When we are mourning the recent loss of a beloved person, animal, object or situation, we often feel like hell. Frequently we feel that life isn’t worth living any more, that there is no point to life, that we’d rather die, that we’ll never stop feeling as miserable as we currently do, and that we’ll never get over the loss or feel happy again.
Been there? I have, many times. We almost all will, some of us many times, before we come to be the one to die, the one who is lost and grieved rather than the one who is left and grieving. The Goddess cannot take this pain away from us. Believing in her will not save us from going through our own excruciating grief. She will not even take the sharp edge off it. She neither can nor should rescue us from our grieving, because it is our healing process. To be human is to feel loss and grief. But she can make an enormous difference to how we get through it, if we ask for her help.
I believe that ‘successful’ (i.e. effective) grieving requires three things: actively feeling and expressing our feelings of loss, pain and rage (catharsis), active efforts to rebuild our lives around the big hole at their centre, and time. No one of these can be skipped. Throwing oneself energetically into frequent crying does not make the pain go away faster (although resisting crying can extend our period of grieving). A committed focus on ‘getting over it’ and building a new life in the world does not relieve us of the need to feel and express our sadness. And time alone will not fully heal our loss unless we have also released our tears and reached out to life again.
There is no denying that going through the acute stages of grieving is gut-wrenching. Misery pervades our every waking moment and often our sleep too, and our needs and behaviours may be so peculiar that we fear we are going insane. Indeed by ‘normal’ (i.e. non-grieving) standards we are temporarily a bit insane: our grieving process may include or even require bursting into tears unexpectedly and at socially inappropriate times, an inability to concentrate or perform our duties, and a withdrawal of our attention and life energy to our inner preoccupation. What we do to grieve properly and healthily would indeed be crazy and worrying behaviour in someone who was not trying to process a big loss. Just knowing that what we are doing and feeling is ‘normal’ for grieving people can be very reassuring.
This is one place where the Goddess can help us: for Demeter grieves and rages deeply and inconsolably for the loss of her daughter Persephone. She does not eat, drink, sleep or wash for nine days – acting a bit crazy in ways many of us will recognise. At such times it can be hard to take care of ourselves in even the most basic ways. So we have Demeter’s permission and her example; we can follow her lead in surrendering to feeling and expressing our pain and letting some of our standards slip temporarily. Maybe even in our black hole we can also take some comfort from knowing that Demeter’s tears were not bottomless and trusting that ours will not be either. Demeter’s story tells us that restitution happens. Albeit in a different form, life and love will return to us: ‘Everything lost is found again, in a new form, in a new way’ (Reclaiming Community chant). Initially this may give us no comfort (all we want is that person back), but as time goes on we will usually appreciate the truth of this wisdom.
We can pray for guidance. Particularly we can ask all Goddesses of healing that our crying and raging will be healing, that these times will help us to release and move on, not just wallow around in circles. Both Persephone and Brigid tend the bereaved as well as the dying and the dead with merciful love, and they will surely midwife our grieving journey if we ask them. We can also ask them for help in knowing when to go there (into our grief) and when to leave it for now, to return to the world and reconnect however feebly with a sense that life does indeed go on after even the deepest loss.
The Dark Crone, the Black Hag of Death, and Cerridwen with her cauldron of wisdom are all Goddesses who will help us to surrender and to let go. Take the Crone’s knife in your hand, feel your own power to cut and end. There is no choice after death or an irrevocable ending: you have to survive without whoever/whatever is gone, and you may only discover that you can by doing it. So you might as well embrace the Dark Goddess and ask her to help you move on cleanly and efficiently, rather than drag your heels forever or become attached to your grieving because it feels like all you have left of the person and your connection to them.
We can ask Cerridwen for her wisdom, her shape-shifting power to transform. Loss changes us, grieving changes us. They are meant to. One of the gifts which always come out of these terrible times is that we grow. We become bigger, better people. Starhawk quoted a wise man who said that healing does not mean curing: ‘Healing is a process that makes us more than what we were.’ While we are in acute pain this may be cold comfort, but with hindsight we may find that we are grateful for the gifts and the growth, if not for the experience itself. I know this is how I now feel about having cancer: that I would not be without the ways it has transformed me.
For me, Brigid unexpectedly turned out to be the most important Goddess to pray to as I grieve. I am a Scorpio born three days after Samhain, on the Dark of the Moon. I don’t need to pray to the Hag to take me down to those very black experiences of loss, grief, despair and intense catharsis: she does it all too readily. But I do need to remember to trust Brigid to lead me up and out again. For me Brigid embodies the possibility of hope even when I can see, feel and imagine none.
For as surely as Imbolc follows winter in the seasonal calendar, so will our own inner dark seasons of grief and despair be followed by new life, new joy and new love, even if the timing is less predictable. Probably when we are in one of these dark nights of the soul, it is impossible to imagine anything other than it going on forever. That seems to be an inescapable part of the experience. I have learned to trust in Brigid, the Goddess of light out of the darkness, warmth out of the cold, the glimmer of hope and new life at the end of the long dark tunnel of grieving. Light candles to her even when you cannot feel or imagine what she offers – especially when you cannot feel or imagine what she offers, or how it could come to you. She will work her miracle of renewal for you as she does for all life. In my experience, new hope and happiness have always come again, and so I am beginning to trust even when I am at my bleakest that someday Brigid will light her flame in me once again.
Deep grief for a beloved person doesn’t ever ‘heal’ in the sense of going away completely. Always there will be a special place for that unique person in your heart and some sadness because you miss them. But with time, enough crying and rebuilding your life, grieving becomes less frequent, some of the sharpness softens, and you get a higher percentage of happy memories when you think about the person/animal/thing you have lost.
