I was awestruck, scrolling through photos of the eclipse on my Facebook feed, when I discovered I had to be at a funeral in a few hours.
A friend’s mother had just died. In the Islamic tradition, the deceased are buried as quickly as possible. She had passed away that afternoon and would be laid to rest before sunset. I went from the thrill of this wondrous celestial event to the sad awareness of parents getting older -- the phases of the moon, the cycle of the sun bringing to mind the shortening time we have left with our loved ones.
Nowadays, social media is how we find out about deaths among those in our wider social circles. Tragedy strikes in between first-day-of-school pictures and vacation sunsets. We get startling reminders of human fragility, of how quickly things can change. One minute we are clicking on the laughing face reaction at some silly meme, and the next click is a teardrop face on someone’s heartache.
Most of our modern communication happens via short written messages, even the most personal and tragic. A few days earlier, we had gotten word by text of another death: One of my husband’s high school friends lost his 17-year-old son after an accidental shooting.
Many of us remember when this kind of news was more commonly delivered through a phone call or a knock on the door. There are a few calls burned in my memory: the deaths of my grandparents and a best friend from high school.
In this case, the text gave us a minute to absorb the blow. When we went to that young man’s visitation a few days later, his parents had that shell-shocked look that I’ve only seen when parents have to bury a child. We offered our respects the only way we could -- by showing up, by bearing witness to their pain and praying for their healing.
I was still thinking about those grieving parents when I went to pray with yet another family, still completely raw in their own grief.
Even though the ways we hear about death are new, the ways we deal with it are very old. Mourning is our way to make peace with death. Rituals offer a chance at closure, a way to find meaning and comfort in the most difficult and painful moments.
In the space of five days, I observed Christian and Muslim funeral traditions. A few of the differences in custom were related to timing and social etiquette. The most jarring difference, however, had nothing to do with religious belief: One service marked the natural order of life when adult children lose a parent. The other was an unnatural and heartbreaking disruption of that cycle.
It made me consider: What happens when rituals bring no closure? When, instead, there is the devastation of unanswered questions? Why did a teenager get fatally shot by a friend after they found a gun in a park? Why are there so many tragic stories of senseless loss?
What happens when, instead of peace, there is searing pain that hits even more brutally when everyone leaves?
In social media, everything is instant. We look for instant gratification when we share. We react, we respond, we get validation from keystrokes. It’s an efficient and controlled way to communicate.
Mourning is messy. Grief takes its time.
It seemed that in a second, the moon blotted the sun. It blocked a brightness so intense that all we saw was a ring of fire. And then, slowly and surely, the light returned.
Reminding us that darkness doesn’t last forever.