Published on August 4th, 2023 | by Anna Castaneda Rojas


Madre and the Ritual of Grief

My suegra speaks an indigenous Aztec language, Nahuatl, as well as Español. I write “speaks” because in Mexico, the country where my husband Adrian, her son, was born, the dead are speaking. The word for death in Nahuatl is miquiztli, and the word for grief doesn’t have a direct translation. So, when Covid took my suegra, the only word we could find to fill up our grieving home was chípil, a palabra that might be translated to “sadness,” though not directly. Chípil is an action word, a word that implores the listener to mourn deeply with you, to sit with you. This is a plea that begs to be held, and to be listened to profoundly. “Siento ‘chípil,” Adrian would say, and I understood that losing his mother was akin losing a piece of his whole self. He needed someone to catch the sorrow that was spilling out of the cracks.

I have been an apprentice to grief from a young age, and in the narrative of my own life, I had decided it is better perhaps to lose people when you’re young. Losing loved ones as a child made life traumatizing, but it made the soul resilient. So much so that when Adrian felt chípil, I could feel it too, I could hold it in my hands and carry that space for him. In my own family when death arrives on the doorstep, my Jewish heritage instructs us to cover our mirrors and smudge dirt in our hair. Some families sit low to the ground, sometimes on cardboard boxes when a loved one passes. At the age of twelve, when my father passed away, I understood that this tradition, which lasts for seven days, sitting shiva, exists because we, the mourners, should understand that death is uncomfortable. In grief one should not care about physical appearance. Instead, the doors of the home stay unlocked so that visitors may come to sit and say goodbye. Shiva is ritual, and in death, ritual is everything. Ritual is the stitching of an open wound. Ritual offers surrender.

my suegra’s ofrenda

Adrian left his small village in Mexico at the age of thirteen. He went to work, travelling to Encenada from Puebla, so that he could sell tacos to American tourists visiting the Pacific Coast.  After two years, Adrian was able to visit his village once more at the age of fifteen before traveling to El Norte, or as some people call it, El Otro Lado, the other side. Everything on the other side promised a better life.

“Sometimes those promises are empty,” Adrian says one night after work, his hands holding his bowed head, “and sometimes the promises do bring a new life, and then the old life slips away.”

Delfina. My suegra’s name is Delfina. She married one of the most handsome men in her village, birthed seven children, went to the local church in the pueblo, and saw four grandchildren born in Mexico and knew three American grandchildren from el otro lado by speaking to them through invisible telephone wires that sailed the love in her voice from one country to another. When our first child, Helen, was born, Delfina sent me a traditional rebozo handmade in Puebla. Rebozos are what the village women in Puebla use to carry their babies. It was grey with white thread, and it smelled like a warm embrace, a blessing for what was to come. Every Monday, on his day off from work as a line cook, Adrian called his Madre.

“Hola Ma,” he would say sitting on the couch sipping his coffee, our three children running around him.

“Hola mi hijo,” Hello my son.

Their conversations always ranged from how many chickens had hatched in the backyard, to who got married in the pueblo, who was coming to el otro lado, who was pregnant, who opened a new store in town, who was having a quinciñera, a wedding, a baptism, a funeral. The last topic was always about money.

“Mi hijo,” my suegra would say, “Tu Papa necesita dinero.” My son, your father needs money.

“Dinero, dinero, dinero,” Adrian would grit his teeth and draw invisible circles on his thigh with his pointer finger.

“I don’t know what my father does with all the money!” He would tell me after he hung up the phone, “it’s like water through his fingers. My mother used to go without eating to feed us and now my father has money and it’s gone by the end of the week.” In the same breath he would then add, “I miss the pueblo.”  

What Adrian’s mother never told him was how sick she was getting. Diabetes had ravaged her eyes and she was going blind. She could no longer see her chickens in the backyard. She could no longer see her grandchildren in front of her.

Escucho tu mundo alla,” I hear your world over there, she’d say. Delfina’s voice was soft.

“Abuelita,” Helen, our four-year-old would say, “we all live in the same world.” And my suegra would laugh, knowing better than anyone that this just wasn’t true.

my suegra with her grandchild

It’s December of 2021 and we have all three babies strapped in their car seats and we are stuck in New York City traffic trying to make it to the Apple store in Manhattan. It’s dark and raining. The roads look like thick black licorice sticks. We have decided to venture out into the city, a rare treat as Covid still reigns supreme in New York. Adrian’s cell phone rings. It’s a Monday.

