While collecting stories for a book about people who work in hospice and palliative care, my husband spoke with a Buddhist chaplain, who explained how he helped to turn one mother’s grief into a healing process for her whole community. Here is his story.
“We live in a time when people rarely value ceremonies for the purposes of healing, especially death ceremonies for families and communities. Usually, after there is a death, someone in the family picks up a phone and calls a funeral home, and then organizes the visitation and burial. Instead, people might ask themselves after the death or, better yet, as the family member is dying: How do we want our loved one to be remembered, honoured and celebrated?
“When I meet with a family to plan a ceremony around a death, I use a ‘family systems approach,’ which involves the person’s entire family – their blood family, extended family, and anyone else in their community who had an emotional relationship with the deceased individual. And I ask, How do you want to celebrate your loved one’s life?
“Recently, I worked with a young Asian woman, a single mother who wanted to reconnect with her Buddhist roots. Her teenaged son had been murdered in a tragic act of gang violence. He had been shot to death in a nearby park, his body lying on the ground for hours, in full view of a school attended by neighbourhood children. As a result, this once-comfortable little park that the mother had often enjoyed was permeated with horrific associations. She could not bear to walk down the street that led to the park.
“I spoke with her and her community a couple days before the funeral, and asked for their suggestions on what we could do to honour her son. We discussed the Sur ceremony: a Tibetan Buddhist practice which uses consecrated smoke to nourish beings after they have died and while they are in the transitional experience between lives, known as the bardo. The ceremony’s goal is to create an opportunity for her community to gather and support one another and to send blessings to her son. I assured her that we would carry out the observance only if she was comfortable going to the park with her community, which also included her son’s friends. After a moment of thought, she agreed.
“On the day of the ceremony, before the gathering took place, I went to the park to pray by myself. I did a Chöd ceremony, which nourishes the myriad beings throughout the 10 directions.
“On a nearby bench, watching me, was an old Tibetan woman. I tried to explain my actions to her, and the story of the young man who had been murdered. She seemed to know very little English, yet she appeared to understand what I was doing. I gestured: Would you please say some prayers with me for this young man? She nodded once, and quietly chanted mantras while I completed the Chöd ceremony. I took this to be an auspicious blessing.
“The mother’s cramped apartment was filled with her son’s friends, who wanted to be part of the ceremony. We proceeded quietly down the street toward the park. As we entered the park, I asked everyone to stand quietly for a few minutes and invited them to chant the mantra: Om mani padme hum, explaining that it is the mantra of compassion. A choir formed on the spot as I placed aromatic herbs and incense in a special bowl and proceeded with the Sur ceremony, while the community continued to chant together. Clouds of consecrated smoke offerings expanded outwards in the park. I concentrated on the mother, her son and those who had gathered. I regard these ceremonies as skilful ways to focus our individual and collective care and compassion and the words, instruments, songs all conspire to support this intention. Once the Sur was complete, I asked her to point out two of her son’s closest friends. “Come with me,” I gently told them. “Please assist me – I want you to walk with your friend’s mom.”
“I placed a blanket around her shoulders and guided her, with one of her son’s friends on each arm, to the spot of grass on which her son had been killed. I chanted mantras and burned incense to purify the area. She wept loudly. The young men stared at the ground, yet kept their arms around her back. After a few moments of stillness, we returned to the waiting circle of family and friends, who had continued chanting the mantra of compassion. The return symbolized the mother being welcomed back to her community, and was meant to assure her that family and friends would continue to be there for support, and that hope had not left her world. Several people stayed afterwards and we put up prayer flags to bless the area.
If you have any questions or comments on this subject or on any other spiritual matter, feel free to contact me through this website. And please visit me again!
Author’s Note: My husband, an award winning writer, has a collection of hospice short stories he would like to publish and make available to many. If you have any information for the right publishing house, please contact me. Thank you.