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Can Pagans Really Handle Grief?

By Rev. Wes Isley

There are lots of things I love about being Pagan, and maybe you share some of these. We have a holiday every couple of months, and we get to dress up in fun clothes for ceremony. Our deities are badass—with horned gods who like wine and fierce goddesses who will kick your butt if you don’t mind your manners. Maybe best of all, I like that Pagans can have “church” anywhere—on a sunlit meadow colored with wildflowers or beneath a star-spangled night sky, where we can just sit in silence and feel the vitality of Gaia all around and within us. But, there’s one thing we Pagans don’t do well. Can you guess what that is? Well, it’s my opinion that Pagans stink at grieving.

But aren’t we better than the monotheists when it comes to dealing with mystery and the difficulties of life? After all, our Pagan traditions don’t fear death. Death is just part of life, part of the natural cycle of things. True, but death is not the same as grieving. Facing death is taking that ultimate leap into the unknown, and there are lots of Pagan resources out there on how to face death courageously and how to help loved ones make the transition. But grieving is different. Grieving is carrying on when your reason to live has disappeared. Grieving is having the proverbial rug pulled from under you and landing hard. Grieving is being rejected or left behind. We can grieve a divorce, the loss of a job or a friend, or a new illness that robs us of the joy to do what we once loved.

Our mainstream culture tells us to suck it up and get on with life. Lost a relationship? Just get out there and start dating again! Lost a job? Just remember that when God closes a door, he opens a window. Even with physical death, we only get a few days for a funeral, and then it’s back to the routine. If we still look sad, we’re told, “Remember they are now reunited with the Goddess, or they’re in the Summerlands.” In my experience that doesn’t help.

When was the last time you grieved over something—a beloved pet, your job or just the cruelty you see in the world? How did your Pagan spiritual practice help—or did it? Maybe like me, you just muddled through and found it hard to care about the Goddess, the spirits of the land, the ancestors or anything at all. Do we Pagans just stuff grief down like everyone else? That’s an option, but what good is being Pagan if it’s only worth something at Samhain or when we’re really feeling a connection to the Earth? The important thing to know is that grief can destroy. I know this from experience and also from learning about Pagan deities. More importantly, how do we as Pagans get beyond that?

I have two stories to share from different Pagan traditions on exactly how grief can wreck our lives if it isn’t dealt with. The first story comes from the Norse tradition. It’s about Baldur, a son of Odin and one of the most beloved of all the Aesir. Everybody liked this guy—well, except Loki. After all, Loki’s favorite person is himself. Anyway, there was a challenge to see if anyone could be found who would kill Baldur. Naturally, Loki got involved and tricked one of the other gods into killing Baldur. All of the goddesses and gods were in shock. But there was little they could do, so they set out planning Baldur’s funeral. They built him a funeral ship and as Baldur’s body was carried out, it passed by where his wife the goddess Nanna was standing. Seeing his cold, lifeless body, she was so overcome with grief that she dropped dead on the spot. Now, the funeral pyre was for two instead of one.

The other story comes from the Greeks, about a beautiful queen of Libya named Lamia. Unfortunately, the god Zeus has his eye on her. You probably know that Zeus was also married to Hera, and she was one jealous wife. So Hera went and kidnapped all of Lamia’s children. Another version says Hera actually killed Lamia’s children. Either way, the kids were gone forever. Some versions say that Lamia was so overcome with grief that she first gouged out her own eyes and then in anger and despair began to eat the children of others, turning herself into a hideous monster. If she couldn’t have children, then no one could.

So let’s recap—Nanna drops dead from grief, and Lamia turns into an eyeless, child-devouring monster. We can find plenty of other Pagan examples about how intense grief can be. Think back to the last time you grieved over something or someone. Can you identify with Nanna or Lamia? Maybe you didn’t drop dead, but gods know I have wanted to. My grief was so intense over losing my partner that death would’ve been a relief. And there were times when I was so angry from grief that I, like Lamia, wanted to destroy everything good in sight because of my despair. Have you ever felt this way?

If not, maybe you know someone who has. Have you ever known anyone to die of suicide? My own brother tried several times and my favorite uncle was actually successful. Of course, suicide can be triggered by many things, but I think a part of it is deep grief. Or maybe you know someone who’s addicted to drugs or alcohol. What’s behind all of that? Again, I think grief plays a role. But regardless of why we’re grieving or its intensity, stories like Lamia’s and Nanna’s don’t help. Instead, what we need is hope that the grief will end and that there’s something better on the other side.

Pagan stories about surviving grief are hard to find. But I believe this topic is important because if Paganism embraces every messy aspect of life and death, then grief is in there somewhere, too. So I have a few more stories to share, and I believe it’s important that we start telling more of them.

