Absence as Presence

When I was young(er) and I lost something, the instant I realized said thing was no longer in my possession I immediately spiraled into an obsessive panic. I felt the urge to FIND the thing and to find it NOW. If, after wildly riffling through all my belongings and scouring my immediate surroundings I did not find the thing, I widened the range of my search. I probed every possible nook and cranny and even occasionally interrogated innocent bystanders to see if they had seen or taken the thing. If still I had no luck and saw that I would be forced to accept the fact that my precious thing was indefinitely gone, I would move into Phase II of the Lost Things Mania: REPLACE THE THING. I would look for the quickest and cheapest way – quick being more important than cheap – to get a new pen or pair of sunglasses or piece of jewelry. You see, what I really wished was to erase from memory the very idea that that thing had ever gotten lost in the first place.

Moon Art WatercolorThinking back on all that has been learned and lost these past two years since I found out I was pregnant with Rafa, it becomes clear that my old way of relating to lost things is simply no longer feasible or healthy. Yet occasionally, when I have the wherewithal to see myself in daydreams and wayward thoughts I notice that I’m still hoping for another pregnancy, another go at this. Obviously, a baby is not a pencil or a pair of sunglasses. I know that nothing will ever “replace” Rafael or Ramona, nor fill the gaping holes that their deaths have left in my life. And yet, I remember that with Ramona I wrote that: “I felt somewhat vindicated by this new pregnancy. Subconsciously, by conceiving again, I was proving that I could and would be a mother to a live baby.” I can now see how I was subconsciously indulging some of those old patterns around ‘replacing that which is lost’ when Ramona came.

And still, neither of them is here with us. They are absent. Their absence is a huge presence in my life. I am learning and observing the way that the absence of something can have such a massive impact on our lives. Whether that thing is time or love; a certain kind of relationship or your livelihood; the life you believed you were meant to live or babies never destined for this world. I’m trying to learn how to knit a relationship with this absence by not denying it, by leaning into it and by getting to know it intimately. Over the Day of the Dead this year, I had a painful and moving opportunity to do just that.

For the first time in 10 years my husband and I made the decision to spend the Day of the Dead away from Oaxaca. We were at a weeklong gathering of the Ecoversities Alliance near Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. The network is made up of many hundreds of individuals, initiatives and communities exploring alternative paths of learning within the primary context of higher education and beyond. I knew that there would be many incredible people gathered, some old friends and surely many new and inspiring folks. At the same time, I was not at all sure about being away from home during Muertos this year. It felt destabilizing and scary. Yet I chose to go. We packed up Rafa’s blanket, the photos of Yeyo’s mom, our grandparents and friends and deceased children, and the little cards with the names of other babies that have died.

It was no surprise that the subject of death was present throughout the week. The organizers of the gathering had intentionally chosen the dates to coincide with el Día de los Muertos. There was space created to share stories about our relationship with death and grief. We created artistic renditions of our deceased ancestors (of origin and choice). Together, on October 31st we built a most spectacular collaborative altar in the Michoacán style, honoring it all. Not surprisingly, the co-creation had its challenges. Many Mexicans had different ideas about the holiday, what it means and the rites involved in honoring our dead. Many altar-builders had very specific ideas about the way it should be done and what should (and should not) be included. There was an accidental altar fire that burned a drawing of our collective roots. It is all very tender, this business of living and dying. The altar reached into our hearts and plucked at sensitive strings. We even quarreled and got a bit grumpy with one another.


In the end, the shrine was stunning. The moment all the candles were lit and the arcs of marigolds and palm fronds in place, an overwhelming wave of sadness took me. I shook and sobbed on Yeyo’s shoulder. I wailed. I said it last year and I’ll say it again: it is heart-wrenching to have to put your children on an altar for the dead.

Some people that I didn’t know tried to comfort me with words and physical touch. I did not care for this. I did not want to be soothed, or made to feel better. I wished to be down in my wild sorrow. To feel it. To grieve. After some time, one of our local hosts mentioned that the Day of the Dead is a time for celebration and joy. Although our loved ones are no longer with us on this plane, we are honored to be able to receive them and rejoice in their presence for this one day of the year. I know this and have felt the presence of my dead on many previous occasions. Yet this year, in that moment, I was only aware of the absence of Rafa and Ramona. So I said that… perhaps with a little defensiveness or even anger. I shared with the group, as we gazed at our ofrenda, that the Day of the Dead can also be full of mourning and sadness and that this is what I was feeling: sorrow for the absence of my babies. Something I feel daily in my womb, in my home and in my heart.

Following my sharing there was silence. Honoring. Then maybe a song or a prayer. And another voice: one expressing joy and gratitude for the opportunity to engage in this powerful ritual, to honor our ancestors for all that they were and all that they gave us, including this life. Again, silence. Prayer. Chanting. It was deeply powerful to feel witnessed and held in community in my cradle of grief. And to witness and behold all of the other feelings, holy moments, magic and mystery of those hours by the altar. Together, we are able to hold more.


I had the fortune of attending Entering the Healing Ground, a grief workshop and ritual with Francis Weller a few weeks ago. One of the questions that arose for me during those two intense days together was: What shall I do with all of the love that I have for my unborn (and never-to-be-born) babies? My first response was that I should offer that love to other parents whose children have also passed away. My second response was that I should give it to myself. Someone later suggested that I could still give that love to Rafael and Ramona. I know that is true and that I do. I am still loving them so much. Yet it seems to me that there is a big difference between loving someone or something that is present, that is here, and loving someone or something that is absent. I’ve heard that grief “is all the love you want to give, but cannot… [that] grief is just love with no where to go.”* And maybe this is why my love for my no-longer-with-us children is sometimes expressed as grief. There are so many kinds of love.

What is clear is that absence has a special quality of presence, a texture, a taste. We can choose to be aware of those feelings, to stay with them. So absence is not the same as “absencing” (a term taken from Theory U which has to do with disconnecting from what is occurring on every level, a closing of the mind, heart and will which leads to denial, blame and destruction). There is some beauty and some gift in the emptiness here with me. However, as I send out the first invitations to co-create a circle of mothers whose babies have died, I realize that our society often prefers to “absence” death, especially this kind of “unfathomable” death. Perhaps this is why I love el Día de los Muertos. It’s a moment to put death in the center, in a ceremonial, reverent and open way without judgment about the many feelings that arise for those who are bereaved.

Ursae Majoris_ Photo Exhibit

* Jaime Anderson
Photos by Aerin Dunford, Sierra Allan and Úrsula Hierro.

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