Four months ago, one of my favorite people in the world died.
My grandaunt lived a long life, and a hard one.
She grew up as a member of a German minority group in Hungary. When she was 12 years old, the Second World War ended, and she and her family had to pack everything they could within 30 minutes before being deported to Germany. They were forced on trains without knowing where they’d go, and had to settle in a country she was never able to call home.
For many years, she had to take care of her mentally ill mother. Then, her daughter died of cancer when she was only 30 years old. Two years later, her husband passed away. She herself battled cancer twice during her life—and won. These losses meant that she had a lot of space in her life, some of which I was honored to take up.
When I think of my grandaunt, I think of a feeling of home. A natural sense of acceptance. A safe place where little Rebekka could just be the way she was.
Without expectations, without judgment. Free.
When I think of her, I think of all the things she liked: Prinzenrolle cookies, Fanta, Rotkäppchen champagne, Nutella. I think of watching soap operas and boxing matches, playing Ludo, and Hungarian braids in my hair. I think of the brown, woolen blanket she held up to the old charcoal stove so that I could sleep wrapped up in it. I think of her loud snoring next to me in bed.
But most of all, I think of the strength that she will embody for me forever. The tumbler toy, as she called herself so beautifully.
A resilience that I was lucky enough to witness.
Ever since I first learned about the Buddhist perspective on death, it has given me solace. The Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh puts it beautifully:
“This body is not me. I am not limited by this body. I am life without boundaries. I have never been born, and I have never died. Since before time, I have been free. Birth and death are only doors through which we pass, sacred thresholds on our journey.”
I deeply believe that during our lives, our essence multiplies through everyone we impact, and that through this ripple effect, our soul stays with those we love while only our physical body leaves this earth.
I miss talking to my grandaunt. I miss seeing her face light up when she saw me, the way she smelled, her laughter, and her presence. I still dream of her. I dream of her living—and dying, once again.
But during these past months, I’ve found my own ways of honoring her by letting her keep living through me.
If you’ve lost a loved one and would like to honor their memory, perhaps some of these practices will resonate with you:
1. Continuing their customs.
When I was a little kid, my grandaunt always had a jar of cookies in the kitchen that never seemed to become empty. After she died, I asked to receive it as an heirloom and decided to continue her custom. I take pride in filling up this jar every time I expect visitors, hoping I can make them feel as welcome as she made me feel with this gesture. Continuing customs that our loved ones had during their lives can make us feel connected to them in a unique way.
2. Keep learning about them.
Even though my grandaunt was the last person to pass from this side and generation of my family, there are other ways to learn about my heritage. Reading books or going to exhibitions about the specific time of history our loved ones lived in, or traveling to the land they once inhabited, can be powerful ways to keep discovering our own lineage.
3. Making an ofrenda.
After my grandaunt died, I lit a candle and prepared (the vegan version of) one of her favorite dishes and ate it with awareness. Since my partner is Mexican, we decided to introduce the beautiful custom of having an ofrenda for Día de Muertos in remembrance of the family members he and I have lost. Dedicating a tradition to our loved ones can be a way of remembering and celebrating their lives.
4. Noticing life’s reminders.
Whenever I’m reminded of a loved one because I see a food they liked, a movie or book they appreciated, or hear the music they danced to when they were young, I pause. I take some time to remember them. These moments give us the opportunity to recall their kindness, compassion, acceptance, love, strength, or whatever else they embodied and, perhaps, passed onto us. These reminders give us a chance to commit to letting these qualities be alive within us.
May these ideas be of benefit to anyone who has lost a loved one and is grieving their absence. I send you all my love.
If you feel inspired, share in the comments some ways that help you find solace in your grief so we can learn from and support each other.
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