This article was first published by Communities Magazine, Issue #185, here, in Winter 2019. The article can be seen as a .pdf as published here.
By Lee Warren
A Toddler Died
A toddler died in our community. It was a tragic five seconds that changed the course of everyone’s lives.
Rowan’s mama loaded her car with all the materials needed for the ritual that was to take place that day, overnight, and into the next day—an annual ritual, in which our community honors life, corn, and the spirit world. This ritual, brought to us by several community members who have studied indigenous teachings, happens in May of every year.
She couldn’t see out the back window because her car was loaded down. And going in reverse is tricky for the best drivers among us. Down a steep slope, backwards she went. Trusting that her child was with his father.
But he wasn’t.
Rowan was behind the car. And those fatal five seconds led to an ambulance ride, his heart stopping many times, emergency surgery, and ultimately a death that left the community devastated, heartbroken, and in shock.
Most people who hear the sketch of this story are immediately horrified and heartsick as they imagine the agony of the parents. The stupefying grief mixed with horrendous guilt is certainly part of the story.
But the story doesn’t end there.
What Happened Next
Because what happened next is something that, in my 20 years of living in intentional community, I have never seen. It is something so exquisite that it might just offer a glimpse into reconciling the unthinkable tragedy. What happened next is nothing short of miraculous. And probably rarely seen outside of a deeply integrated traditional culture, one so intact that they still know how to grieve, how to be with the dead, and how to be with the mystery.
Maybe it was caused by a perfect storm—an upwelling of important elements coming together. One element being the pure, innocent, and tragic nature of the accident. Another element being that the community was already in ritual space. Combine that with the fact that the parents are long-term community members and leaders who have, over the years, graced our group with their public ceremonies: her ordination ceremony, their wedding ceremony, their blessingway (baby shower) ceremony. Something, somehow, created a vortex, an opening that allowed our most powerful selves to emerge.
As much as anything can be, this is a recipe for sanity; healing for a small patch of the global and cosmic wound. It’s what we got right. And it contained these ingredients:
- Offer Support: The parents were immediately surrounded by close and beloved friends who didn’t leave their side for the following days and weeks. Caregivers rotated in and out, but at any given time, especially in the first few days, there were a minimum of three people supporting each parent. Starting with the ride to the ambulance (we live very remotely and the initial ride was to meet the ambulance 20 minutes away), the wait in the hospital during surgery, and that first evening without Rowan, the friends and beloveds gathered. They held the parents, cried, supported, reflected back, held, cried, and supported some more.
- Create Space for Grief: The altars were erected the day after the tragedy: the black altar for grieving and in preparation for Rowan’s body, the blue altar for forgiveness, and the red altar for the ancestors. They were decorated beautifully with matching black, blue, and red candles that didn’t stop burning for days, with sacred objects, and with flowers, so many flowers. For five years many of us had been coming together to study and practice “Grief Ritual” with the Dagara Shaman, Sobonfu Somé. In Somé’s West African tradition, the grief ritual is intricately woven into tribal life and is crucial to healing spiritual wounds. Over the years, in our training with her, we’ve learned to make the altars, to set the physical environment, and to be with the grief in ourselves and each other. The day the tragedy happened, one of our members was on the phone with Sobonfu, getting coaching on the specifics of our situation. By the next day our already grief-ritual-experienced members went into action, setting up the altars, lighting candles, gathering flowers, and most importantly encouraging the grieving. The meaning of the altars and of the importance of grief was communicated to each wave of visitors who came, and all were introduced to the phrase, “never grieve alone.”
- Employ the Advocate: Our nearest town, Asheville, North Carolina, boasts lots of progressive people. One such person is Ruth, a Buddhist and a home burial advocate. She helped our group retrieve Rowan’s body from the morgue and instructed a small group of close friends to tend to his body in a ritualistic and sacred way. She taught this circle of six folks to lovingly bathe the body, bless and tell stories over the body, dress and wrap the body, arrange the body on the altar, and pack ice around the body. The process, which took nearly four hours, was deliberate and deeply honoring of the life of Rowan as well as his upcoming spirit journey. The result was apparent, his small and beautiful form was so delicately and impeccably laid out on the black grief altar, with one hand showing, for grieving folks to touch and hold.
- Know Your Clergy: The first person I texted when I heard the news of the accident was Byron, a friend and long-time priestess, teacher, and ritualist who has been facilitating public rituals for more than two decades and is passionate about spiritual ceremony, including grief. She was also the one who officiated the ceremony of marriage for Rowan’s parents before he was born. She is a beloved treasure to many of us and works much in the way a wise woman, minister, or priest of old would work in rural communities―she visits the sick, tends to the heartbroken, officiates unions. She is a midwife of life’s passages. On Friday, the day of the accident, she was there for the community that evening. On Sunday she came to visit and grieve, and on Monday, she officiated the funeral procession and the burial. To have someone so well known, trusted, and close to so many of us be guiding us as we grieve is a blessing beyond measure. That guidance is crucial at a time when most of us are in the underworld of the grief process or supporting the deeply broken.
