Grief and toilet paper

I just realized that five years ago tonight I participated in one of the saddest, holiest, most meaningful rituals of rolling trees with toilet paper that I’ve ever seen. Let me explain.

At Wake Forest University, it’s the tradition for students to roll the trees of the main quad when there is a significant athletic victory. It’s a tradition that head basketball coach Skip Prosser enthusiastically embraced. Speaking to students who were camping out before a big game, he said, “I’ll see you at the quad;” meaning, of course that they were going to bring home a win.

Five years ago today Skip took a lunchtime run around the track on campus then went to his office, where he collapsed and died of a major heart attack. Skip was a rare treasure and the university community was stunned and heartbroken. The news started spreading: We’re rolling the quad tonight in Skip’s memory. No one could think of a better tribute.

I’ll never forget the experience. People gathered in small, hushed groups. I’ve never seen so many people strive for perfection in tree rolling. They wanted to get it right for Skip. What’s usually a raucous ritual became holy ground.

Our grief needs rituals. Ritual provides the structure that helps us move through days in which everything has been turned upside down and nothing is familiar anymore. Ritual provides a safe container for our emotions. Rituals give us something to do in a time when we are helpless to do the one thing we most want to do: bring our loved one back, hale and hearty.

People sometimes say, “I don’t want a funeral because I don’t want a bunch of people being sad.” First of all, you don’t get a say in how other people feel about your death. They get to have their own feelings. Secondly, if you don’t want things to be the way that it was when your grandpa died, then plan something different. Plan a party if you want. But allow your loved ones the grace of ritual.

If you are the one doing the grieving, allow yourself that same space. It may be a ritual you share with a community, like a memorial service. Or it may be something private for you, like creating a garden or writing your memories in a journal.

Or even rolling a tree.



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