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.

Samhain – Learning to Listen

I am continuing to republish a series of articles originally written in 2011. I wrote this piece only a few months before my mother was diagnosed with cancer, and it is especially poignant in light of her recent passing.

May you be blessed with communication with all you love this Samhain.

I see Wicca as a religion of relationship. Samhain is the Sabbat that teaches us about the challenges and ineffable fulfillment of living in relationship.

Samhain has its roots in an ancient Celtic festival marking the beginning of winter. It is also the festival of the dead – not of death, although it does acknowledge that we live our lives in the midst of cycles that include death – but of the dead, especially those close to us who have died.

At this time of transition, as he days and nights transform themselves into the darker, cooler times of winter, folklore tells us that the Veil between our everyday world and the Otherworlds begins to thin. At liminal times like Samhain, as we move from the world of summer to the world of winter, it becomes easier for the Otherworlds, lands of enchantment and imagination, to make themselves felt in our normally real world. The Otherworlds are home to the spirits of our beloved dead as well as potentially many other kinds of beings, depending on the stories and traditions you know follow; they may include the Good Folk, the puca and the bean-sidhe, the kelpie of the well and the hinkypunk of the marsh, and other kinds of creatures as well.

These creatures and their tales inspired many of the traditions of Halloween which play on the possible relationships between humans and spirits. For those of us who have lost loved ones, though, it is the thinning of the Veil between us and our beloved dead that is the most important feature of Samhain. It makes this the time that we pay special attention to our relationships with those who have passed over.

During one conversation someone asked me how I could have a relationship with someone who isn’t alive anymore; how would that work, without the other person responding to me? Relationships with our beloved dead are certainly different from relationships with those who are alive, and more challenging to maintain, but the effort that goes into them teaches me more about what it means to live in relationship with others. Most of all, it helps me learn to listen.

The lack of active communication with my beloved dead does not represent, to me, an insuperable barrier to being in relationship. After all, we maintain what we think of as ongoing relationships with living people with whom we communicate infrequently; just because I haven’t spoken or written to someone in months doesn’t necessarily mean I have stopped relating to her. If my partner and I were separated by circumstances, no matter how infrequent communication was, the intensity of my relationship with him would not be dissolved simply by time and space. The ways we related during that time would be changed but not totally removed. When I think about, remember, hope and wish and pray for those I love, I am in some way relating to them. The challenge is to stay open to who those people actually are, not just who I might wish them to be. This is the importance of listening.

When I interact directly with people who I haven’t seen in some time, I am often struck by how their presence is more vivid than my memories or imagination of them. I may remember the prejudices, the follies, the foibles, as well as the charm, the wit, and the mannerisms, but distance often dulls those recollections, like a reproduction of a vibrant oil painting sketched in misty watercolors. When the impact and essence of the original impose themselves on me, it can be a shock to realize how much I downplayed or disregarded an aspect. This happens for both good traits and bad; seeing a relative in person reminds me that she is both kinder than I think about sometimes and more nauseatingly guilt-inducing than I would like to recall.

This, then, is the challenge of trying to be in relationship with someone without active input from the other side. We run the risk of wearing down the memory to just the parts that are comfortable for us, evening out all the sharp edges and unexpected valleys of the other’s personality into a featureless, indistinguishable lump. But it is worth noting that we can also do this wearing-down process perfectly well with people who we relate to on a regular basis: a relationship between people who see each other every day can eventually break down when one person says “You’re not who I thought you were.” Even for those who are alive, it’s easy for us to choose to relate to our image or caricature of a person rather than the person herself.

This is why learning to listen is at the heart of living in relationship. It’s a challenge to seek out the unexpected, the uncomfortable, the unusual, the unknown. We have to make the effort to acknowledge that someone with whom we’re in relationship is really an other – someone separate, distinct, different from ourselves and our ideas, images, and imaginings. This process of learning to listen, learning to be open and aware beyond ourselves calls us to be more than just ourselves as isolated individuals.

One of the traditional ways to relate to the deceased at this time of year is the dumb feast, where places are set for those who have passed over and the meal is held in silence. It combines a fundamental human kind of connection through shared food and drink with an explicit example of listening, of recognizing that for such a connection to be shared, we have to make space and time – and silence – for others. This form of contemplation is especially appropriate as we begin to move into winter, a time when the world as a whole becomes more quiet, more still. Trading speech, perhaps the most-used form of communication between people, for silence encourages us to engage in other forms of communication, forms which may be more amenable to other kinds of awareness and relationship.

Striving to be in relationship with people who are not immediately present is also a way to learn to be in relationship with others whose voices are hard to hear. In Wicca, I am in relationship with the land and water, with plants and animals, all of whom communicate with me in non-verbal ways. Like with an absent person, it is easy for me to hear only what I want to, to disregard the reality of these parts of my world in favor of the more comfortable constructs inside my own mind. But if I take time to listen, especially in non-verbal ways, they do speak to me, confronting me with the reality of their situation, more vivid and amazing than any imagination of my own.

Opening to this awareness also teaches me about how to be in relationship with those whose voices are too often silenced: people who are not like me, people who are underprivileged, people who are far away. When I challenge myself to remember the complexity of the people I love who have passed over, it makes me better prepared to acknowledge the complexities that someone else’s life may hold. It teaches me to seek out their voices, to be open to hearing from them in ways I might not otherwise expect, and even to be open to hearing things that make me uncomfortable, because I realize that is an essential part of an ongoing relationship.

Learning to listen pushes us to cultivate empathy and to cultivate a kind of joint awareness of ourselves and others that may even begin to blur the boundaries of what is self and what is other. This is where listening is not just the absence of talking. This is how listening becomes an act of awareness, of being present with and in the relationships that surround us.

To work with reality, as a good Witch must strive to do, I must first be aware of that reality. And that reality is a reality of relationships, the reality that our stories are all told together. We may try to shout more loudly, to assert complete control over our own narrative, or we may try to stop our ears entirely so that no one else’s story can interfere with our own. But either way, we deny ourselves the ability to live fully, because our lives are stories of relationship, stories told in dialogue.

An essential part of dialogue is listening. This listening is not an absence, but a fullness, a presence that participates in being together, in relating to the others in the dialogue. Like the not-so-empty space between things that is full of potential and interaction, and the silence between words that makes meaning possible, listening between beings is is what makes relationships possible. And that is the basis of life, for beings, like words, interenanimate each other. This is why I try to listen – to my beloved dead and to all the beings I live with in relationship.

Blessed Samhain to all!

It’s a busy time, so here’s several quick updates:

The Celebration of the Divine Feminine and Religious Freedom was a smashing success. It was an honor and a delight to participate. More on that up at Hail Columbia soon. That event and all the others I attended were blessedly free of conservative Christian protests or disruption.

Also on Sunday, the Wild Hunt carried a guest post by me on the Hail Columbia movement. I’m still looking for additional blog contributors for Hail Columbia and for feedback in general about the direction the site will take as we head into the new year.

Speaking of the turning of the Wheel, you can read what Morwen and I wrote about Samhain at the Slacktiverse.

One of the season’s transitions is that I’ll be ending my monthly column on meditation for the e-zine Pagan Pages so that I can concentrate on other writing projects. I’d like to thank them for the opportunity to work with them!

On a personal note, today my partner will celebrate his promotion. You’re welcome to join us in spirit with hopes that these liminal times will open the way to wonderful futures. I wish the same for all of you as well. Blessed be!