- Welcome the Feelings: Our community subculture honors emotions much more than the average modern person. We’re not perfect at it, but as much as possible folks tend to welcome the whole range of feelings, including the challenging ones like anger and grief. One of the most powerful moments I had during the three days following the death of Rowan was sitting between his parents at the fire circle. They both had other support people around them but I happened to be in the middle and got to witness them grieving at the same time. Each had their own flavor, the mom riding the waves of grief as they rippled through her body, feet grounded on the earth, whimpering some, wailing at times, and then falling silent—over and over like ocean waves coming in and going out, some strong, some soft. Embodied grief comes to us in waves. The contractions of death are much like the contractions of birth. On the other side of me, Rowan’s dad was talking. Talking and rocking and crying all at once. Sometimes talking to himself and sometimes talking to others. Trying to make sense and puzzle out the unfathomable. Since there is no right way to grieve, all of it was welcome. All of it was perfect. This spaciousness let all grieve in their own ways.
- Enroll Everyone: From time out of mind women have been the central support systems for events like these. And this was no exception. Food appeared from nowhere to feed a crowd of 50 (for days!), caregivers were rotated with symphonic perfection, rides got coordinated, calls made, and tasks assigned. Everyone who wanted a role got one, which made for an involved, engaged, committed group. Many of these women work together, planning events and putting on conferences throughout the year. Their flow with each other is long established, each one having gifts and stepping into roles that fit them best. The men too stepped into pivotal positions as keepers of the fire that didn’t die for the next four days, as builders of the coffin, as keepers of the sacred smudge to send the grief to the heavens. Even though we live in the same community, mostly our individual lives and households are separate. But during these days the flow was effortless, the gears turned, and all things got attended to. And best of all, we did it together, a sense of deepening with each other in the midst of and because of the task at hand.
- Exist Between the Worlds: One of the greatest gifts of all was the opportunity to step out of ordinary reality into non-ordinary reality. Maybe it was because these days spanned a weekend, or maybe everyone cleared their schedules, but for four days, time seems to have stopped. Folks came and went from the central location of the fire circle and altar spaces. Villagers put things aside and devoted time to being present, grieving, serving, and tending. It created a ritual container that allowed the mystical to emerge. We were cocooned in the deepest of ways.
- Tend the Fire: During our three days together in ceremonial space, the fire never went out and the Rowan’s body, lovingly laid in altar space, was never left alone. This created a container of immense safety and trust. Most of the caregivers were able to sleep some and everyone got a chance to rest. Our homes are close to each other, so people drifted in and out all through those days. Yet whenever anyone arrived, there was wood burning, sacred smoke spiraling, and someone to hold space for grief. It was the most sacred of environments in which to drop in to the experience of the moment.
- Encourage Public Grieving: Getting all of the support systems in place would have been less fulfilling if we didn’t have access to the heart of the grief, which was contained in Rowan’s parents and family. Had they been different people, they might have gone away, seeking privacy and protection. That would have been a fine choice, but it would have left the community to grapple separately. Given who they are, they grieved right in the middle of everything and everyone. They gave us that immense gift. Being part of that process was incredibly magical. There was no pretense, no masks, no pleasantries. Just pure, raw, and full-on grief in plain sight. It was an honor to touch it, feel it, see it, and share it. They led the way and we supported. And we grieved. All of us. Being witness to such real human experience took us all to altered space. It alchemized everything around it.
- Bring the Traditions Together: One of our community tenets is “To encourage an atmosphere in which diverse spiritual practices can thrive.” Our group holds a wide range of spiritual beliefs and they all came together in such a beautiful way during these days of grieving together.
- The Dagara tradition informed the altars, the teachings of our ancestors, the welcoming attitude towards the grief process, and the idea that no one grieves alone.
- The Mayan tradition was woven in the body preparation, the storytelling, and the corn that had been grown for Rowan’s birth and was incorporated into every aspect of the ceremony.
- The Lakota tradition informed the fire circle and the ongoing smudge smoke of cedar which was present throughout the three days;
- The Buddhist tradition informed the body preparation and the deep honoring of Rowan’s life and death.
- The Wise Woman tradition informed us all to be in our bodies and our emotions, and to deeply nourish each other.
- The Hindu tradition informed the harmonium, chants, and ritual songs.
- The midwifery tradition informed the words to the songs that were sung.
We are blessed to be alive at this time in history when these esoteric mystical traditions from around the world, which have been hidden and guarded since time out of mind, are now so blessedly available to us. We saw these deep truths blended here in the best possible way, none in conflict and all in concert.
- Open the Gates with Song: At one point, two days into the grieving process, two talented women neighbors broke out the instruments—harmonium and djembe—and played for hours. They were in the middle of the altar space, surrounded by villagers who were either grieving or supporting others who were grieving. A nearby pile of teenage girls supported each other, learning from those around them. The chant wove and circled, taking us all deeper than we thought possible.
Mother of my heart , mother of my soul, sweet mother Mary, she’s calling us home.
So take my hand, we’ll walk this together.
