On a perfect late summer evening, spread out on the grass on all sides of the pavilion, people stood in clusters carefully opening the envelopes that held painted lady butterflies. Some of the butterflies lingered, tentatively moving their wings, others set out right away flying and swooping. One woman walked past me, tears streaming down her face that also held a smile. Children ran trying to chase butterflies, that once out of their envelope sometimes came close enough to enchant the children but remained out of the reach of small hands.
For thousands of years, the butterfly has been a symbol of transformation. The literal transformation from larvae/ caterpillar/chrysalis to a beautiful flying butterfly is something humans behold with awe and wonder. In grieving the loss of a loved one, this is a powerful reminder of the cycle of life/death/rebirth.
Earlier that evening, as I played my guitar and sang, the loved ones of patients that were in our hospice program filled the entire space of the large pavilion prior to releasing the butterflies. Many family members came and greeted me as I played. It is no small thing to be a part of someone’s transition and my heart softens, opens and expands as the memory of each patient and playing my harp for them lands.
Many people attended with family members, generations gathering to acknowledge loss. Some people came alone, one gentleman told me this was the first time he had done anything except errands since the loss of his wife of 63 years. Tears streamed down through the wrinkles on his weather-worn face and he tugged his ball cap as he thanked me gruffly for the music.
We are here to acknowledge loss as well as acknowledging mystery, like the transformation of the butterfly. We are all still here in this lifetime trying to make sense of it all, especially the hard, hard parts like someone we love deeply dying. We are here and they are gone. I believe we are drawn to rituals to bring something tangible, like a butterfly here , to our own participation in the rites and passages of being born, and in our living marking various milestones until we all eventually reach the sacred threshold of dying. Part of hospice work, in my case with music, is midwifery into what lies beyond death.
During Covid, many of the rituals we observe, whether it be birthdays, graduation, weddings and/or funerals were altered significantly or didn’t happen at all in the way we perhaps in our psyche, needed them to occur.
On January 19th, 2021, during some of the darkest days of the pandemic, some of us that organized efforts in our community to educate about the virus as well as address mental and emotional well being and other related topics, created a public acknowledgment of loss called Lights of Remembrance. We lit over 400 candles on the Stone Bridge in Johnstown, Pa, to commemorate the loss of over 400 citizens in Cambria County to Covid in less than a year. The bridge lit up was live streamed on Facebook. Many cars drove past the bridge. One family stopped, parked and came over to our group, all weeping. The only words they could utter were, “Thank you.” We all grieve in our own way and there can also be comfort in the collective experience of lament where we cry out from that deeply sorrowful place and find that we are not alone. And what is possible is this container here that is expansive enough to hold the enormity of our pain.
Oceans of grace meet oceans of grief.