Having a special place to grieve and remember is important for many people.
A special place marks our loved one’s space and time in history. It is a focal point that we can visit; a place where we might talk to them, pray for them, reflect. It’s a place for remembrance.
The special place doesn’t have to be a grave in a cemetery. The North Wales town of Llandudno is a holiday destination that has also been popular for years amongst the elderly. On the West Beach there is a promenade with a long row of benches, each with a plaque, each with its own story of one or more loved ones that loved this place. The fact that there are flowers attached to some of the benches there indicates that people have come again recently to remember.
It doesn’t have to be a bench. Some people have planted trees or rose bushes in memory of a loved one. Some people might have a room in their home, or a chapel that they visit. For others, their special place could be a spot by the sea or on a river where their loved one’s ashes were scattered.
And others go to a cemetery.
Cemeteries can be beautiful places or they can be bleak. Colourful cemeteries aren’t usually found in the UK, but here’s an interesting link with pictures from elsewhere , including a “merry cemetery” in Romania. There are growing numbers of woodland cemeteries, and even a traditional cemetery can have its own poignant charm.
Graves in the cemetery are indicated in different ways. A headstone or a plaque is a marker of our loved one’s life, but it is also a marker of their death. It is a sign of the permanence of their departure from this world, and that can be very hard to face. We might avoid putting up a headstone or visiting the graveside because of this agonising reality. Yet this special place whilst painful can also be a place of consolation.
There are different customs, traditions and opinions about how often to visit a grave, how to maintain it, and if and how to decorate it. Caring for a grave is a poor substitute for caring for a living loved one, but it can be somehow comforting to fuss over this special space.
Parents who are mourning their baby or child can have a particular concern about maintaining a beautiful spot for their son or daughter. Where permitted, there may be toys and teddy bears and other items. How painful then it is to read the occasional article in a local paper that tells of the anguish of a parent or someone else whose loved one’s grave has been disturbed, or if they aren’t allowed to decorate it as they wish. There is one very sad story about this here.
Whether it is a grave or somewhere else that you visit, in my opinion, there is no wrong or right thing to do. What counts is what you feel like. Wherever we go, how often or how rarely, and whatever we do when we get there, if it brings us comfort, why not?
This is a message that I return to often in the retreats I lead: Our grief is as individual as our lives, and there is no wrong or right way to grieve. And there is no requirement to have a special place, an elaborate headstone or a decorated grave, or anything at all, if that isn’t what you want.
The length of time we spend at a graveside or the frequency of our visits isn’t a measure of our love, and it certainly should not be an obligation. Do you want to visit? Then visit. Would you rather not go there for awhile? Then don’t go. There is no wrong or right way to grieve.
Sometime’s other people’s opinions or what they do can have an impact on us. Even amongst the fellowship of the bereaved, there can be a bit of comparing. You arrive at the cemetery and you see loads of fresh flowers and feel a bit bad that you haven’t been there more often. But grief isn’t a zero sum game amongst the mourners.
Do what feels right to you at this time. It’s quite likely that as time passes, you may feel differently. You may visit more or less frequently, you may spend more or less time at the graveside. That’s part of the natural progression of our lives.
The love we hold in our hearts for our loved one is expressed in many different ways, not only by graveside visits. As we travel along through life, we are carrying our loved ones with us in our memories. And so whether we have a grave or bench or other special place to visit or not, the most important place of all is in our own hearts and minds, where we remember and connect with those we love.
At your Graveside
(A poem inspired by visits to my children’s grave)
I light a candle at your graveside
Sheltering it with my hand,
Protecting it from the wind,
Just like I have wanted to protect you.
I tend the flowers at your graveside
Filling the vase, pouring water,
Arranging them with care,
Just like I care for your memory.
I place pebbles at your graveside
Small stones of acknowledgement,
To signify my presence, your presence
Just like you sit settled in my heart.
I sing songs at your graveside
My voice trembles to declare
The mystery of where you are
And I long for you to hear.
I speak to you at your graveside
I tell you about this and that
I probe some serious matters
I don’t hear what you say back.
I say a prayer at your graveside
That the God of love will hold you
Close in his welcoming arms
And that you are at peace.
I leave the graveside, with a kiss of an angel
I know you aren’t here, and so
I don’t leave you, only that place,
For I carry your memory deep inside.