My current project is a series of pieces woven of memoir, poems, and actionable tips for cultivating a loving flow between the living and the dead. The excerpt comes from the 3rd essay in the series, 49 Days and the Green Door of Death. The full essay with stories about how I found my way to these practices is available as downloadable PDF.
HOW TO OBSERVE 49 DAYS
Traditions from across time and cultures convey to us that death is a journey. It has passages and stages that the Dead undertake. but that we, the Living, have a role to play as well. In Buddhism, the dead are accompanied for 49 days or 7 weeks of 7 days. Cross-culturally—from the Dogon of African to the medieval alchemists of Europe—7 is a number of completeness and perfection. In full piece, I offer a metaphor for where the dead arrive at the end of their accompaniment: The Green Door of Death which does not cut them off from us in life but initiates them into a death that can be fertile. The Door is opened with Love.
Thanks to Sande Gendel for this wonderful image.
You could consider the day of death as day 0, and the next day starts the counting. But calculating is not the important part of the practice; it is just a steady place to start from when confronted with the upheaval of Death. Counting days from 1 to 49 is still on our skill list—probably. If you make a mistake—forget a number, for example—don’t worry. The mistake is fertile, brings you somewhere you wouldn’t have gone on your own, which perhaps is just what you need.
I offer that you can start this practice any time. Jump into week 3 of observance and follow to the end if the news of someone’s death is delayed in getting to you. The 49 day observance could happen years afterward if you feel your Beloved Dead could use the support or you would be nurtured by the ritual.
There is really no expiration date on the 49 days. Our beloveds are in eternity, afterall. They are beyond time. They are waiting for us to arrive when the time is right.
The busy world will not support you. In today’s mainstream culture, we do not pause much for death. You will have to claim and protect some space for your observances in each day. Take as much as you can, and don’t worry if it turns out to be less than you want. The intention and making a connection are what is important.
To keep on track, it is very helpful to have a set time, regular place, and specific practice. This becomes a container for all that arises.
Even if you have only a few dedicated moments a day, you could, for example, upon waking sit on the edge of your bed, maybe look out a window, and say aloud or within yourself a prayer, a poem, or a song (sung or the words recited). Your words don’t have to be particularly spiritual and certainly not religious. Pick something that is meaningful to you and your beloved, and let whatever is chosen indicate your accompaniment of them in this time of transition.
If you have a practice that you already do regularly—taking a daily walk, sitting in meditation, contemplating the Tarot—you could choose to do that over the 49 days with the intention of accompanying your beloved. You don’t have to create something new or add another To Do to your list.
No doubt, feelings will arise as you travel the 49 days. You may wish that your beloved isn’t dead, feel that the only thing you want is to have them back. You can’t stop these feelings and thoughts, even if they seem counter to your work of accompaniment. Instead of trying to hold them back, allow them to flow through you. You might imagine them flowing out through your feet and into the earth, who can take and reshape all things.
If you miss a day, don’t beat yourself up—as the grieving tend to do. It is the accumulation of the days and the whole container of the practice that will carry you and your beloved. Just start again the next day.
On or shortly after the 49th day, mark the end of this phase of your beloved’s transition and your work of accompaniment with something that feels special to you. It need not be too elaborate, just a bit more than your daily observances. You may want to gather with others—or not. Find what feels right to you.
I turn to ritual for such occasions and offer the elements of my blessing ritual for my mother as a guide for you to create your own:
- Have a special place or destination:I chose to go out in nature—to a place I’ve used before for ritual on the Mill River. You, too, could pick a special destination or stay in the place you have been doing your regular observances.
- Begin:What do you want for your person? When accompanying my mother, I came to the realization that I wanted her to be blessed by the natural and the Divine as she moved into the next spiral of her becoming. What you want for your person might be blessings or peace or transcendence. Follow your heart and start from this desire for your beloved.
- Journey: This could be physical or inner movement. I walked along the river with my mother. You may take an inner imaginal journey with your person. This journey is a microcosm of the whole 49 days. There is the possibility of clarity about what you have been doing through the whole observance opening up for you—or maybe that will come later.
- Arrive: You have arrived at your destination—the Green Door of Death. Here you could think of your purpose as being two-fold. First, you are sending your person through that door where you cannot follow. You are not giving them up, but you are sending them on to what comes next for them. Second, you are marking that this phase of your work is done. A responsibility, perhaps a weight, is lifted from you now. It may be re-shaped into another form, but you have completed this spiral of the journey. Something is released. I released ash into water. You, too, might be guided by a basic elemental approach by speaking a prayer or poem or song into the wind, lighting a piece of paper on fire and watching it transform, or burying something in the earth, knowing the earth accepts and reshapes all things
- Offer Gratitude: You have made it through to this moment. What and who has helped? Say words of thanks for these beings and practices.
- Return: You will have to travel back from your destination and return to the mundane world. You may want a marker to help you make the transition. Examples of what this could be are: eating a snack or a whole meal, taking a shower, talking to a friend or one who supports you with spiritual guidance, or getting some body work to revive your energy.
- Tend Yourself: Even if the outward journey has not been one of a great distance, the inner traveling has been arduous. There may have been a storm of emotions, perhaps even some that seemed to be diametrically opposed. It is possible you may experience an emotional and/or physical crash after such a journey. If you can lessen your responsibilities for a bit after the 49 days, do so. Even if you cannot, recognize that you may not be at your best. Don’t berate yourself for not functioning at your best. Just as you claimed time to observe the 49 days, claim some time and space to renew yourself, perhaps with one or all of these: rest, spiritual practice, time in nature, time with a friend or a professional listener who can keep the focus on listening to you and your needs.
The end of the 49 days is the beginning of a new relationship. You and your beloved have changed. But Love exists beyond the boundaries of the body and still binds you together. Embrace this limitless Love. In my experience, this is an adventure with highs and lows, new challenges, and a re-arrangement of beliefs and priorities. But the reward … oh, the reward! … is a touch of the eternal feeding the flow of Love.