We do not aim for erasing people’s pain—only for making it so that they do not face it by themselves.
One day, my children found a dead pigeon in the road. They gathered around its tiny mangled body, and their faces crumpled with grief. We got a towel, put the bird in a box, and held a small pigeon funeral that evening. We lit a chalice and sang a song, then talked about how the pigeon probably had a mom that cared for it, and that now its body would become part of the earth and then part of new life. Then we sang again and extinguished the chalice.
When I told my friend the story, she said, “How did you know how to do a pigeon funeral?” Without really thinking about the answer, I responded, “Because I’m a Unitarian Universalist.”
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I didn’t say, “Because I’m a Unitarian Universalist seminarian.” For funerals for persons who have died, rites of passage are usually (but not always) led by clergy, but grief and its rituals are owned by everyone. Ceremonies can be large or small, but the essential elements tend to be similar. We create a reverent space—usually by lighting a chalice and singing or reading poetry. We tell the truth—aiming to name the grief as fully as possible, even when it is complicated. In a funeral or celebration of life, we tell the person’s story. We try to make some meaning, when that is possible, leaving room for the fact that the meaning might be different for different people in the room. And then we close the space in some way—often singing or reading, and extinguishing the chalice.
For smaller rights of passage, we have smaller rituals. In most congregations, there’s a space each Sunday for people to honor joys and sorrows. People will often speak and light a candle or put a pebble in a bowl of water. In larger congregations, the person leading the service might read people’s joys and sorrows from a book.
For all griefs, the goal is not to erase people’s pain. There is space made for healing, but that doesn’t always happen. We accept that grief runs deep, and pain is not something that can be fixed simply or quickly. We do not aim for erasing people’s pain—only for making it so that they do not face it by themselves.
In my home congregation, after the last pebble is placed in the water each Sunday, the service leader says, “In our joy and in our sorrow,” and the people say, “We are not alone.”
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Liz James is a member of the Saskatoon Unitarians, on the Canadian prairie. When not executing elaborate and generally doomed UU-themed practical jokes, she runs the Unitarian Universalist Hysterical Society on Facebook and blogs at Liz James Writes.