And always, always there will be something worth living for again one day, something that will make us glad we endured. In the worst throes of grief, enduring is sometimes all that is required: to stay alive, without wilfully harming ourselves, despite how terrible we feel now and about the future. Ask the Goddess for the courage and strength to keep going (in the lack of any other decent choice e.g. topping ourselves or falling to pieces). Sometimes simply enduring is a heroic achievement. I used to stand in front of my altar and count the days, and then the weeks: ‘Four days since my father died and I’m still alive. Six. One week. Two weeks. One month. Two. Well done, Sheila, well done!’ Remember Inanna who was stripped of everything that was precious to her as she descended the seven gates to the underworld, where she endured being a corpse hanging rotting on a peg before she was reborn. She can teach you how to endure, how to wait. She will wait and endure with you.
No matter how tragically our own life has come to a standstill, Gaia the Earth Goddess, Mother Nature, continues in her cycles of growth, fruit and decay. She gives us solid ground under our feet to stand on when we are feeling devastated, wobbly and/or lost. My garden has given me enormous comfort at such times, an earthy reassurance of the continuity of life despite my own overwhelming loss. Her soil still feels the same beneath my bare feet, and amazingly flowers continue to blossom and the harvest still ripens. Plant seeds of biennial flowers with prayers for help with your grieving process, knowing that you will be through the worst once they blossom in two years’ time (said to be the average length of time needed to grieve a major loss).
The nature of the Goddess and the strength of the Goddess path are that we embrace all points on the Wheel, not just the light, and all seasons of life, not just the growth and the flowering. Remember that if you are at the bottom of the wheel, the only way is up: the Wheel of Fortune and of Life will turn even without your own efforts or consent. Change is inevitable, and life often seems to go in alternating waves of up and down, pain and happiness. Kahlil Gibran wrote about pain: ‘And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields. And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.’ We can only learn to do this by practising.
Besides, after having cancer, I know now that it’s all going to be taken away eventually. Everything which has a beginning will also end. One day the Dark Goddess will reclaim my loved ones, my possessions, my home, my health, my body, my life. Embracing her, talking to her and worshipping at her altar regularly, whether or not I am currently grieving, helps me to acknowledge and accept ever more deeply the physical reality of life on this planet: that everything and everyone is mortal and will die, and that grief is the inevitable and terrible price we all pay for being human beings who love.
The Hag also helps me to feel that every good day/month/year is a bonus, something to celebrate and be grateful for. ‘Thank you Goddess for all the pleasure that earring gave me before I lost it.’ ‘Thank you Goddess for all those good years I had with my father before he died.’ We can set gratitude alongside our pain, not to deny or repress the pain but to introduce an alternative perspective. This focuses on the half-full rather than the half-empty glass, and celebrates what has been enjoyed as well as grieves the (inevitable) loss of it.
We might then feel less outraged at loss, because we know that endings are a natural and necessary part of life and that we need to expect them. We might remember that we have not been personally ‘wronged’ by having this precious person/thing taken away from us, understanding that nothing unusual or untoward has happened to us, however much it hurts. We might also accept the need to go through the natural but painful grieving process to heal ourselves, so that we can stay open to life rather than shut down in bitterness.
This is a great antidote to the self-pitying victim ‘Poor me, look how much I’ve lost’ attitude which often accompanies loss. It’s only too human to feel it, but it can lead us off the path in the wrong direction. Instead, perhaps we can consciously use our times of loss and grief to toughen up spiritually, to accept the true nature of life on earth, and to forge a deeper and more trusting relationship with She Unto To Whom All Life Returns. Strengthening this ‘faith muscle’ will help us not only to move through our grieving more lightly but will also sustain us as we face our own deaths. It won’t spare us the pain but it might save us a lot of unhelpful indignation and resistance!
We might also pray to the star Goddess, to Nuit whose night sky body hangs over the earth, she who has witnessed a million times before the wrenching heartbreak of loss. Pray to your ancestors who have been through this ahead of you, and ask them to guide and hold you in your own journey. It is odd how utterly alone and unique we can feel in our deepest losses, when actually they are a core human experience we all share. Loss and grief are absolutely monumental and they are also absolutely ordinary.
One last thing: don’t try to give out on empty. Grieving is exhausting on all levels. It may be wise to delegate some of your duties and responsibilities for a while, if possible. Grieving can be a time to practise gentle self-care and self-nurturing, asking the Mother Goddess to hold you in her arms and stroke your head while you rest in her lap, asking others to do the chores which may just feel too much, physically or emotionally, for you at the moment.
©Sheila Rose Bright, October 2009
Charge of the Hag Goddess at Dark Yule
Remember me in the days and months to come
when you are so eager to celebrate the increasing light
and the beginnings of the new year.
Remember that not all that begins will be to your liking
and not all that grows will be good.
For I do not only tear away from you the good things which you are so attached to:
loved ones, treasured objects, precious situations, the body’s strength and life.
Yes all these I will take, in time.
Yes I bring losses
and sometimes these hurt enough that you must grieve, and grieve mightily,
and your grieving is a sacred prayer to me.
For it is my nature to care for all mortal things
as they reach the end of their lifespan,
and to teach my beloved children to know and accept mortality.
For everything which begins must also end,
even as some of this spring’s hopes
may be contained in the ashes of those things
which you are now so wanting to give to me and be rid of.
So be grateful for my merciful liberating power to end,
the freedom I give you by putting a stop to things.
Remember me when you want to stop pain, sickness, oppression or wrongdoing;
then it is me you need and me you will pray to,
even as one day you may pray to me to take you into death itself
to free you from suffering or weariness.
So every day, along with your joy as the light returns,
also celebrate me for all the small and big ways
I bring you freedom, healing and joy
by ending things.
as given to Sheila Rose Bright
Dark Yule 2008