I think you’ll be familiar with the first one. With its cyclical nature, the Pagan Wheel of the Year gives us a way to understand our grief. No matter how dark or cold it may seem, light and warmth will return. Yule and Imbolc eventually give way to Ostara and Beltaine, times for new growth, beauty and celebration. I like how Starhawk puts it in her reflection on the Wheel of the Year: “We can trust that death, like every other phase of life, offers us opportunities for growth in wisdom and love.” When we grieve the loss of something, we can look to the Wheel of the Year as a reminder that even in death there is an opportunity for something new to take root. Who knows what it will be or when it will appear, but like the year, it will come ‘round. Nature herself makes us that promise.

The theme of renewal can also be found in the perhaps unlikely image of the Celtic winter crone, The Cailleach. She may be a dark goddess, but I personally find her comforting. I remember attending a Druid ritual a few years ago. Someone dressed as The Cailleach slinked out of the dark woods and approached our circle. We had written down on pieces of paper anything we’d like to release, and we dropped them into her flaming cauldron. The idea is that The Cailleach transforms what we have lost into something new, and I found that ritual quite powerful. Some stories say The Cailleach herself is transformed at spring into the lovely and young goddess Brighde. The message is that even the great wintry goddess herself cannot hold back new life forever. I find this comforting because The Cailleach shows us that our grief will end, not in despair or in rage, but in hope and renewed purpose. The Cailleach is also said to facilitate transitions. What is grief if not the experience of going through a difficult transition? Let us look to The Cailleach for the strength to weather our own life transitions.

My last story is also taken from the Celtic pantheon, about Airmid, a goddess from the Tuatha De Danann. The story goes that the king of the Tuatha De Danann lost his arm in a battle. Airmid’s father fashioned a new arm for the king out of silver. However, Airmid’s brother was a surgeon, and so naturally, he thought he could do a better job than his old man. He even convinced Airmid to lend her own powers of regeneration, and together they restored the king’s arm. However, dear ol’ dad was angry that his kids had upstaged him. In rage, he lashed out and killed his own son. Somehow Airmid was spared, but she was heartbroken over her brother’s death. She would go to his grave every day and cry, her tears soaking into the ground. One day Airmid discovered hundreds of different herbs were growing from her brother’s grave, brought to life by her own tears. Airmid then learned all about their healing powers and began helping humans use them.

I love the imagery of how Airmid’s tears—her grief over losing her brother—brought healing herbs into existence. Grief can keep us in tears, and sometimes we think they will never end. But Airmid’s story shows us that even from those awful tears can come healing. Here, Airmid finds a new sense of purpose after her brother’s death, helping humans use plants for healing. I’ve learned this lesson myself. In my own tears of grief over losing my partner, I received something of value to pass on to others. As those tears fell, like Airmid’s, they nourished something hopeful and healing that I had yet to imagine.

 

Let us deepen our awareness of how much grief plays a role in our Pagan stories. Explore your own spiritual tradition for examples of thriving in spite of grief. And when we list all those things that we love about being Pagans—the ceremonies, the freedom and the connections—among those things will also be our ability to grieve what we have lost and to come out on the other side renewed and inspired. 

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As the leading provider of education and practical training in leadership, ministry, and personal growth in Pagan and nature-based spiritualities, Cherry Hill Seminary supports Pagans and their communities by providing an extensive education in diverse aspects of Pagan philosophy, practice, and skilled ministry; supplementing existing ritual and magical skills with training for professional ministry and pastoral counseling; serving as an ongoing resource for individual continuing education; and providing a forum for scholarship and community  

Comments

  • Mark Green
    Mark Green Wednesday, 20 December 2017

    Hear, hear! Grief is real, and it's not resolved by assurances that the departed is "going to be born again" or "in the Summerlands" (neither of which I believe, personally).

    Pagans would do well to learn more about human psychology and how to work with extreme states such as grief, depression, anxiety and mania. We learn to work with our own consciousnesses through ritual; it would help to be able to work effectively with others, too, when they are suffering. And front and center in that work is a willingness not to try to "fix" the other person. Grief lasts. It cannot be dispelled with a ritual or anything anyone can say. To sit with the suffering and be a support is an art. May we all learn it.

  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Wednesday, 27 December 2017

    I don't think that any humans handle grief all that well. It's human to mourn, and equally human to try and *not* to feel that pain. Respectfully, Mark -- I have had what I believe to be personal experiences, born out of my Pagan beliefs -- that I believe were connections with my loved ones after they passed, and those experiences were a great comfort to me. Of course, your mileage may vary.

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