My friend’s mother died this past spring.

The stroke happened suddenly and her passing came a few weeks later.  Despite a lot of preparation for a worst-case scenario, the death hit the family hard.  My friend had a difficult relationship with her mother (something many of us can relate to, I’m sure) and her ambivalent thoughts and emotions have been complicating an already difficult grieving process.

My friend announced her mother’s illness to our group, but she kept the news of her mother’s passing to herself.  She had been out of town a lot to be with family, and it was only recently that I saw my friend since her family tragedy. 

(Confession time - I’m not very good at grief and grieving.  I don’t have any experience with it.  Out of my peers and social circles I’m an anomaly because I’ve never really had any friends or family members pass away.  I’ve only ever been to two funerals in my life – one of my teachers in high school who had been chronically ill and my husband’s great-great uncle who died from old age.)

The first time I saw my friend after the death of her mother, our conversation was very shallow.  It wasn’t anything more than small talk, really.  I could tell that my friend was hurting deeply.  We were having a hard time keeping the conversation going, she was more sarcastic and cynical than usual, and she avoided eye contact with me.  Finally I asked her, awkwardly, what she needed.  “What can we do for you?”  I asked.

Her face darkened, and she retreated even further into herself.  “Who?” she asked defensively.

“Me,” I said, fumbling.  I was startled by her reaction.  “The group.  All of us.  You know…”

She shook her head.  “Who in the group?  It’s not even a group.” 

Not even a group?  What did she mean by that?  I began to list some names, people who we have been gathering in circle with for years.

“No,” she said.  “It’s not even a group,” she emphasized again.  “I don’t care about those people and they don’t care about me.”  And then she broke down crying.  “Literally the only people to reach out to me through this were my coworkers.  That’s it.  No one else.”

I was stunned to silence.  I had no idea, at all, what to say.  I saw my friend hurting, trying to hold back tears and anger and frustration and disappointment.  I had no idea how to reach out to her in that moment, to comfort her.  Clearly she felt like we had all let her down.  I was shocked, torn between defensiveness over my group and our mutual friends, and reeling at the possibility that I had really, really hurt her.  My mind raced for something to say, something to do.  But it was too late.

She quickly changed the subject, but the topic somehow returned to the elephant in the room, the thing I wanted to talk about but the pain that she was unwilling or unable to share.  I asked her about an event coming up this October, and she just sighed in exhaustion.  “I’m tired of reaching out to people,” she said.  “I’ve been going to that event for years and I’ve not made any connections, no matter how hard I try.”  She began to cry again.  “I’m just tired of looking and looking and not finding what I need.”

Many, many years ago, back when our little ritual circle was brand-new, she confessed to me her feelings of isolation and sadness at being a single mom and being unable to find a spiritual community for herself and her child.  “It’s just hard, you know?” she told me then.  “We just don’t fit in with the other families.  There are just no spiritual communities out there for us.”

This conversation was one I never forgot, and it’s been a driving force in the back of my mind as I work in my various religious and spiritual groups.  How do we give each other what we need, even when we ourselves don’t know what we need?  How do we support one another, care for one another, love one another, when there are so few of us, so few resources, such a general lack of cohesion and true community for so many of us?

I’ve been thinking hard about this encounter with my friend.  It’s been on my mind for months.  It keeps me up at night sometimes.  I love my friend.  It breaks my heart to see her hurting so much.  I hate to see her isolated and in so much pain.  I’m so sorry about the ways I have failed her as a friend.  And as a clergy person, a high priestess and minister and ritual facilitator and group leader, I am ashamed that we have failed her as a community.

What could we have done better?  Should I have read more books on death, dying, and grief?  Spent less time promoting events on Facebook and Meetup and more time meeting friends for coffee or lunch?  Maybe we should have been more concerned with our grieving friend than worrying so much about finding a venue for our next ritual, planning our fundraising party for next fall, gossiping about who said what ridiculous thing at our last gathering.  Maybe we should have reached out to her, and maybe we should be more vigilant about one another. 

We should send gift baskets and flowers when we have deaths in the family.  We should do meal trains when we are sick.  We should provide safe space when someone has to leave home in the middle of the night.  We should sit with one another at the hospital when a loved one is in surgery.  We should gather for births and graduations and birthdays and anniversaries.  We should make sure that none of us go hungry or homeless or without basic needs and necessities, and this list of needs includes our spiritual and religious needs, too.

I thought that by writing this article that a solution would become more clear to me.  I thought I’d wait a bit before publishing it, and that eventually I’d find wise closing words and a solution for how to do better next time.  But the fact of the matter is that those things didn’t happen.  I don’t know what the group will do next time something like this happens, and I don’t know what I, as an individual, will do next time.

My little groups and our greater community are doing great, in general.  I’m really proud of us, and it seems like we are doing better every day.  We are making more friends, building more connections, hosting more events, and making some great, long-term plans.  But what do we do when someone falls through the cracks?  What do we do to keep it from happening again?  When someone who has been with the group for nearly ten years, who attends rituals, donates money and supplies, comes early to set up and stays late to clean up, confesses that the group has failed her, what do you do?  If I can’t take care of my friend, and if we as a Pagans can’t take care of those who are in our intimate magical circles, how can we have hope to grow and evolve as legitimate religious and spiritual communities? 


What do we do when community fails?