35 years

The summer that I was 17 my great aunt, whom I was very close to, died. In an anthology chapter I wrote years ago, I described her as, “the cook, the hostess, the comforter, and the keeper of all the mysterious secrets for how to do just about everything.” It was true. Her death changed the entire culture of our family, though it was easier to accept the relief death could bring her, after months of witnessing cancer claim her body.

Exactly one month later my grandfather on the other side of my family died, and exactly a month after his death a cousin my age died. Both of the latter deaths were unexpected and sudden. I can’t convey how eerie it was, that monthly pattern of 20-20-20, June, July, August. We all held our breath for the longest time.

Thirty-five years ago, today, my grandfather died. I can barely believe that as I type; I’ve thought of him every day. There have been deaths since, sad ones, hard ones. But nothing has been like that summer of sweeping loss.

Last year I chose to honor my these deaths in a new way. In my cosmology is the necessity of ancestralizing our dead. When the dead don’t receive appropriate death rites or they don’t die well, they must be deathwalked. As well, those rites need to include reconciliation of ancestral and collective trauma that they carried, so that they can be fully free to move on to What Comes Next, and so that the living aren’t burdened with their unprocessed trauma. I hadn’t been able to do this with these loved ones, because while I haven’t felt acute grief of their loss in a long time, I still couldn’t experience myself as A Grownup where their deaths are concerned. I decided to sit with that sense of latent grief, to see what was needed in progression to ancestralization.

In the course of completing death doula certification, a labyrinth walk was required. Into the labyrinth I took this feeling of not being able to get passed grieving the loss of my loved ones as a child. I easily spent as much time in the labyrinth with 17-year old me as I did with my feelings about my family who died that summer. When I thought of myself and how scared I was at that age, I could feel it in Body, specifically down my left side. After sitting with that sensation and allowing Body to right it in the present, I felt that my 17-year-old self had grown to my current age. I closed my eyes and mentally walked through the labyrinth. By the time I’d completed the labyrinth, I felt whole in Body and able to feel into that time of my life and stay grown.

As far as what would have helped me as a grieving teen, to be able to not stay stuck in that deep sadness–an adult who wasn’t devastated. Truly, all the adults in my family were gutted, and they stayed that way for years. It was the loss of an entire generation of my family, leaving behind reluctant parents who didn’t know how to elder. They couldn’t show up for me even enough to realize I needed support. 

In feeling that full family dynamic I was able to ancestralize my great aunt and grandfather. I was able to experience them in their Next without paralyzing sadness. Since that time, I’ve been able to sit with them regularly and catch up, spill the tea, and love deeply. I still miss them terribly, though I feel them with me any time I need to.

This photo is my grandfather when he was 18 years old, when he began working in CCC Camps, and an inset photo is his wife, my grandmother, whom I never knew. She was the sister of my great aunt, who died.


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S. Kelley Harrell, M. Div.

I’m an animist, author, deathwalker and death doula. For the last 25+ years, through Soul Intent Arts I’ve helped others to ethically build thriving spiritual paths as fit, embodied elders, who upon death become wise, capable Ancestors. My work is Nature-based, and focuses soul tending through the Elder Futhark runes, animism, ancestral healing, and deathwork. I’m author of Runic Book of Days, and I host the podcast, What in the Wyrd. I also write The Weekly Rune as a celebration of the Elder Futhark in season. Full bio.

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