of guidepost gift to share with him. It felt like a perfect story to hold some of our love and walk together. Little did I know just how much more was to come, how much more these nuthatches and Rowan had left to teach me. I spent the weekend doing little else but painting, sitting in nature watching for them, walking. It was really nice to have something to focus on. Those last days were either a wild whirlwind or timeless vortex, hard to know. There are not a lot of ways to truly prepare for the before, during, after of life's big events. I am grateful for my spirituality and training, but even with this, we are who we are and how we are made. It's still a process. I do know his life was beloved and full and this provided me with a way to be quiet and busy at the same time.
As I mentioned, there is much more to the my time with the nuthatches, what I learned, and the outcome. What I thought was a nice tidy message, the signs from nature, Rowan, in the yard, was only the beginning. Grief is like that too, we may think we’re through it, yet we cycle around again. It’s not linear. There’s more unfolding and if we are open to witnessing instead of creating a story about it, we are richer for it. There is a gift in our suffering, as we understand the layers of our love or experiences. If we believe there is only one way of viewing or experiencing something, then we are carried away by this one viewpoint, and we are distanced as if floating further away on a raft in a river of separation from ourselves, others, and more. If we escape linear ways of thinking and feeling, we become freer, have more movement in our sorrow, anger, love and and our spectrum of life lived and shared deepens. Thoughts and experiences grow, heal, live with our shadows, joys, equilibrium in a wholeness. This is the idea of learning what is the difference between stories we tell ourselves vs witnessing.
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May you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be well. I am here. I know you are there too. It is good.
In loving kindness, Birdi
Rev. Birdi Sinclair, D.Min
Spiritual Director, Master Spiritual Life Coach and Counselor,
Grief & Wholeness Specialist, EOL Doula for People & Animals
Moments Artist, Author
Ritual and Ceremony Designer & Celebrant
Sacred Intuitive, Channel, Contemplative Guide.