As I was training to become a funeral celebrant, a little girl who I loved, and love, died. She was five years old and had been valiantly living with brain cancer for half of her life. Her name is Phoebe.
Why do I say ‘is’ and not ‘was?’ Because she lives on in the lives of her parents, her family, her friends and neighbors, and her community on an island in the Pacific Northwest. She does not walk among us; we carry her with us now. She is.
Phoebe was, and is, my teacher and my friend.
August 28, 2005 is when she was born. So today is her birthday, and I think about her parents, grandparents, family and friends even more than usual on this day.
She died on March 15, 2011. Her parents kept her at home for a three day family-directed home funeral. From there, she was taken to the local cemetery, tucked on top of a hill close to her home.
It was a test for me, braving the funeral ceremony with my broken heart, in the midst of so many broken hearts. How in the world, I wondered, would the ceremony go? We were outside, and this would be the first green burial in this little cemetery.
It was led by a funeral celebrant. I wondered who could be strong enough to do it? And could I ever be someone who could stand and deliver a ceremony for a child and her family and friends without coming undone? Could I do her justice not just in the delivery, but in the structure and flow, the wording and the holding of the space?
I didn’t know the funeral celebrant. She was a family friend. A hundred people stood in clumps in front of her on a grey March day, in the open air at the edge of a pine forest. Many were Phoebe’s friends, children. It was damp and cool, the sky was low and wet. And I will never forget what the officiant said.
She asked everyone to form a circle around the grave, to draw closer to one another. “Hold hands, hold on, don’t let go,” she said. “We need one another.”
It was awkward for a minute, the shuffling and the touching. I took the hand of my co-worker on my right and his teenaged son on my left. It was a terrible, horrible few moments. Everyone, I am sure, felt as though it was all they could do not to fall to their knees in anguish.
A circle is a powerful thing. We were joined in our grief, encircling the plain wooden casket and the small open grave, and the shattered parents in the center.
We could see across and around the circle. All around us in the open sky, we could feel the cool air and hear the birds in the trees. We could feel the flow of life in the hands and arms around us.
And then, a feeling went around the group as we stood in silence, witnesses to the coffin and parents and grave in the center, seeing our fellow mourners across the circle also witnessing, standing together. No one would fall, because we were holding each other up.
There were many tears, as broken hearts stopped being alone and isolated, and came together to connect, to recognize and to begin to create shelter for everyone who carried Phoebe with them. It felt…it was, comforting.
I cry now, remembering.
Today I am a funeral celebrant. I have been that officiant at the grave of a child. I have called on all my training, my mentors and my helpers to help me hold the space and words and to do honor to the child and her family and friends. So far, this has always been outside in the open air, in a circle.
I put them in the middle, child and parents, and encompass them with the circle of their community. We hold hands and we look into each other’s faces. We hold each other up. And we say her or his name and agree to keep saying it. It seems like the only way to get through it.
Just the way Phoebe, my teacher and my friend, taught me.
Happy Birthday Dear Little One. We miss you.