“Bueno,” I am driving because it’s Adrian’s turn to be the snack police for the kids and entertain them on our journey out of Brooklyn.

“Sí?” Adrian inhales.

If I could visually describe grief, it would look like a brown paper lunch bag being crumpled with half a tuna fish sandwich inside, and an oil spot on the bottom. Grief, at the edge of sorrow, is like a whole body bending and yet never quite breaking in half. As soon as the voice on the other end of the phone begins to speak, Adrian’s bent body begins to shake. Usually, a composed and introverted man, my husband sobs. Huge red marks show up on the back of his neck, drool falls from his mouth. Our small children are introduced, for one of the first times, to the raw human experience of what it is to lose someone, of what it means to watch one of your parents lose someone. The children are introduced to the shattering of a human heart, the fracturing of the spirit. They, too, are now disciples of grief.

“Mami, why is Papi crying?” Helen asks as she leans forward to try to reach her Papí in his seat.

“Abuelita, my love, something happened with Abuelita,” I say this as I take my hand from the steering wheel and rub Adrian’s back as he shakes.

In 2020 the United States witnessed the ravaging of community and communication. In one of the richest countries in the world we suffered together and yet, all alone. There was no ritual other than locking ourselves inside and crumbling. Simultaneously, on the other side of the tortilla curtain, my suegra went blind, and a year later she caught the virus in her chest like a bullet and grasped the bony hand of La Muerte.

In San Antonio Alpanocán, Puebla, where Adrian’s family lives, the villagers have everyone say their goodbyes as soon as the person dying leaves their body. The priest on the other end of the phone instructs Adrian to speak. “Te amo, Mami. Ahora estás en paz. Ahora ya no sufrés.” I love you Mami. Now you are at peace. Now you don’t suffer.

The funeral is the next day and Adrian watches through a Facebook video call in horror as three young village boys who have been paid to dig a grave in the earth, lower his mother’s casket into the ground. They throw bags of Delfina’s clothes on top of her. This, too, is tradition: to take things of value with you into the next world. What Adrian is horrified by is how messy it all looks. Teenage boys wearing old Nike sneakers and ripped t-shirts are digging a grave. Black garbage bags full of his mother’s old clothing are being strewn about. The video has no sound and at one point all he can see are people’s feet.

“I thought I left all of this behind,” he puts his phone away unable to hear the procession and he goes into the bedroom to lie down. “I thought this was all so far away.”

Grief is tricky in the way that once it arrives, it never really leaves. It changes, and nothing gets easier. Things only transform and get different. Three weeks after the funeral Adrian speaks to his oldest sister on the phone. She is in his father’s house in the pueblo in his mother’s old room.

“Hermano,” she laughs, “You’re not going to believe this.”

Que pasó?”

“Mami has boxes of brand-new clothes here. They are all new, some of them with the tags still on them. She even has brassieres.”

Adrian laughs, he tells me that his mother never once wore a bra, not even at a party.

“I don’t believe you,” a smile lifts the corners of his mouth.

“I’m serious!” His sister rummages through the boxes sending Adrian screen shots of sparkly evening gowns and high heeled shoes.

“What did she do with all those clothes? Why did she buy them?” Adrian paces around the living room.

“Because,” his sister sends a picture of a plastic tiara, “she wanted to feel like a queen.”

“You mean, she dressed up in new clothes in her room but never wore them outside?”

“Yeah, I think so. Why else would she have this stuff?”

“That’s insane,” The static in the phone cuts in, as Adrian watches our children dance around the living room, imagining universes we can’t comprehend.

“Hermana,” he continues into the phone still watching the children, “siento chípil,” he whispers, and a sob that seems as if it’s been holding on for a long time escapes his throat. “Siento chípil,” he sobs again, “siento chípil.” The children run like sparks of wildfire to embrace him. They give him respite by shoving their chubby hands in his face, grabbing his cheeks as he sobs. Our children, in their tiny, short-lived, singular experiences, create something new. They weave his sorrow into butterfly wings.

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About the Author

Anna Castaneda Rojas (formerly Anna Keller) is a Brooklyn born writer, teacher, and activist. As a mother of three she feels that finding her authentic voice after motherhood is a crucial part of her growth as a spiritual being on this planet. She lives with her husband and three children in the County of Kings, and she is currently at work on a fiction novel about Jewish/Mexican cultural identity and La Muerte.

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