Traditional cultures around the world have rituals around death and dying to help people heal. Over the years, many of those rituals got lost on their way to us. So much so, that we now live in a society that doesn’t talk about death or dying. This makes the process even more isolating and painful for those who are grieving.
My dear friend, Melissa Forde, is a healer, hospice nurse and the owner of Forde on Fire. She’s also had a heartbreaking few years full of loss. Here, she bravely shares her story, the rituals and resources that have helped her, and helpful things to say, do and get for a grieving friend.
I have over 10 years of experience as a Registered Nurse caring for spinal cord injury and hospice patients - which is far more uplifting than it sounds! I have also completed many trainings in yoga, energy healing and spiritual leadership. I like to make sure my work fills me with life and that my life supports the service of my work. Having a strong spiritual practice has helped me achieve this.
People often tell me it takes a special person to do hospice work, and that’s true, but the real truth is we are all drawn towards the things that will help us heal. I am drawn towards this work for a reason. Working with dying people is basically mastery level education in the art of letting go and that has been something I have needed very much.
About Forde on Fire:
Forde on Fire is my online business. It is my way of sharing my story about how I have learned to heal and what has worked for me on that journey, which is ongoing. There are a lot of things that support me in living a purpose driven life. Meditation, mindfulness and yoga play a big part, as well as mindset, body awareness, breathing exercises and spiritual practices that can be integrated into everyday life. Through my blog and online courses, I share what I know about finding joy and connection in real life, the one where things are sometimes hard and things like loss, change, illness and injuries happen.
You’ve had a really rough few years…
I have had a lot of loss in the last few years. In 2015, my dearest and closest friend, Chelsea, was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer at the age of 35 and my soul dog, Peso, was diagnosed with cancer at the age of four 2 weeks later.
I was right by both of their sides through the journey of cancer and sacred experience of death. Peso died in April of 2016 and Chelsea died almost exactly one year later.
For the last two and a half years, I’ve been in a state of crisis, shock, stress and grief. Chelsea and Peso were the most spiritually significant relationships in my life. Each loss on its own would be heartbreaking, and losing them both within one year felt overwhelming.
Grief has a way of really shaking things up, and with that there were more losses. My relationships changed, I left a job, I was displaced from my home. I got schooled in loss over the last few years, to say the least!
On a daily ritual that has helped her…
Ritual has really helped me in coping with losing Chelsea and Peso. I have candles, pictures and mementos on my altar. I carve out time to spend with them, meditate, reflect and cry. Lighting a candle creates a container for that process for me. After I blow it out, I go about the rest of my day. This doesn’t mean that I don’t go through all kinds of waves of grief in unexpected and inconvenient moments, but having my own space and time to connect with Chelsea and Peso has helped me to be able to continue living a full life.
On anniversary rituals…
So far, I’ve only had the anniversary of Peso’s death and it was two days after Chelsea died. I was in San Diego where Chelsea lived, which was not where I expected to be. I went on the walk Peso and I used to take there together. My life with Peso taught me that when things are hard you just have to put one paw in front of the other and walk through it. So that’s what I did. I let Peso walk me through the experience of losing Chelsea and it ended up being the perfect way to honor his memory.
I’m not sure yet what I will do on the anniversary of Chelsea’s death this April. It might not seem like a ritual but I will probably go shopping! Chelsea was a model and the most stylish person I knew. Celebrating fashion was a big part of our friendship and I always hear her voice when I am picking out new clothes and shoes now. For me, ritual and remembrance doesn’t have to be stuffy or sad, it’s more about doing whatever helps you connect, make meaning and access joy.
The ritual she witnessed that totally shifted her perspective…
A few years ago I attended the death of a little girl whose family kept her body at home for four days as part of their religious tradition. The room was filled with bouquets of flowers. She looked like an angel. Someone had been with her body for four days straight. They were taking shifts meditating, chanting and praying.
Witnessing this changed my practice as a nurse. It made me realize how powerful and healing it is to spend time with the body after someone has died. Often people call the mortuary right away and the body is gone in a matter of an hour or two. It’s really jarring to experience your person being there and alive one minute, then completely gone the next. I believe it can be very helpful to spend time adjusting to the fact that the body isn’t the home of your loved one’s spirit anymore.
I kept Peso’s body at home for two days when he died. I lit candles and laid flowers all around him. I’m so thankful I had that previous experience of seeing a loving, beautiful ceremony around death. I also took his body to be cremated myself. I carried him in, sat and listened to the sounds of the cremation process and left with a warm box of his ashes. Handing his body over was one of the most excruciating moments, but it is also the part I am most grateful for. I was with him through the entire process and this was something that was very important for me. I believe it also helped me integrate the experience of his death. While this approach might not be for everyone, it was profound and healing for me.
