Rituals of Remembrance: My Grief Journey After Papi’s Death

Earlier this year in the gritty streets of Los Angeles, I began my grief journey over the loss of my father

Grieving papi death

Photo courtesy of Heidi Lepe

Earlier this year in the gritty streets of Los Angeles, I began my grief journey over the loss of my father. Papi would look for the best deals in the hood ranging from fruta to car tires, but at the corner of La Cienega and Obama Boulevard he found one spot designated for our dry-cleaning needs. When I arrived there for alterations on an early February morning, I didn’t know grief would enter through the doorsteps with me. A sudden and disorienting feeling came over my body while the seamstress picked at the hem of my pants that day. This feeling slowed down activity all around me and I was left only to brace its moment. Little did I know, I would begin a journey learning to live with this thing called grief moving forward.

If you are familiar with grief, then you might recognize that it hits like an all-consuming wave overwhelming you from head to toe. At times it brings a nudo en la garganta while you hold back tears. Flashing memories come of you and your loved one in places where you both held special and mundane moments together. During my waves, I pretend to hear what Papi would be saying. Sometimes, I look around as my mind attempts to find, see, or hear him. Here I realize I can’t do anything, instead I am forced to stop and brace the wave in its complexity. I stop to feel. I step in my humanity and most of all, to love in my loss.

Losing a parent brings an ache for us hijas left behind. I remember expressing this once to my friend Esperanza, who is a gifted and intuitive writer, healer, and activist. I shared how much I yearned for Papi while I wailed across her knees, unable to move out of my bed one day. That day Esperanza entered into my pain as much as I allowed her in. She, along with a sacred group of women, have not only validated my grief but have become earthly spiritual guides during this difficult transition.

If you are on a grief journey like me, I will say seeking and allowing yourself to be held by a community of care will be your lifeline. I have been selective with people for this very reason, because culturally and socially people may do more harm than good with their words by invalidating the realities of our experience. It is important to recognize safe spaces and know the capacities of others in your journey. Be familiar with those who are not afraid to look into the abyss with you. Find people who can offer presence because as Esperanza would say, your grief will come out one way or another so it’s best to allow it a safe release.

Papi death mourning After attending therapy for a year, I have also learned that I cannot keep running from the sad emotions grief brings. Though there are very real reasons that keep us occupied under capitalism’s shadow and the survival mode we inherit as daughters of immigrant families, we cannot further harm ourselves by disengaging with our pain. We must continue to carve out time to process, I try to do this intentionally with accessible clinical therapy. I owe myself wellness, I am worthy of wholeness, my body is deserving of release and healing, and so is yours.

 My grief journey has not only involved emotional work but spiritual work as well. This is the beauty found in a grief that invites me into a spirituality rooted in ancestral thinking and the wisdom of bell hooks. In her book All About Love, bell hooks shares, “embracing the spirit that lives beyond the body is one way to choose life. We embrace that spirit through rituals of remembering.” We live in a disembodied capitalist society that numbs us, making it countercultural to embrace a life sensitive to the spiritual. It is even harder to explore our spirituality through colonized theologies that detach us from rituals in remembering our dead.

If you grew up in a conservative Latinx Christian church like me, then you might be familiar with how we’ve been robbed from ancestral traditions following the colonial era of the Spanish Conquest of the Americas. The colonizers who missionized us demonized cultural elements in our grief — Dia de Los Muertos, speaking to our deceased loved ones, holding space and lamenting for them. Such a view has discouraged and detached us from our grieving process and ritual. Here we are not provided a framework for the embodied practices bell hooks and our ancestors speak of, instead we are criticized and even gaslit in our grieving.

Today, I am thankful to no longer be in such shame-inducing and disconnected spaces, instead I see my grief as a powerful invitation to follow the very divine mandate to love. I am reminded by bell hooks to, “not contain grief when we use it as a means to intensify our love for the dead and dying.” Grief invites us to love deeply and love well in our remembrance, something my ancestors were not afraid of doing.

In ancient Mexico, the mythological Aztec god of duality, Ometeotl poetically once reflected, “Beyond is the place where one lies. I would be lying to myself were I to say: ‘Perhaps everything ends on this earth.’” I think it’s beautiful to imagine that our end is not here on earth. Papi believed he would be in paradise and would continue to live after dying through the promise of our faith tradition (John 11:25-26). Within both realms of our faith and ancient Mexican tradition, life continues, it does not end. This is the tender and extraordinary gift found in the mystery of grief, knowing that a loved one is gone yet their spirit lives on forever. Sometimes I wonder if Papi comes down in the form of a hummingbird in our courtyard, or through the songs of Maná and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Is he in rays of sunshine that move my sister out of despair on sunny days, or in the breeze I feel outside where he spent most of his time? I am not afraid to embrace the spirit beyond the body as my ancestors did, I am not afraid to imagine and engage with Papi after loss. “In Xochitl In Cuicatlis a Nahuatl expression that translates to “flor y canto”/ “flower and song.” This is how my ancestors in ancient Mexico processed life and death in awe and wonder.

These days I find my sacred circle of amigas acting as a gentle passage through the waves of my grief. They hold me until I break, make sure I get food on hard days, and bring good distractions in our countless unhinged group chats and nights out en el (safe) perreo. They aren’t afraid of my complex or sad emotions and for this I am grateful. 

These days I also find comfort in the wisdom of bell hooks and ancient Mexican traditions. My ancestors remembered and honored those who transitioned into eternity through altars, urns, heirlooms, locks of hair and flor y canto. They believed and engaged with our loved ones in spirit, revisiting through the rituals of remembrance. My rituals with Papi involve my pen and paper as I write poems, stories, and articles like this in honor of him, knowing he sees me and listens to the carefully curated playlist of boleros, norteñas, and Chente I dedicate to him on my drives.

My ancestors affirmed of the sanctity held in our very bones, of a holiness residing inside us that would partake in a cosmic dance with the Giver of Life when our lives would come to an end on earth. They held onto hope and love through their rituals of remembrance. It is a beautiful and hard place to continue this side of eternity, but through such a grief journey in community and with the ancestors, I can’t deny Papi lives, and I will keep on loving.

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