I’m learning anew about grief and loss this year. And by loss, I do mean death. And so is my daughter, who is 4 years old. As she discovers death through me and my partner, I am understanding some things about death through her. In a national climate of violent death on solid repeat, the experience of sharing a loving, well-tended, intimate, death is precious. I thought I’d share this with you all, because part of what I am processing about death has a whole lot to do with being a mother. As a culture, as a person, how do I face death? How do you face death? How do you share death with loved ones? How do we grieve, separately and together? What is my child learning? What are all of our children learning?
Anything I write these days feels heavy with the context of the United States;
Endless police murders of black, brown and queer people
Endless violence toward immigrant, indigenous and poor peoples
Deaths by hurricanes and fires, affecting disproportionately poor people, elders and black and brown peoples.
Aggressive government efforts to brutally kill our animal kin in the name of “population control”
Waters have been compromised and the life within them disregarded as pipelines continue to be built.
Plants, lands, animals and people in rippling waves of proximity to me have died this year. The trauma is tangible, palpable.
And I, like many of you, feel the waves washing over me. They sound like waves against the shore. “Loss, loss, loss, loss.”
The sound/feel/visual overwhelm of these losses feels utterly overwhelming and ever-present to me. You too? What do we do? What can we do other than find balance through learning how to grieve, realigning with rituals and traditions around death that give us space and time? Give us voice. Give us catharsis and reprieve. Until the next wave comes.
At age almost-four, Simza was (at least intellectually) unaware of this context when death arrived in our lives, up close and personal. She witnessed this loss intimately, and it’s shaping her.
The way my partner, Kai, loved their mama, who they call/ed “Mamakai” is the way I hope Simza will love me when she is grown. It’s that rare love, that genuine closeness, that some adults are able to maintain with their mothers. They cherished each other.
When Mamakai got diagnosed with lung cancer, Kai and their brother helped her move into a small, new, rented house. And the two of them moved in with her to care for her through her medical treatments and end of life. It was a temporary home with the familiarity of family love.They lived in close quarters, where intimacy with Mamakai’s illness was unavoidable. When we visited, Simza came to understand that Mamakai was sick. She saw and felt Mamakai’s weakness, fatigue and pain. Simza is a bold and curious kid so she had questions about it. Could we give her medicine?
When Mamakai stopped treatments, she declined quickly. “She’s dying,” I told Simza. Soon she won’t be here anymore.
Thank you to our Teachers, Moana and Elena
Moana and Elena, in years to come I will remind Simza of how you taught her in the most beautiful, shimmering, blue, way about how the ancestors can guide us. You made visible to her the way the soul can fly free of the body at the moment of death. And that this is a thing to mourn….but this is also a thing to celebrate. Elena, you showed Simza how to celebrate the ancestors and that this is a thing people do together, as a community. But in your story we also learned it can be hard to face the honoring and celebration when the loss is stinging and altogether too real.
Let me be clear; Disney made the film “Moana” and the tv show, “Elena of Avalor,” but I am not thanking Disney. They are a company that has upheld white supremacy for a century and has some MAJOR inventory and accountability to reckon with. But I have profound gratitude that these stories exist and that they are so popular. Who I am actually thanking here are the peoples, traditions and cultures on whom Disney capitalized.
Thank you, Pacific Islanders, for the story of Moana. Thank you, people of the Latin and Hispanic cultures that have inspired the story of Elena of Avalor. In this heartbreak of mother-loss, learning about death and spirit from you helped my daughter understand something sacred.
As Mamakai was dying in the living room, Simza and I watched Moana upstairs in the bedroom. We watched it several times in the weeks leading up to and after her death. Each time, Simza seemed to comprehend more fully that death means “no more body”. Death means this elusive-but-ever-more-tangible concept; spirit.
Without death, there is no Spirit
I am a spiritual teacher. Spirituality is my livelihood and my daily practice. Since her birth, I’ve been singing to Simza, sharing rituals with her, lighting candles, saying prayers and reading stories, all about spirit in various ways shapes and forms. But it wasn’t until death was near that something clicked. There’s more to life than we can see. The material becomes immaterial. Mamakai will die and then what? Of course, I don’t know any more than you do what the “then what” will be. But I believe that our ancestors are with us in spirit. In spirit? Yes. In the realm we see only with the heart, in the place we must use our imaginal and intuitive senses to understand. With death close by, a door appeared for Simza. A way to understand, feel and see something new, something beyond. This was a thing I couldn’t teach her. I could only give her language. And the reflection of movies, that showed her she is not alone in this new understanding.
Once the conceptual door of death and spirit appeared and the lightbulb lit, there was an immediate change in Simza. She started making up stories about goddesses who live in her toys, the garden, the bathtub. She wanted to make “an altar” like the ones Kai and I keep for our personal spiritual practice. She has it set up in her room, and has been remarkably diligent about keeping the marbles inside the shell, carefully centered in a circle of rocks. When she finds new special things, particularly in nature, she wants to bring them there. Watching Simza develop her own spirituality has been the greatest gift for me in all of this; the balm of watching life cycles in action: one fading, one emerging.
Singing and Crying
The week before Mamakai died, our amazing community rallied around Kai and all of us with abundant food and extra hours of caring for Simza, so I could be with Kai as much as possible. Friends came over to join us in singing to her. As a community that practices shamanic principles, we weren’t just singing pretty songs, though that is a powerful part of it. We were offering our prayers of courage to Mamakai, so that she would not feel afraid in walking the journey of death. Simza was there for the singing. She knows all these people well and calls them our “circle family.” We sang while holding hands around Mamakai’s hospice bed, set up in the cramped living room. Kai was on the bed talking to her gently. Her eyes flew open when the song started and she sat up, with Kai’s help, for a moment. I saw her lips moving and heard something like “beautiful” before she laid back down. The room was dark and heavy.
It’s hard to describe this part with any justice. Mamakai was so frail and small and withered. She was in pain and losing awareness quickly. And my sweet love Kai, whose heart was breaking every single moment, was endlessly patient and fun and encouraging to her. One friend who came to sing with us, and whose mother abandoned her and her siblings as children, said that witnessing the love between them on this day healed something in her that she didn’t even know was hurting. The love that is possible in this generous, aching, paradox of simple devotion and complex letting go.
We did our best to include Simza without overwhelming her. But, no surprise, the day after the singing, she had the biggest meltdown she’s ever had in her entire life so far. Kai and I were laying in bed. I think it was morning? I think we were getting ready to get up? To be honest, some details are fuzzy while others are crystal clear. I know that Simza came and climbed in the bed. We talked about getting ready for school and she asked what I had packed in her lunchbox. With very little warning, she started unraveling. I packed the wrong thing. Her body heaved with sobs. I told her I’d change it to the thing she wanted. She sobbed harder, casting around for something new to use as her outlet. She settled on the cup I had used to prop open my window to let in the spring air. What was that cup?! She didn’t like it! She hiccupped and gasped and tears kept flowing. So I held her in my arms and whispered “it’s ok to be sad.” Her little body was shaking.