At my mother's funeral, a woman I knew from church walked right up to me and said, "It's the shits."
I didn't like this woman, and her crude comment sort of offended me, but it had memorable punch and clarity. It stood out among the kind but hesitant, uncomfortable-with-horror responses.
Besides, it was almost physically true:
after I'd seen the mattress my mother'd shot herself on, I was violently ill all night.
My culture isn't comfortable with suffering and grief. Our gods are the Efficiency Experts. We worship productivity and optimism. Our condolence cards say stuff like, "Remember the happy times" and equivalents of "You'll get over it."
We get three days off work for the death of a relative. An immediate relative.
Where does our grief go?
Does it wash away, like too much Vitamin C? Or does it get stored in our fatty tissue, like DDT?
I look around and I wonder, is it part of our madness?
Condolence--giving the proper weight to seeing and caring for grief--is key to the Iroquois story.
Hundreds of years ago, wars were eating the nations up. A prophet called Dekanawida, the Peacemaker, tried to bring unity. He found Hiawatha wandering in the wilderness, driven mad with grief over the death of his three daughters.
With a strand of sacred beads and words of condolence, the Peacemaker healed Hiawatha.
They teamed up, like Jesus and Woodrow Wilson or something.
The duo was blocked by a powerful sorceror named Tadodaho. He was responsible for the death of Hiawatha's daughters. Hate had twisted Tadodaho's body and threaded snakes through his hair. So they went to him and cured him.
Imagine the Dalai Lama and Jon Stewart curing ... I don't know. Sarah Palin?With the sacred beads and condolence, they untwisted Tadodaho's body and combed the snakes out of his hair. They asked him to be in charge of tending the council fire.
To this day, the chair of the Iroquois council is called Tadodaho and the condolence rite opens council meetings.
What grieves us?
What deforms us?
What consoles us?
A bit on the condolence ritual here.
Picture from Getty Images.