Holding a Vigil
“Many people who attended the three-day vigil were changed by that event, finding it a wholesome, simple and beautiful way to say goodbye to a loved one. Many people as a result went home to put in writing their request that this happen for them, or to discuss it with other members of their family. For me as his wife, it was so meaningful that I could be with him throughout this process. That he was not taken away. I could also rest when I needed to, and be with him whenever it was right. It was an important part of the grief and healing process for me, and I am so grateful we were able to do it in that way. It was also very healing for my daughter Kirsten, 16, as well as close family and friends.”
- Linda Bergh, on the vigil for her husband, Paul
The vigil is the time when the closest family members are able to sit with the body for a period of time, usually between 1 to 3 days. It is a time for family to be with their loved one in an extremely intimate way, providing an opportunity for quiet and reflection time.
A vigil provides the opportunity for the family members to sit with each other. There is time to feel emotion, whether it be grief, anger, disappointment, or even relief. A vigil creates time and space for the loved ones to make the transition into a state of mourning.
Those who vigil after death have a chance to say goodbye. A basic and healthy response in viewing the body is the immediate realization that the person they knew and loved is no longer in that body. Sitting nearby, quietly and openly, one can often feel a peace, a sense of spiritual presence, and an enhanced state of awareness.
For the person who has just died, the vigil gives space for the soul to move peacefully from the body. Many faiths believe that the soul needs this time to make a smooth transition from its longtime home. An all-day-and-night vigil (when it is practical and reasonable to do) with readings, poetry, music and prayer creates a continuous stream of human consciousness which follows the one who has made the transition. It creates an accompaniment of warmth and love for the individual adjusting to a new state of existence.
Common sense needs to be part of any decisions about the vigil. Family members may be exhausted from their exertions to be there for the loved one’s dying process. Their sleep and recovery are priorities. Friends and helpers need to be present to help schedule people to come and give support to make a vigil possible. Hopefully, food and help to look after children will be forthcoming. The family often has to make last minute funeral arrangements and decisions and needs to inform and meet relatives coming in for the funeral. But in any situation, it is helpful if there can be a quiet period of time just after death before the mortuary is called. This can be a time in which everyone can benefit.
Practicalities of Vigiling
The practice of vigiling with a body is not normally done in our society, so arrangements need to be made as well as explanations given to other family members and the community. There are many options for doing this. If you are choosing to create your own vigil, there is no set time or length, but it is recommended to have it throughout the night. Nighttime presents its own particular emotions and spiritual opportunities.
This is a time for the immediate family, and the vigil should never be more than a few people at a time. There can be shifts so that people can sleep, but the purpose is for quiet reflection and not for social activities.
Some things to do during the vigil are:
- Read sacred text/poetry.
- Listen to music/sing/play an instrument.
- Write in a journal, Draw in a sketchbook.
- Be silent.
- Feel your emotions. Be open to what the experience brings.
- Share quietly with others memories and stories about the loved one.
After the first night’s vigil, the family may wish to open their private time with the loved one to include the wider community. Visitations from extended family and friends may flow into the home, if so desired, or to the funeral home or church. Many people are better able to handle this time of public mourning if they have had time for a private vigil.
The Vigil and the Three Days After Death
by Nancy Jewel Poer, excerpt from “Living into Dying” pg. 47-49
The three days after death are a special time. In any death, the people around are changed. They are changed with sympathy, grief, shock or relief for the loved one’s release from suffering in a damaged or aged body. They can be altered from every day casualness to a new sincerity of being. We are brought closer to the spiritual world by a loved one’s death for it brings life near and makes it precious.
One could ask, “Why is it helpful to have the body present after death, and why read for the one who has died?” First, a basic and healthy response in those viewing the body is the immediate realization that the person they knew and loved is no longer in that body. This direct experience helps give finality and closure. Second, even though the spirit of the one who has just died can immediately touch the lives of loved one at far distances, there is a vitality, a soul and spiritual essence which remains near the body for about three days. Sitting nearby, quietly and openly, one can often feel a peace, a sense of spiritual presence, and an enhanced state of awareness.
