By: Laura (Thien Huong) Pho
My Mom, Lucy Le (pronounced “lay”), was killed in a pedestrian crash in front of our home by a neighbor backing out of their driveway in July 2020. Mom, my best friend, lived with our family at the time and had been on her daily morning walk. I ran out to the crash scene in the immediate aftermath. My mind knew she was gone from this earthly plane but Mom is a Buddhist and Buddhists believe that a person’s spirit continues and is rebirthed in a million ways. It’s this belief that gave me the strength to call out over and over “I love you Mom!” at the crash scene — I wanted to be sure that her spirit carried love wherever it spread.
I grew up watching Mom practice Buddhism. (It’s a practice not a religion). When a loved one died or there was a “death anniversary” for an ancestor, Mom would prepare sky high fruit arrangements, sticky sweet coconut rice, and arrange colorful flowers to place on our home altars. The altars displayed Buddhist statues, including Mom’s favorite, Quan Am, the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion and Mercy, who is often depicted holding a vase to collect humanity’s tears. The altars also displayed our ancestors’ photographs. On these occasions, we’d pray by lighting an incense stick – the smoke helping our prayers reach the spiritual skies (my name, Thien Huong, means “heavenly perfume” like incense smoke). As we prayed, we asked our ancestral spirits to protect and guide us. I soaked up these Buddhist mourning rituals by observing Mom but didn’t realize how much they would help me with my own grief after Mom’s unspeakable tragedy.
The first 49 days after a loved one’s death are the most important in Buddhism because we believe it takes a total of 49 days for one’s spirit and energy to be fully released. The funeral service takes place on the 7th day and thereafter, the family attends their local Buddhist Temple every 7 days (usually Sunday mornings) for 7 weeks; a total of 49 days. During these 49 days, however, you help your loved one’s spirit transition by attending Temple and making daily offerings at home. At Temple, the Monk leads the congregation in simpatico, rhythmic meditations and chants in honor of your loved ones.
Although I didn’t have the strength to chant most of the time, it was comforting and peaceful to be surrounded by the community praying for the ascension of Mom’s spirit. At our home altars, which Mom had so lovingly created, I made daily offerings of food, fruit, and flowers for Mom. These daily offerings or small “tasks” gave me a sense of purpose which was to help Mom’s spirit “lighter” so it could take flight for boundless travel. On the 49th day, I brought Mom’s ashes to her beloved Temple Van Hanh, in Centreville, VA, which she helped establish in the 1990s. Mom’s dear friend Monk Sakya Tri-Tue, along with Monk Thich Minh Tri from Temple Hua Quang of Glen Allen, VA, led a moving 49th Day ceremony for our family and close friends to celebrate Mom’s beautiful life and her final release.
During our support group one evening, I shared some of these Buddhist mourning rituals and our group moderator, Allyson England Drake, observed that the rituals seem like a “built-in grieving process.” I hadn’t thought of it like that before but it’s true.
Following these rituals that I had seen Mom perform since I was young helped me through those early, dark days. Through daily offerings, I felt like I was caring for Mom even after her untimely death and, also, in a way, caring for my own grief. I am grateful these rituals gently reminded me to put one foot in front of the other and that Mom was right by my side with every step.
I still make Mom her favorite coffee every morning and adorn the altars with fruit and flowers on special occasions. These moments of the day are when I feel Mom’s presence the most. I embrace the Buddhist belief that there is “no end and no beginning” and that your loved one is never gone because you carry them with you always.