Samhain – Sacred Grief

Grief is work. If you don’t know that, then your experience of grieving has been very different from mine. Grief is hard work, as hard as lifting a thousand pounds of emptiness, over and over again, with every breath, every moment of every day.

Most of us are familiar with the idea that grieving is a process; you may even have heard of the famous five stages of grief that Kubler-Ross outlined so brilliantly. But many popularizations reduce this to a simple linear structure, as if we can simply chart our movement through the stages and then know that we are finished with each one. That is a laughably silly – or perhaps lamentably silly – oversimplification of one of the deepest things human beings experience.

Yes, grieving is a process, and it is one that we go through many times over. Even simple choices can trigger a bout of grieving for the alternatives now forever closed off. I would be hard-pressed to name a point in my life that was utterly free from the work of grieving, even if those griefs were often of the smaller, everyday variety.

I have been thinking about grief a lot because it has been a big part of my own work this year. Beginning with the loss of my mother, so many transitions came up so quickly that it was almost overwhelming. I was doing fairly well with it all until we moved, and then I fell apart. Even though that last upheaval was for good reasons and with a good outcome, the separation from my familiar places and familiar faces was just one more thing to grieve, and I couldn’t take it.

So I have been acutely aware of the way that grief is hard work this year. At times it has been more than I could bear, and I had to struggle just to endure, to do the simple, horribly difficult work of breathing and eating and sleeping with the weight of loss all around me and within me. Yes, it gradually lessens over time, until it becomes merely as hard as physical labor, merely grueling and exhausting. Now, a year later, it is part of my everyday work, a fact of life, a part of my practice.

This led me to thinking about how we could make this a sacred kind of work instead of a bare necessity? As I said at Mabon, I don’t flee the world or my experiences of it. I am called as a Witch to dive deeper into them, to commit myself fully to this life and this work, as it evolves and changes, both the deep joy and the deep grief that are part of the human experience.

So how does this become part of our practice? One of my thoughts is that maybe we can try practicing grieving in a way similar to that of practicing gratitude. I’m not talking about putting on a false front of grief; if you’re not experiencing grief, then you can give thanks for that, and maybe you can just sit with those who are, being a witness for them. You don’t have to try to experience it yourself – it will come to you in its own time, and then you will know that grief is hard work. And if you are blessed, you will have others willing to witness it and maybe to do it with you.

For the past 30 days on Facebook I have been putting this into practice by basically inviting people to grieve with me, to engage in small moments of remembrance. Some of them have generated deep stories, and I’m sure many more moments of deep reflection have occurred without being shared, as was best for the person experiencing them. After this practice, I am more convinced than ever that this is valuable work because of the way it goes against the grain of the overculture, which doesn’t really know what to do with grief. Someone said to me recently that following a bereavement she grieved “far beyond what was socially acceptable.” That says to me that she needed that grieving and society simply didn’t know what to do with it.

As a result, I ask that we in Wicca and Paganism try to include grieving in our practice, as part of making better ways to work with grief, to make space for it, and to acknowledge the hard work that it is. We have special kinds of awareness to bring to this work, because instead of falling into the simplicity of viewing grief as a linear process, we bring the wisdom of our circles and cycles to bear, and we can make it part of our work at this time of year to grieve again our own losses, as much as we need to, and to grieve with those who are grieving fresh losses – making space, making time, and being willing to dedicate the energy necessary to doing the work of grieving.

Grief is hard work. Let’s do it together. Let’s make it part of our practice.

Meditation Moment – Staying in the Feeling

As October rolls around, many Pagans begin preparing for Samhain, the Celtic festival of summer’s end, when the veil between the worlds of living and dead is especially thin. For Pagans today, this is often a time for acknowledging those who have died in the previous year and telling myths about death and rebirth. For all who may be grieving or remembering grief at Samhain, I would like to offer some suggestions about how meditative techniques can help you experience and move through those feelings.

Concentrating on these emotions, especially the ones we usually seek to avoid, may seem like the very opposite of the calm peace and even detachment cultivated through meditation. I have often written that when other thoughts or concerns arise during meditation, you should acknowledge them and then return your attention to whatever you’ve chosen to focus on. It’s true that this is the best course to take when your distractions are relatively simple, everyday sorts of matters. But deep emotions, like grief, cannot be dismissed as easily, and forcing ourselves to do so can become an unhealthy form of repressing our feelings.

