Almost two years ago my brother Michael suddenly passed away. It was a very painful shock for our family and his death brought up a lot of pain, lost opportunity and loss. At the time of his death Michael and I did not speak regularly. It wasn’t due to a falling out, more to the fact that we were almost 10 years apart and lived in different states and were at different stages of life. My grief was as much for the immediate loss of him, as for the time we wouldn’t be able to reconnect and for the deep pain felt by my Father and younger siblings who would acutely feel his absence in their daily lives.
In our Orthodox faith we are blessed to have a way in which to view, understand and process death. The Orthodox funeral is a deeply spiritual one, focusing on the soul of the departed and praying for unification with God, It is customary to view and kiss the body of the deceased before burial and for the mourners’ graveside to help bury or put dirt upon the casket. The hymns and prayers of the service help to move the souls of both the living and the deceased through the process of death. Michael died at the end of March, just as spring is beginning to show signs of renewal and new life. He died during Lent, a time of penitence and introspection. I am very aware of his death during this time of spiritual warfare and as the beauty of nature starts to emerge and we prepare for the promise of Pascha (Easter). During the Lenten season we offer commemoration and prayers on special days for those who have departed.
It is the Orthodox belief that the prayers of the living can help the souls of the dead. It gives me great comfort to know that although my brother’s journey in his body ended, the journey of his soul continues and through my prayers I can aid him and comfort him on that path. During the services for the departed a special offering of Kolyva (sweetened wheat berries) is prepared. Preparing Kolyva in his honor for the commemoration of the dead helps me to move my grief from a heavy weight of pain in my heart, to a place of hope. It helps to honor him and his memory. The prayers of commemoration, the petition for the peace of his soul, and tears that flow during the hymns of the service help to heal, giving comfort and hope.
I wrote the passage above almost two years ago as we were preparing to remember my brother on the second anniversary of his death. Now, two years later, we are once again in the midst of Lent and his fourth anniversary is nearing. I will never forget the devastating phone call from my father telling me of my brother’s untimely death. The quick plans to fly my family hundreds of miles to be with my now 8 siblings, father and stepmothers to mourn together and bury my brother. We were blessed to be together and devastated that it took a funeral to get us all in one place after many years.
The visit was a blur, but there are moments that will be in my heart forever: Holding and crying with my brother Daniel. Laughing with my siblings in our childhood home about Michael's pranks. Crying through the beautiful and heart wrenching chanting of Memory Eternal shortly before I kissed my brother for the last time.
My two young daughters never met my brother alive, but they witnessed the love we all felt for him in his death and got to say goodbye to the uncle they would never get to know. I am grateful for the time we had as a family to grieve. It is good to have ceremony and space to mark the moments. Since then, we continue to remember him and pray for his soul. Making Kolyva is one of the ways I can still love him outwardly.
It takes me three days to prepare the Kolyva. I like this recipe and preparation process because it is an offering of love to the deceased, to my fellow parishioners and to God. Taking the time to slow down, reflect on the soul in prayerful love is healing. There are many variations to the recipe but the one below is my favorite:
4 cups hard winter wheat berries (dried)
1/2 cup Sugar (coconut sugar, rapadura, brown sugar or white sugar)
Grated rind of 1 orange
2 Tbl. toasted sesame seeds
1/2 cup almond meal
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup cranberries
1 Tbl. cinnamon
*all amounts are adjustable according to your preference for sweetness, etc.
Soak the wheat berries in a large bowl overnight. Make sure there is an inch or two of water over the berries.
Rinse the berries, and put them in a large pot cover with water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and gently simmer the berries for 2-4 hours (this depends on what type of wheat you use). Check each hour to see how they are cooking. You want your berries to be soft and easy to chew throughout but not popped open and mushy. They should retain their shape.
When they are finished cooking drain the berries and rinse in cool water. Next, you need to dry the berries. You can lay towels on your counters and spread the berries out to dry over the next 3-5 hours. You can also put them in a large colander and turn them every thirty minutes or so over the course of the day if you have limited space.
While the berries are drying you can mix your sugar (I prefer rapadura or coconut sugar), cinnamon, nut meal, sesame, and fruit. Put the berries in a large bowl and add the orange rind, stirring well. Next combine the sugar mixture and stir well. Put the kolyva in your serving dish and gently press down with the back of a wooden spoon making a smooth surface. Use raisins or nuts to make a cross in the center of the dish.
Source. God is love and the source of all that is good. The bounty and the beauty of nature, the light in our souls, and the beginning of dreams all flow from this goodness.