An Ash Wednesday Reflection

Today is Ash Wednesday marking the beginning of the season of Lent for many Christians, including Catholics like me. Lent is a period of self-preparation before Easter, forty days to ready your body, mind, and spirit to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday.

People typically observe Lent by fasting, or giving something up. Christians that celebrate Lent do this in two ways:  by not eating meat on Fridays (and having fish instead)  and by giving something up from their lives (like chocolate or TV).  I’ve used this idea of “giving up” to work on increasing things to my life: practicing more patience, more loving thoughts, more quiet, more writing. What I would give then would be impatience, criticism, over-commitment, and a lack of reflection on the world.

What I’m pondering now, as I make my way into the Lenten season and consider what we’re going to have for dinner tonight (pasta!) and on Fridays (sushi!), what I’m going to give up (Starbuck’s sugary handcrafted beverages…except cappuccinos, lattes, and regular coffee) and what I’m going to increase (patience, writing, reflection), is how to relate this period to grief.

As Christians, we receive ashes from the celebrant during the course of the Ash Wednesday service. As my Catholic priest marks my forehead with the ashes of burnt palm leaves he says, “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return”–a conspicuous reminder of the life’s temporality if ever I heard one.

Thinking about Lent has led me to think about mourning and the allotment of time given to the mourning period…or not given, as the case may be.  As part of my Lenten observance, I’m going to do my best to brush up on mourning periods and to think about the societal relevance on mourning in 2020. To be honest, I think we’ve lost the idea of the mourning period in modern society and it affects how we view grief and how we encourage grievers to “get over it” and “move on” with life after a loss.

While our religious traditions, if practiced, prescribe some form of mourning, these are infrequently discussed as general religious practice. The most common practice I am familiar with is the Jewish practice of sitting Shiva–the seven days following burial when the grieving family remains at home, with certain restrictions on activity, to mourn their loss. As a Catholic, I am unfamiliar with something similar in my faith. I never heard of any mourning practice from priests following my mother’s death. All I heard was “Trust in God.” Of course, I didn’t ask.

No one around me really supported the idea of a mourning period as well, a time when I could cry, be sad, inactive, and reflect on the enormity of what had happened in my life. What would have happened if grief supporters and I had recognized a delineated mourning time? How would the first few weeks after my mother’s funeral have been different?

As a new mom, I had a forced hiatus from physical activity for six weeks so that my body could heal and I could adjust to life with my new little person. There were restrictions placed on my activity and recommendations not to leave home too often with the wee one to avoid encountering germs (since the little ones have no immune system yet). I got more time for healing, contemplation and self-care when I became a mother than I did when I lost mine.

 If I had known more about what could and should happen within a mourning period, if the grief supporters in my life had known more about mourning periods as well, I think the experience would have come with less hurt and many relationships would have been strengthened in the process. Outside of a religious context, society doesn’t think about “mourning periods” either. What if we did? What if we instituted mourning leaves, beyond the week long bereavement policies many businesses have in place (which basically give you time to plan a funeral but not mourn)? How could we improve the mental, physical, and emotional health of grievers in the process?

Well, there is my Lenten commitment to learn a little more about mourning periods over the next forty days. So much for avoiding over-commitment.



Published by ancarroll

Alexandra N. Carroll is an author, grief advocate, crafter, mother, and partner. She writes on grief and self-care from her home in Vermont. Her forthcoming book concerns how to untangle life-after-loss through the creation of a strong self-care plan.

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