If deep emotional issues are a concern for you as this Samhain draws near, instead of treating the emotional experience as a failure in your mediative practice, you might try embracing the emotion and allowing yourself to feel it fully as a necessary part of letting it go. This is tricky; you don’t want to be overwhelmed by the feelings or reinforce their presence in your life. As a result, the rest of the suggestions I give in this article will be fairly general ones that you have to adapt to your own situation. I strongly suggest trying these kinds of techniques as part of a steady meditative practice, and taking other actions to work through your grief at the same time, especially talking with people you can trust. Above all, be compassionate with yourself.

Grieving is a long and complex experience, and every situation is different. In the process of coming to terms with a death, many different emotions can play a part, including fear, anger, remorse, and resentment. Allow yourself to acknowledge any and all of these in turn, even if they seem paradoxical or difficult to explain to others. What you are feeling does not make you a bad person – it’s how you handle the feeling that matters. You may want to read about the stages of grieving; these are not a simple linear sequence, but they may help you understand that you are not alone in going through a lot of different, difficult feelings while grieving.

Facing these feelings, acknowledging them, is the first step to beginning to move through them towards acceptance of what has happened. Accepting the current sitation does not mean that you have to like it, but it enables you to turn your attention to the future again.

As you go into your feelings and begin to acknowledge them, the same meditative techniques of self-monitoring that you use to direct your attention can help you stay in the feeling, rather than turning away to some more desirable topic. You might use these while doing an activity you’ve chosen to help you express the emotion, such as a creating a piece of art. Meditatively centering yourself on the emotion can keep you engaged with the purpose so that you fully explore the emotion and can release it into the activity as much as possible.

On the other hand, if you feel like you’re drowning in the emotional current, you can use that same approach of self-awareness to help you identify when you’re getting in over your head, so you can take steps to turn your attention elsewhere. Again, these two approaches complement each other: you don’t want to repress your feelings during the grieving process, but you don’t want to stay stuck in them forever, either. Use your best judgment and ask those around you or a trained counselor for help in striking the right balance as you move through the process of grieving.

I have found that the best time to engage with, experience, and begin to release an emotion is when I can move my attention back and forth between the emotion and the calm, compassionate self-awareness that I usually occupy during meditation. This usually happens only after some time has passed since the event that caused the emotion. As needed, I switch my focus in a way similar to the technique I suggested for meditating using opposites.

If this is too difficult for you, another approach is to visualize an interaction between different aspects of your self. Let one part of yourself give voice to the emotions and struggle you’re experiencing while another part of you listens as attentively and compassionately as you would for your closest friend. If you are familiar with the way Starhawk talks about different parts of the self, you might consider these to be your Younger Self and Talking Self, respectively. Or they might be the person you were before and the person you are coming to be in the present. Regardless, the goal is not to increase the separation between parts of yourself but to make healing and wholeness more possible by allowing yourself to go through the emotions to be able to return to your center.

Ultimately, as the immediacy of a feeling diminishes, you will be better able to apply these techniques and to come to terms with your emotions. Remember, above all, that these emotions are not a failure of your meditative practice or an impenetrable barrier. They are not separate from you; they are part of you. Using meditation to help yourself cope with and reconcile them can be a valuable part of returning, again, as always, to your center.

Review: Starhawk, The Pagan Book of Living and Dying

I have not had new posts for a while because an uncle of mine died, and I was spending time supporting my mother and being with family. As a result, I drew heavily on this book, which I had had for a while but hadn’t read. I hope to resume something like my usual pace this week.

Starhawk, M. Macha Nightmare, and the Reclaiming Collective. The Pagan Book of Living and Dying: Practical Rituals, Prayers, Blessings, and Meditations on Crossing Over. HarperCollins, 1997. Paperback, 353 pages.

I turned to this book when I needed resources, and it provided. If you’re going to be in a leadership role in the Pagan community, you should at least have read this book, and I strongly suggest you should own it. If you’re a Pagan, you may not see it as important, but it is a handy thing to have around and could provide interesting resources and challenges for you around Samhain.

This book is a compilation of articles, meditations, rituals, prayers, chants, songs, poetry, and more. It manages somehow to be both wide in scope and deep in content, and although it is not assembled for front-to-back reading, I found the comprehensive table of contents easy to use.

Part one, The Pagan Tradition, has thealogical material, reflections, and meditations. Uncharacteristically, this is the part I have read the least of, because it wasn’t what I needed when I pulled this book off the shelf. What I have read looks thoughtful and articulate, and comes from a variety of writers, without trying to express a monolithic view of what Paganism is or ought to be. Part two, The Pagan View of Death, has some very useful discussion of specifically how Pagans can understand death, again, with respect for a variety of viewpoints.

