Helena, who lives in Portugal, emailed me after her friend and colleague, Sam, thought she might be interested in a mourning and celebration circle to honour her dearest friend and partner, Pedro, who had died unexpectedly two weeks earlier. Pedro was the most important person in Helena’s life and she was at a total loss.
Helena wanted an opportunity to bring together their shared friends and colleagues from around the world including people from Portugal, Africa and Iceland to hold a memorial service.
We met online a few times to talk about what she needed and, in listening, I put forward a few possibilities and outlined the mourning and celebration circle. During this time, naturally, Helena was navigating her own loss and grief and our time together was as important as the upcoming circle with her friends.
While I created a structure to lean into on the day, there was a lot of room for spontaneity and feeling into what was needed in the moment. We agreed on the overall outline that I sent to Helena prior to the gathering and she’s given her permission for me to share it here. Helena also shares her feedback at the end of this article.
We started with a grounding practice to transition into the space online. Becoming aware of the body, breath, the physical space – the ground beneath each one of us, our connection around the world through the land, the breath. We also honoured the ancestors, those who had died and those we loved. We honoured life flowing through each and everyone one of us as we gathered. Connecting with the other guests online – we did a quick check in using the Zoom chat feature. I explained briefly what we would be doing together as, for most, this was the first time they had experienced this kind of gathering and format. This first part was scripted.
Wendy: “Welcome to this sacred space, welcome to this circle to honour the life and death of your friend and companion, Pedro.
Pedro bought two copies of the book, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals by Alexis Pauline Gumbs – one for himself and one for Helena as a birthday gift.
Helena was looking for a quote that she wanted to share into today’s gathering and found a quote from this book. When she went to look for another alternative on their many communication channels, she saw that he had sent this exact passage once to the group and once to her. It made this paragraph the perfect choice as he too, had been inspired by this reflection on relationship.
Alexis starts by writing, ‘I wonder what our sensitive edges have to teach us. What do our mortality and openness mean to the ecology we could surrender to together?’
And that’s what we gather for in this moment – to share our sensitivity and mortality in an open, honest and connected way.”
Alexis goes on to write, ‘Marine mammals live in a volatile substance whose temperature is changing for reasons not of their own making. Their skin is always exposed, they are surrounded on all sides by depth. What could enable us to live more porously, more mindful of the infinite changeability of our context, more open to each other and to our own needs?
Pacific white-sided dolphins (sometimes called ‘lags’) are social animals. They congregate with many other species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises—even seals, sea lions, and sea birds for that matter. They practice collaborative foraging and fishing. They sometimes travel in schools of thousands, or hundreds, or tens.
Within these groups though, observers have noticed a pattern. What the guidebooks call “close knit” groups of five or less dolphins within a school who seem to have made a “lasting alliance” with each other. What marks these cliques within the pod?
Actual marks. They are “heavily scarred.” Whence these scars? Are these particular dolphins’ survivors of attacks by orca, a known predator to this species? Are they survivors of tuna nets or fishing boat propellers? Or did they scar each other? Some scientists think these may all be male dolphins. Have they fought each other and nonetheless decided to be best friends? Maybe they are simply elders who have been hurt by all of the things I mentioned and yet are wise enough to keep each other close.
I wonder why sometimes we congregate with those who have been hurt in ways that look similar to how we have been hurt. About how we sometimes name identities and even whole organizations based on our scars. And how sometimes those of us with similar vulnerabilities are the ones who scar each other.
I wonder sometimes about what keeps us close, in a hurting world shaped by intimate violence. In a world that cuts systemically and deep.
Another thing. The scars on dolphins and whales also tell their would-be benefactors who they are. It is how observing scientists tell them apart. It is useful for getting an accurate count, for tracking behaviour across expeditions. A dolphin with scars is more likely to be known, recognized, named by the watchers. Mentioned in funding reports.
Do I do that too? Are my wounds the most convenient ways for you to know me? Why do they shape so much of how I know myself? And the whole dynamic of recognition, how does it shape and scar us?
What I know is that I was not wrong when I chose to hold you close and stay in range. I knew. I always knew we were still healing. And you could see right away that I was not perfect. You could see some piece of what the world had done. And yet, what has been done, though still not over, is not the end. And your scars are not all I know about you. And my scars are not all I want you to know.
And your name is made where life makes itself in me. And your name is medicine over my skin. And our kinship is the kind of salve that heals whole oceans. And love is where I know and do not know you. And love is where we began and where we begin.’ (end of quote)
Wendy: We can learn much from the marine mammals, the care, the connection, the fierceness and the loyalty. The author asks, ‘What could enable us to live more porously, more mindful of the infinite changeability of our context, more open to each other and to our own needs?’
In this moment, as we come together, how do we show up to the mourning and celebration? The inevitable and expected challenges of life and also the joys and acceptance without denying the pain? All the time, embraced by the ever-fluid form of the ocean, of life, of love in all its mysteries.”