Let go of this illusion, this fear of separation, nothing can hide the light that we are.
She says you’re ready now, ready now, ready now, ready now, my sweet child.
She says you’re holy now, holy now, holy now, holy now. Yes you are.
Love is the key, turn it and see, it’s right there inside you.
At one point during the chanting, Rowan’s mama came in and sat in front of the grief altar, surrounded by the music and beautiful lyrics that seemed to be encouraging Rowan towards the great beyond and surrounding us all with deep love. The heartbroken and grief-stricken mother was immediately surrounded by 30 people, rocking with the music, crying, and holding her as she wailed. The music crescendoed and so did the group. There was not a dry eye in the house. We were transported to someplace so cathartic, and so ecstatic, that most of us now speak of it with reverence and disbelief. It was wild and earthy and magical and transforming. Of the people in that room that night, we will never be the same.
- Grieve Together: In the Dagara tradition, no one grieves alone. The moment someone goes to the altar to grieve, someone is behind them: sometimes gently with no touch, sometimes a hand placed gently on their back, and sometimes in a full-on body hold. The intention is to be present with each other, to offer support, and to honor these beloved traditions of our Dagara teacher, who tells us that this is so. In the process we train ourselves, despite our cultural upbringing to the contrary, to move closer to each other in the midst of difficult things. In the process we also trigger our own grief, find our own healer, and grow community—right there on the floor in front of the altars.
- Honor the Caregivers: It has been calculated that 2000+ hours of service went into making those days as sacred as they were. So many people dropped in, without question, to the tasks at hand. Some tasks were mundane and some were profound, but all were necessary. As the days and then the weeks passed, we honored each other with appreciation and support, words of encouragement and acknowledgement. Life went on and normalcy crept in, but we were forever changed by the immensity of what we had done.
Between the Veils
The result of these ingredients was an other-worldly experience: a coming together, in unity, of our entire community to create something not only important but beautiful and healing. I’m sure it’s rare to use the word ecstatic when describing a wake and funeral, especially of a young child taken suddenly. But it was exactly that.
On Monday, the day of Rowan’s funeral, 100 or more people showed up at our village who hadn’t been there during the weekend. They came to honor the parents, the village, and the impossible tragedy that no doubt troubled and unnerved them. Upon arrival, they looked stunned and stricken and shocked. They didn’t know what to say or what to do. It was clear that they cared but it was also clear that they hadn’t had the opportunity to integrate as we had. After our weekend together, we had metabolized much of the grief. We had purged much of the horror. We had asked the hardest questions. We touched the center of the grief. And we had done it together.
Our Best Selves
Many of us move to community because of a deep longing for a oneness of experience. Ecovillages are the place where we get to practice. And it’s becoming apparent over the years that where we let ourselves be informed by the wisdom of indigenous cultures, we relax. The richness, clarity, solidity, and certainty of these practices inform our actions and let us turn off our worry, just a little, and move into a rightness of being and into existential ease. This in turn allows our leadership to emerge and our hearts to take over. As we continue to build our lives together and create a model of possibility for our nearly ruined world, these sacred days allowed us to add important threads to the fabric of our community. It will be the new high bar of what’s possible—a glimpse towards our very best selves.
There’s no doubt that Rowan’s parents are on a difficult journey for years to come. They will likely go into spiritual valleys that none of us can touch or even imagine. The reckoning will be arduous. But if they are setting off on a canoe journey across the ocean of their grief, we’ve pushed them off in a very good way.
Postscript: It has been three years since Rowan’s passing. Rowan’s parents have been in the deepest and darkest of places as they struggled to continue living beyond the tragedy of losing their child. Much of that they had to do alone. They are beginning now to emerge topside into more active roles in the world, having integrated much of the pain. They continue to grieve but are also still surrounded by the community who celebrated Rowan’s birth, life, and death―together. Community members who were involved in the weekend refer to it as the moment when our community, then 22 years old, was initiated into a higher level of connection, intention, and integrity. Rowan’s death, while unwelcome, served as a significant blessing to so many of us.
Postscript regarding photos: Since Rowan’s death, we’ve had four more deaths in our community. All were elders. Three died at home and all four were tended and buried at home. It’s been an unfolding process of receiving and embracing death and all its blessings. The burial and funeral photos herein are part of Kimchi Rylander’s death process. Kimchi was much beloved in our community and felt strongly about using her death process as an educational opportunity. You can track the journey here on the Positive Deathing by Kimchi Facebook group. She was buried on her 57th birthday on February 20, 2017.
(First written May 2016; postscript added April 2019; photo postscript added July 2019.)
Lee Warren lives at Earthaven Ecovillage near Asheville, North Carolina in the great southeastern forest. She helped to found, design, and build an off-grid, hand-built, CoHousing Neighborhood and five-acre pasture-based cooperative farm at Earthaven Ecovillage. She is also the founder of SOIL, School of Integrated Living, which teaches organic agriculture, regenerative systems, and community living. She is an educator, herbalist, writer, conscious dying advocate, and food activist with an avid interest in rural wisdom and sustainable economics.