My father, Jack, died four years ago. A curious, cheerful man who was all show tunes and optimism chose his ninetieth birthday to leave the planet. I miss him. A lot. Most of my days he makes a brief appearance via the lyrics of a song. But he is most often with me when I’m at the wheel and the sky is ominous. He might as well be riding shotgun. In that moment, I envision him pointing at a spot in the sky with his irrepressible optimism. I hear him say “Oh, there’s a little patch of blue.” I then feel compelled to address the blue sky (in my head if I’m with company and aloud if I’m alone). “Hi Dad.” When I say it, I feel sad but I also feel connected to him. It’s a little ritual that brings me joy.
Wherever I look these days, I see people in transition. Parents of grown children sitting on empty beds wondering where the time went, colleagues burying their aged parents, relationships struggling. Like learning how to drive standard, the gear shifts are rarely smooth or quiet. But I’d suggest there is beauty to be found in the grinding of gears. For me, the wide expanse of a perfectly blue sky is more glorious when it frames a puff of white cloud. The sun burning bright overhead doesn’t inspire the same awe as it does once it breaks on the horizon. The placid surface of a lake comes alive when sheets of raindrops shatter the stillness into a million pieces.
I’ve always been fascinated by Keriah, the Jewish tradition of tearing fabric on one’s breast to show the world that one’s heart has been broken by the loss of a loved one. It is at once an act of defiance (of the laws of judaism which explicitly forbid waste or destruction), an act of anger (perhaps aimed at a higher power for the injustice or senselessness of the loss), and an act of community (as such a highly public display of grief could also be seen as a call on one’s friends and family for support). Whether the act had any impact on the mental health of the tearer was, until now, open to question. But in a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, two researchers demonstrate that resilience in the face of loss was more often found in those who performed rituals to memorialize it.
Researchers asked participants – people who had recently experienced a death or the rupture of a relationship – to write about the emotions they were working through. As one would expect, the act of reliving the grief was onerous and painful. The group was then split in two. Half performed some sort of ritual to exorcise the demons, the other half did not. Those who performed a ritual – whether it be cutting photos into tiny pieces and setting them alight or to saying a word and turning in circles five times – reported feeling significantly better afterward than those who did nothing. The ritual one chose to perform made little difference, it was in the doing. The researchers theorized that something about taking action (whether the practice be public or intensely private) gave rise to a sense of being in control – a feeling so often desperately lacking when one experiences loss.
Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o’er wrought heart and bids it break.
— William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Keriah first made its appearance in the book of Genesis. A powerful metaphor for loss. And it brings to mind the way fabric frays when it is torn. Maybe the period of grieving could be seen as an opportunity. One to explore the rupture – to gently tease apart the warp and the weft. To evaluate the threads we are grateful to bury with the dead and those we cherish and aim to carry with us forever. Perhaps those we choose to hang on to could be used to weave ourselves something new – a life that is complete without the person we’ve lost. In the case of heartbreak, perhaps grief could be seen as an invitation to mend one’s relationship with oneself.