On supportive things to say…
People who are facing loss feel very lonely. When you are grieving, you are in your own world and it seems really weird that the rest of the world is going about business as usual. Anything connecting or affirming is helpful. For me, what was most helpful was when people reflected to me how big and hard and sad the situation was by saying something like "Oh my gosh, that’s a lot.” For some reason, external validation for how crappy I felt was the thing I appreciated most. Also things like “I know how much you loved Peso” or “I know you and Chelsea had such a special bond”. Again -- anything that validated the pain and gave me permission to be a total hot mess.
Often, people don't want to rub in the fact that you’re suffering or even go there; I think they are afraid of making you cry. The truth is that we are crying anyway and it's better to have a moment of genuine connection with emotion in it, than to feel totally disconnected from everyone in your life.
On what not to say…
A lot of people said “let me know if I can do anything” or “let me know what you need”. I think people genuinely wanted to help but the reality is that executive brain functioning goes out the window when someone is in crisis. It is hard to make basic decisions like what to eat, let alone to come up with a plan for how someone else is going to help you. While well intentioned, saying something like “let me know what you need” puts the burden on the person who is suffering. I have intentionally cut phrases like this out of my vocabulary. Now, when I have the impulse to say that to someone, I pause and think of specific things I can offer instead.
On what to do…
It’s best to offer something specific and keep choices limited. When I was in the hospital with Chelsea, a friend texted me “I am by the hospital and will bring you lunch. Do you want pizza, thai or for me to decide?” This text was pure magic to me. I will never forget how helpful it was.
I needed so much help when I was grieving and had so many people telling me to let them know what I needed, but I couldn’t discern who was just saying that and who actually wanted to help. What I really needed was food and help with basic life admin. I needed my laundry done, my groceries bought, meals prepared and my bathroom cleaned.
One thing I didn’t expect was the importance of human touch. Human touch was HUGE for me. Touch grounds people back into their bodies and is a way of communicating care to someone in a way that transcends language. I lived off the energy of extra long hugs and anything that helped me feel connected to my body and the world.
On what to gift…
I got some very sweet gifts when Peso and Chelsea died. One friend made me a pillow with a picture of Peso on it and another sent me a bracelet with a paw print. There was something so tender to me about other people realizing how special he was to me. When Chelsea died one of my other very close friends sent me a necklace with two crystals, one represented Chelsea and the other represented me.
In addition to the mementos I mentioned, I think cards, crystals and candles are all thoughtful gifts for someone who is grieving.
One of the many things I did not anticipate was the massive physical impact of grieving on the body. I now include things like a gift certificate for a massage, massage oil or bath salts when I am making a care package for someone facing loss.
Loss is a long journey…
People often get a lot of attention right after something traumatic happens, but then it trails off. I was in shock in those initial stages. The loss really hits you months later. By that time the rest of the world has moved on with their lives and that can be a very painful and isolating experience. Our culture likes to move past things quickly but grief has its own complicated timeline. If you have a close friend who is facing loss, remember that it is a really long journey - check in with them even after the initial trauma settles down.
“Grief and Growing”, a weekend camp put on by the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, was by far the most helpful, supportive and impactful experience during my grieving process. That weekend changed my life. It was so full of connection with other people from all walks of life. There were people from age 2 to 85 who had all lost someone. Everyone understood how I felt and being in that community helped me realize that pain and loss are so universal- everyone, at some point in their life, will experience it.
Grieving is incredibly hard on the body. Aidan Kinsella at Verve Wellness Studio and Mark Haviland at Beyond Body Work have been instrumental in supporting me through this process.
Sympathy cards can be really cheesy, but Emily McDowell has great empathy cards.
The book and organization by Sheryl Sandberg are good resources.
Etsy is a great resource for mementos- I got a little paw print memento bracelet for my friend who lost her pet, or even just a simple initial bracelet.
Scarlet Sage in the Mission District of San Francisco is a spiritual goods and herbs store. All of their products are of great integrity and it’s where I get my crystals.
My experience with loss inspired a new project for Forde on Fire. I found that there is a lack in quality spiritual and wellness products. Especially gifts to give to a grieving loved one.
My first project is beautifully designed, sustainably made altar candles with different intentions, guidance and instruction. I have future visions of creating a healing affirmation deck, greeting cards and artwork. So many people genuinely want to help when they see someone suffering and they just don’t know how. I hope to make that part of the process easier for people.