Part three, The Dying Process, and part four, Death Has Many Faces, are the “meat” of the book. The section on the dying process includes many personal reflections, some of which will bring tears to your eyes and others which will make you laugh aloud. The summary material provides good advice of several kinds to those working with the dying or the grieving, and generally advises an approach that lets those closest to the situation take the lead, with others providing support and nurturing, while making sure to take care of themselves at the same time. It addresses issues relevant to people in a wide range of grief situations, including sudden or violent death, the death of a child, deaths from HIV, and abortion. Specific suggestions give concrete options while the general themes are consistently carried throughout.

Part five, Carrying On, has other advice that is invaluable, especially for Pagans who may find themselves counseling or consoling people who are still working through the grieving process weeks, months, or years later. This section may seem almost irrelevant to someone who has not experienced the death of someone close, but it is one more indication that this book was put together by people who have experienced that which they write about.

The real treasure in this book is the stock of rituals, prayers, songs, poems, meditations, and visualizations. A lot of material here comes from Starhawk, especially prayers, but plenty of it is from other people, largely from the Reclaiming Collective. Again, the breadth of material is impressive, including a prayer for cleaning the rooms of someone who has died. I found the resources easy to modify, to pick and choose and reassemble something that worked for the situation I was in.

I have not done many of the meditations, but I look forward to trying them, and I think that some of them could provide great pieces for Samhain rituals, even for a solitary who has little to grieve. There are also excellent starting points for Pagans to think about and prepare for their own deaths, including basic suggestions about legal issues to consider, as well as practical and magical ones.

I would have liked to see more material about hospice and palliative care, and how to work with the medical community to achieve the goals of the patient in the case of a long and debilitating terminal illness. I don’t know if that omission is the result of a lack of awareness and experience with hospice and palliative care; that area of care has certainly grown and developed in the last decade. Another factor may be that this book does provide the kind of “need it now” resources that I praise. But there is also plenty of material for longer-term reflection, and I think a chapter on what hospice care is, how it works, when you or a loved one might choose it, and how to define the goals of care and get them met would have been a tremendous addition.

You may not like or enjoy all the material presented in this book; almost certainly, you will not agree with all of it. But I found that it had adaptable resources when I needed them, and that even the material that I found jarring was a useful stimulus to additional thinking and meditation.

In order to be in concert with natural cycles – the whole cycle, from beginning to end to new beginnings – even Pagans who are not grieving or have never grieved should face the existence of death, including their own. This book is a good place to start that process, and a tremendous contribution to the Pagan community’s shared pool of knowledge, understanding, lore, and ritual.

Protect us all, or let it be

Since the Supreme Court affirmed that the execrable calumny produced by Fred Phelps’ clan (Westboro Baptist Church) is protected speech, Congress is considering passing laws that would expand the exclusion zones of time and space around military funerals. Unfortunately, I think this is a bad move on many levels, most of all because Congress should either protect all funerals or acknowledge that enduring some truly vile speech is the price we pay for freedom of speech.

My partner got into a passionate discussion with someone the other day because the other guy was insisting that members of the military are extra-special, better people, overall, than non-military. My spouse, who has made his career in the military, disagreed. He doesn’t think he’s anything special, and certainly not a better person than non-military people. He also knows first-hand that people in the military are a lot like any other kinds of people: they screw up and do bad things. Honor is something they strive for, not something that automatically accrues to them when they join.

I said afterwards that the other guy was trying to express a deeply-felt sentiment (mostly gratitude) but that he kept translating the depth of his feeling into hyperbole, but not realizing the difference between his hyperbole (with respect to the facts) and his feelings. Regardless, it deeply disturbed my partner because he does not want to see the country put the military on a pedestal to the point where that attitude could destabilize our democracy.

This potential law is an example of that kind of attitude. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad most citizens have learned to separate their feelings about the members of the military from their feelings about the national policy those members are enacting. But my partner is right that perpetuating the idea that the military is sacrosanct is dangerous.

If I saw this sort of legislation being sought to protect the funerals of high-profile QUILTBAG people* (which are the Phelpses’ other favorite target), I would still be concerned about it as a potentially unconstitutional limitation on free speech. But as it is, this proposed legislation is an insult to all the other grieving families that the Phelpses target. If grieving families are worth protecting, and the speech can be limited in this way, then the law should protect us all. That’s what the military lives and dies for.

*QUILTBAG is an acronym that arose on The Slacktiverse’s comment threads. It’s intended to capture the alphabet soup of the ever expanding GLBT… acronym. It means Queer/Questioning, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transsexual/Transgender, Bisexual, Asexual, and Gay.