I heard a discussion the other night about the difference between grieving and mourning. After acknowledgement that both terms get defined in many different ways, a basic consensus developed that grieving is the emotions felt due to a loss while mourning is the rituals undertaken to give form to that grieving. Based on that understanding, I’m about halfway through a period of mourning for a recently deceased relative, the period being defined as 49 days since the date of death, which, per Buddhist tradition, is the maximum duration of the journey from one life to the next.
This is not my first experience with mourning. When my beloved cat Fenris died a few years ago, I grieved intensely and found healing through mourning. In that instance, every evening for 49 days I read passages from the Thurman translation of the Bardo Thodol (The Great Book of Natural Liberation Through Understanding in the Between or Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State, commonly referred to as the Tibetan Book of the Dead) that are intended to guide the departed consciousness through the bardo (intermediate state) of death. Sitting there, exhorting Fenris to resist the allurements that lead to a lower rebirth and to instead focus on achieving enlightenment, rebirth in a pure land, or a precious human rebirth, I really felt like I was continuing to be helpful to him even though he was no longer nearby to feed or stroke or clean up after. I deeply felt the loss of this being who had loved me so utterly, completely, and selflessly. However, I didn’t want to hold him back with my grief. I was grateful to be able to lend my voice and my love to helping him complete his transitional journey.
As the most actively religious member of our household, I undertake the conduct of mourning rituals on behalf of our family. When a close relative recently was diagnosed with a rapidly progressing terminal illness, I contacted spiritual leaders in both traditions I currently practice in, to get advice about the appropriate mourning prayers to say after death. For the Plum Village tradition, I was referred to Chanting from the Heart: Buddhist Ceremonies and Daily Practices by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Monks and Nuns of Plum Village, which contains many prayers and practices, including ceremonies relating to death and dying. I decided that every seventh day after death I would recite the prayers contained in the ceremony for the the seventh and forty-ninth days after death. Continue reading