I live and work as a Chaplain in Melbourne, Australia. We have consistently been voted one of the most livable cities in the world, but 2020 has been hard on us as it has on everyone across the globe. In January our city watched in horror as an estimated 3 billion animals burned in bushfires up and down the East Coast of Australia. Smoke filled our lungs and neighbours began to talk more openly about climate change depression and anxiety. It was difficult to relax and enjoy the summer: grief hung in the smoke saturated air like a wet blanket on our spirits.
Then, in February, the global coronavirus pandemic hitched a ride with some wealthy families returning from a ski holiday in the northern hemisphere and by March the city was ‘shut down’. Never in my lifetime have I experienced the loss of personal freedom. My plans for the future went out the window, my hopes and dreams for my children’s entry into the workforce drifting off into the ether. We were ordered by law to stay at home for months on end.
Whilst our pandemic “numbers” have been comparatively low in world terms, our second wave came early with outbreaks in Aged Care facilities across Melbourne – 44 in one center alone in the space of two weeks. Our loved ones were locked in – in their individual homes and in residential facilities – and hundreds of families have had to say farewell their elders over Zoom.
For several years now, Chaplains in my organisation have included a special service to commemorate the Christian festivals of All Saints (1st November) and All Souls (2nd November) in our Aged Care residential program. In 2020, considering the year that has been, Chaplains extended the All Saints and All Souls rituals to a whole week of remembrance, grief and loss – particularly hosting grief rituals for our treasured Aged Care staff.
Grief is always liminal, but the complex, compound, ambiguous grief of 2020 is profoundly so.
Yes, people have died this past year, but we have lost so much more than human saints and souls. In 2020 we have lost whole ecosystems, we have lost longed-for futures, we have lost trust in organising systems (in our organisation, in the Aged Care sector, in government and in democratic society globally); we have lost access to our traditions, we have lost access to hugs and tender touches on the arm with colleagues, and more, and more. Grief has compounded upon itself with both tangible and ambiguous losses and there are days where it weighs heavily upon us.
All Saints and All Souls in a day in the Christian calendar, but in 2020 it is playing host to the human need for liminal space, in the experience of death and difficulty. In 2020 it is a ritual of shared, complex grief and loss.
The traditional Anglican All Saints and All Souls service has a humble, somber tone, as the names of all those who have died in the past year – all the saints – are read out loud one by one. Cushioned in silence and wordless prayer, the ritual preferences the hidden, the unknown, the universality of all that lives and dies, and yet is grounded in the particular – the recalling of each and every one.
Through-out the week of All Souls and All Saints, a minute’s silence is being held in every Aged Care Team Meeting: a moment to suspend normal business and move into the possibility of simple sensing. There are zoom ‘listening circles’ where staff are given the chance to share a story of grief that has been weighing on them, to be listened to without interruption or an obligation to solve anything. And an online Memory Board is heaving with photos and messages from staff, participants, residents and families remembering those and that which has been lost this past year.
Each ‘event’ is designed to reflect the quality of open-space that is characteristic of liminality: direct sensory awareness rather than logic thinking, stepping out of one’s role in the system to meet as human beings, meeting in individuality and particularity, and a business agenda is replaced by creativity, beauty, art and silence.
There is a sense that the whole of 2020 has been a global liminal event, where the old has gone and the new is as yet inconceivable. But liminality is liminality, whether we experience it on a global scale or in the intimacy of our own inner world sitting in contemplative discipline. In safely held liminal spaces we can learn the skills of letting go, we can breathe or sigh or cry out that which is gone, we can ride the wave of chaos making small choices which build towards a reimagined life.
The world needs reimagined rites and rituals of liminality to equip and resource us for this epoch. The rites and rituals themselves must be transformed by the experience of stripping away, of letting go, of bold experimentation and determined egalitarianism. In my little corner of the world, All Saints and All Souls: A week of remembrance, grief and loss was an invitation to be lovingly held in a liminal moment, in recognition of a very liminal year.