Guest Post: The Rituals We (Still) Perform
by Liz Johnson
My grandmother is dying.
Her cancer is incurable, and has spread to the degree that she has been given mere months to live. And so, with her mortal time rapidly closing, family and friends alike have flocked to her side to spend a few precious moments with a truly remarkable woman.
There could be no better tribute to a life well-lived than the outpouring of love that my grandmother has received in these past few weeks. Family members have flown across the country to sit by her side. The phone hasn’t stopped ringing with people calling to check in on her and to express their love. Almost every flat surface in her home has a vase of fresh flowers sitting on it, and her freezer is stocked to the gills with soup and other food brought to her by friends and ward members. Her door is being graced several times daily by friends and neighbors, wishing to express their love to her and to hug her at least one more time.
I realize that it’s not an unusual thing for a person to lose a grandparent – it’s the natural cycle of things. I have lost two before her. But yet the impending loss of this woman has affected me so profoundly. I have enjoyed a particularly close relationship with her – despite living far away during my entire childhood, we visited and stayed in her home almost every summer. She regularly had me over during my college years, eager to feed me or watch a show together (don’t ask about the time I inadvertently got her addicted to “The Bachelor”). Her home became my refuge during my tumultuous college years – whenever I felt the pressures and stresses were too much, I knew I could drop in without a moment’s notice, and she would sincerely be happy to see me. I could talk to her the way I could talk to my mother – openly and freely. She always abounded in sympathy and love, and I knew she would love me even if it felt like nobody else would. And what is truly amazing about this relationship is that I’m not the only grandchild who feels this way about her – in fact, all twenty-two of us feel like we’re her favorite person, and that she would do anything for any of us.
I was able to visit and spend time with her last week. My mother, my sister, my two younger children and I were able to spend several days talking and laughing and playing a lot of Yahtzee. I was able to hear her talk about her life, and about the sacred experiences she has had. At one point, my sister, who is somewhat famous for her foot massages and pedicures, busted out the supplies to give my grandmother a special spa treatment.
As she washed my grandmother’s feet, I was completely overcome with emotion. I was reminded of Christ washing his disciples’ feet as a sign of love and humility, as well as the washings and anointings that we participate in as sisters in the temple. I also was reminded of the blessings and anointings that women gave each other in the early church, preparatory to undergoing hard things like childbirth, sickness, and death. My sister lovingly washed, massaged, and painted my grandmother’s frail feet – the feet that have carried her through 81 years of life, through seven pregnancies and births, through three missions, and to the doors of countless people whom she has served throughout her life. What I was witnessing in an ordinary living room of Orem, Utah was perhaps the most symbolic and sacred service I had seen in my life.
While Mormon women don’t currently officially participate in any rituals or ordinances preparatory to death, I can’t help but see small glimmers of the divine in the acts we perform. The vats of soup delivered to comfort my grandmother’s fevered body, the flowers to liven her home, and surely the washing and painting of her beautiful feet – all of these are sacraments to me. They are acts of love, of humility, and of service. And in something so unfortunately common as the death of a loved one, I find glimpses of sisterhood, of holiness, and of Deity.
What rituals have you participated in surrounding death and dying? What traditions have brought you peace? What space do we have in our theology for ritual in sisterhood?
Liz Johnson is a wife, mother of four, and birth doula. She recently relocated to Central Michigan and has high hopes of finding some fellow Mormon feminists there, as well as good gardening soil.