I wrote the following for a wellness newsletter at OHSU Health Hillsboro Medical Center, where I work. I wanted to share it with you on this All Saints’ Day.

As autumn seems to have taken hold in the Northwest and Halloween approaches, I am reminded a year ago I was in San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala. I had traveled for a short mission trip with an organization who builds houses and home kits consisting of water filters, “smokeless” stoves, and latrines, and spent about a week absorbing local culture, learning new skills, eating amazing Guatemalan food, and experiencing Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) festivities. Family members go to local cemeteries and clean tombs of their loved ones, decorate with beautiful flowers and other items, and even prepare special foods – including favorites of the departed – to share at the cemetery. It is a loud, festive, celebratory event, attracting all of those who share this grief, the departure of a loved one.

In Guatemala, this celebration also includes a Kite Festival, where intricate homemade kites are flown from the tops of tombs, traditionally in order to communicate with the spirits. On Halloween and All Saints’ Day last year, I was blessed to spend much of these two days walking through cemeteries, even witnessing a local “marching band” of family members playing marimbas through their village as they approached the festivities. This experience was easily the highlight of my time in Guatemala.

While I am too familiar with grief and its hold, I had never experienced this kind of collective lament over what has been lost. While each family openly and authentically mourned their loved ones, the festive atmosphere of such an experience gave permission to friends, as well as strangers, to acknowledge their losses, comfort one another, and encourage those they don’t even know that their experience is a shared experience. And knowing our experience of sadness, struggle, and emptiness is shared to me seems the most comforting step towards wholeness.

The thing about grief is we must lament our losses or we are captive to them. Grief never tells you that. It always seems you can compartmentalize what has happened and move on. Families do this all the time as they hush one another around dinner tables, whispering “we shouldn’t talk about so and so because it will make everyone sad.” Psychotherapist Francis Weller (The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2015) writes of the “direct relationship between mourning and memory. To counter the amnesia of our times, we must be willing to look into the face of the loss and keep it nearby. In this way, we may be able to honor the losses and live our lives as carriers of their unfinished stories.”

When we hold up our memories and give thanks for what was, we honor that person or that experience. When we do not lament our losses, we are captive to them.

In this time of Pandemic and collective loss, I wonder if lamenting what was is even more important. Whether we fly a kite, make a special meal, write a reflection, or remember our loss in some other way, we memorialize this time, giving shape to its meaning for us and for those around us.

— Rev. Rachel M. Stramel, M.Div., Chaplain