I read a tribute from Tristan; a friend from Extinction Rebellion:
“Pedro. We have lost a friend, a brother, a piece of our greater body earth. It feels disturbing. I feel sadness. Pain. Too much ideas, plans and energy, unspoken, undone, unlived. Life’s short. I’d prefer to not receive this lesson. Pedro. In a short time, we grew together close. Your skill, your heart and faith for fairness, for love have pushed you through many brave zones, far further than many others are able to go. I love you brother. And I miss you. Take good care. We do! See you next time”
While listening deeply, I was also noting key words as people spoke and then I improvised a tribute using the reflections and the overall feelings that were present in our time together.
Wendy: “Remembering Pedro.
We acknowledge the pain and strangeness of this mourning and that his death has been a huge shock and still feels surreal. There are lost plans and dreams; there is the ache of missing him. The looking for messages and wanting to connect and share a story with him. It is a time of heartbreaking loss and grief. Grief that feels uncontrollable and, at times, exhausting.
You will remember his voice, the slowness and choice of his words. His calm, attentive and caring way for others. Remember how he brought out the young person in you, the joy, the humour, the passion for life, for truth and for being a rebel.
Remember his boundless energy, no matter where he was. Pedro could be messy, intense and chaotic and yet also be incredibly organised and come up with great suggestions. He could be cheeky and playful; and was always in for deep connections and integrity. He valued inclusivity and was always ready to answer questions and be engaged within the group and also individually. He was questioning everything and wanted to do things differently… for the better.
You will always hold your memories of Pedro, close and dear. You will smile when you recall his love of pizza, cookies and brownies. You will both laugh and cry at the good and the hard times that you have shared. You will lean into what he has taught you – to live with integrity, be bold, be a rebel and take action – this will keep his flame alive in you. You will remember his beautiful smile, his energetic resourcefulness and beautiful presence.
The seedlings that Sam, Pedro’s friend, has nurtured in the tree nursery in Kenya will be planted in memory of Pedro; growing strong and tall, providing shade for the generations to come.
Pedro’s legacy is rich – the inspiration, love and friendship he has shared with you, his strength, his passion and his sense of kinship. He was a rebel of the very best kind.
Pedro was greatly loved, and will be greatly missed.
Pedro, Rest in Power. Rest in Peace.”
I offered a guided grounding, loving kindness practice before offering the close to the gathering. I also encouraged the people present to reach out for support to each other and, if needed, to professional services.
Wendy: “Go gently dear friends with your grief. This is sacred time. Connect to the earth, to your breath, to your kin. Feel the ebb and flow of mourning and celebration and their interconnectedness to all of life in the many cycles that we are at the effect of.
Lean into love, kindness, care and your community and sense of belonging. You are not alone. Reach out when you need to.
And as Alexis Pauline Gumbs wrote, ‘Love is where we began and where we begin.’
May love and peace be with you.”
“Being part of the mourning and celebration circle facilitated by Wendy is an experience that I will never forget. It was a bit of closure in the midst of all the emotional chaos this loss threw me into. By doing it online, it allowed me to connect, support and be supported by people who were also grieving the same loss in different parts of the world. This way, I didn’t feel so alone in my own grief, and found solace in the fact that one of the most important people in my life was being cherished and remembered not only by me.
Wendy guided us through the whole experience with care and reassurance, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so safe and held in a virtual space, nor physical space, for that matter. Wendy’s soothing presence was crucial for everyone to feel comfortable with sharing, knowing they wouldn’t be judged or receive unsolicited advice, which happens a lot when opening up during these hard times. Her wonderful facilitating skills made every moment of silence, every collective breath, every remark appear right when it was needed.
I’m so grateful for having had the opportunity to experience such a space, so distinct from how our society normally deals with, or actually ignores, these still taboo topics of death and grief.”
Helena – Portugal
A Message from Sam“I am privileged and very grateful to have experienced two mourning and celebration circles of colleagues who passed on which you facilitated. In both circles, I experienced a quality of presence that was reassuring and safe. I sensed a general ease from the other participants as well being invited to share the pain and joy of losing a dear one and a work colleague.Being an African man, I do acknowledge burying my late mother, brother and a late sister who I never went to the burial due to school commitment. In both deaths, I held back the tears and pain because I am a man and needed to be strong – whatever that meant then. Fast forward to the invitation for you to support hold space in the two circles and here I am/was reassured it’s okay to cry, to let out the tears and hold the pain instead of suppressing it.The structure to share what the loss means to each participant in the circle, and what we fondly remember somehow honours the memory of a loved and dear one. Different pieces being woven together to make a whole and complete visual.I found the collective breaths after each sharing a collective healing. I easily let out the tears, safely being vulnerable in a space full of care and love.I am deeply grateful and bow to your openness to support me when the people around me expect me to hold space yet am lost for ideas and strength to be present myself. Asante Wendy, for what you bring to souls so torn by loss and at times lost on what to do such as I was, when two people left “too soon” to my shock.With tender love and care from the village as I tend the trees.Sam Odhiambo, Nairobi, KenyaMukuru Youth Peace Forum CoordinatorNVC coach at Social Innovation AcademyFacilitator for Extinction Rebellions Global Support Trainings, NVC & Centering Justice* I would like to acknowledge my teachers, Catherine Cadden and Jesse Wiens Chu, and their program, Ongo: Everyday Nonviolence where I developed the skills and understanding of mourning and celebration circles. You are most welcome to join me in an Ongo program.