Reading for the dead is really not all that unusual when we think it through. After all, it is customary to say prayers for them. Most people feel the validity of the special, touching connections across the threshold that are continued when the surviving spouse of a long marriage talks, on a daily basis, to his or her loved one in the spiritual world. Reading is merely a next step that can send eternal spiritual thoughts and concepts to the individual who has crossed over, to create a surrounding ambience for their transition. This can aid in quickening the awareness of the one that has died for the process in the spiritual world.
The point of an all day and night vigil (when it is practical and reasonable to do) with readings, poetry, music and prayer, is the creation of a continuous stream of human consciousness and caring; this stream will follow the one who has made the transition. It creates an accompaniment of warmth and spirit truthfulness for the individual adjusting to a new state of existence. Spiritual substance is built up through the natural comings and goings of the family around a death, and through the prayers and readings (which can also take place far away). Such substance can be especially tangible in the close proximity of the one who has died. Those on this side are offering up gratitude, love, devotion, human warmth, and the tenderness of human sorrowing in missing the one who has crossed. The expanding soul and spirit gives back vitality and blessing which can be full of universal wisdom. The spiritual substance in the space between becomes a mutual creation.
Friends in our community who come to this type of vigil for the first time often enter the room with some trepidation. Most come away amazed by the uplifting and soul altering space they have experienced there. They can feel something of the eternal, a peace and a blessing. The experience for many people during these three days can be a sense of living in an altered and elevated timeless state, though it may also be wrought with intense pain and loss.
Family members are benefited by being encouraged to do everything they feel they can or want to do around the death to create the setting and ceremony. When it is appropriate for them, family members who are able to move out of passivity in face of the experience, and put forth their will to meet it, even in small ways, make important first steps toward healing. When we can do this, we start to incorporate the event into our biography through our own initiative. The caring for the body can be a deeply fulfilling experience. Family members can also make phone calls, arrange flowers, find photos of the loved one’s life to display for those who come, and make a guest book. These activities will seem natural to do. These are first steps in healing that may be more easily realized when the body is present. Sometimes when it is not, the death can seem un-real.
Common sense needs to be part of any decisions about the vigil. Family members may be exhausted from their exertions to be there for the loved one’s dying process. Their sleep and recovery are priorities. Hopefully, food and help to look after children will be forthcoming. The family often has to make last minute funeral arrangements and decisions and needs to inform and meet relatives coming in for the funeral. It is obvious that friends and helpers need to be present to help schedule people to come and give support to make a full three-day vigil possible. But in any situation, it is helpful if there can be a quiet period of time just after death before the mortuary is called. This can be a time from which everyone can benefit.
During the three days after death, the one who has died is experiencing a vivid picture tableau of the life just lived. Whether the body is at home or not, as family and friends gather, the memories, the jokes, the shared stories that naturally take place at a death and the funeral become a natural support to this process. As the stories and characterizations are gathered together, they build up a picture of the individual’s life. They can listen with intention to gain a deeper understanding of the spiritual biography. They can note what age the person was then life-changing events occurred; what were the great challenges, both inward and outward, the special meetings and opportunities, illnesses and relationships, the cultural milieu. New appreciation and awareness can be possible now for us to develop a sense of the skein of destiny through which the individual’s life, with the major challenges and triumphs, and a truthful picture of what that person experiences and transformed and gave back as gifts into the lives of others can shine through the eulogy.
It is always helpful for those who have passed on, as well as those remaining, when gratitude for their presence in our lives is expressed. Hopefully, whatever ritual, service or sharing that takes place around the death will reflect the solemn and powerful aspects of being a unique spiritual human being who goes through life and death on earth, and who can continue to evolve in the spiritual world while still caring for loved ones that remain here.