Let’s Talk Grief
The Wheel is turning and the dark of the year approaches. It is time to face the dark and come to terms with it. Let’s face it: our culture doesn’t deal very well with death. To start, we don’t really talk about it, we talk around it with euphemisms which deny its power. Can we deal with something whose very name we fear?
As a pre-service mental health counselor, and as a frequent attendee and cast-member of the ATC’s Hekate Sickle Festival, I see a lot of grief, and not always in the way one would expect. Someone does not have to die for us to experience grief. Any loss can trigger deep feelings of pain and buried memories. We can grieve over the loss of a relationship, a job, of future possibilities that can’t come to fruition. Sometimes grief is subtle, and we don’t realize that it is affecting us. Grief and mourning are individual, and there is no right or wrong way to grieve, but there are some guidelines that one should keep in mind.
Imagine grief is like a map. There are recognizable landmarks, clear paths, and places to get lost. You can travel in any direction and stay for any length of time, or even return to a place you’ve already visited. Each person’s journey is different, so everyone’s grief map is different. To orient you, Kubler-Ross and others identified five different areas of grief. Pagans may find some identity with the five elements:
- Denial — “I feel fine.”; “This can’t be happening, not to me.”; “I don’t believe it.”; “I don’t feel anything.”; “It’s not important.” Denial is often a temporary defense for the individual. It is used as a coping mechanism to help the brain process the new information. Grievers might feel shocked and numb at the time. This roughly corresponds with the element Air as the griever struggles to take in new information and create a new reality for themselves which includes the loss, but can’t find a way to express it yet.
- Bargaining — “Just let me live to see my children graduate.”; “I will give my life savings if…” “Why did this happen?”; “I miss them so much.”; “I would give anything to be with them again.”; “I wish I had something tangible to remember them by.” This part of the landscape involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone or delay their own death. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for something tangible, such as a change in lifestyle. The person wishes for more time with what or who they lost. The corresponding element is Earth, as this area deals with trading one thing for another.
- Depression — “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die . . . What’s the point?”; “I miss my loved one, why go on?” ;“I can barely bring myself to get out of bed.”; “I’m sorry I missed our appointment—I’ve been somewhat distracted lately.” During this stage, the person begins to understand the certainty of death. Because of this, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying and grieving. The person may feel disorientation and disorganization in their general life. It is not recommended to try and cheer up an individual who is in this stage as this may be seen as minimizing their loss. This is the part that people often get stuck on, and must be actively worked through. It corresponds with the element of Water. Some people wallow while others seem to simply cross a bridge. A person may appear inconsolable, but it is important to watch them during this time.
- Acceptance — “It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”; “This person is gone. It is time to get back to life and pull myself together.” This final stage comes with peace and understanding of the death or loss experience. Generally, this is the goal of the healing process. The griever reorganizes their life with the new information and copes with situations without what they lost. It corresponds with Spirit: the amalgamation of what has been learned to transform the self.
- Guilt – “If only I’d…”; “I shouldn’t have done…” Some people make a detour into guilt. While it is not generally considered to be a universal part of everyone’s healing process, many people spend quite a bit of time here. Guilt is a way for our minds to make sense of what happened, and sometimes it seems like the only explanation—even if it isn’t true. It feels good to have things make sense when so much around us in chaotic. But by its very nature, guilt doesn’t allow us to feel good. It is unhelpful in the healing process.
- Anger — “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; “Who is to blame?”
Once in this area, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Their anger can be hard to quell, and may seem never-ending. Grievers may feel like they are being consumed with desire for revenge and may look for scapegoats. They may act out or snap at those dearest to them. This clearly corresponds with the element Fire. The danger is that it will burn out of control and harm others.
This gives us a good map of what to expect when you or someone you love is grieving. Here are a few other things to keep in mind:
- You should always tell a grieving person to take as long as they need to work through their loss. But the truth is that it is harmful for a person to dwell in grief for an extended period of time. You wouldn’t want “Anger” or “Depression” to become a fixed pattern, and we all know what happens when someone gets fixated on revenge. After about three months, the loss should not feel as immediate. By its very nature, grief comes and goes, and ultimately should fade with time. If after six months, the loss still feels like an immediate concern, or you feel depressed or suicidal, seek counseling or call a crisis line.
- While you are grieving, it is a good idea to put off major financial decisions or life changing events. For example, many couples who experience the loss of a child divorce soon after, because in their grief they turn away from each other and remind each other of the loss. Instead of sharing their emotions and being a source of strength for each other, they instead have created another loss: their relationship.
- Grief can begin long before someone dies. When someone becomes very sick, or it is clear the relationship cannot continue, the grieving process may begin.
- Planning for your own death ahead of time can help you deal with your own mortality, and relieve those around you of difficult decisions. Children may not know significant details of their parents’ lives, so help them out by writing your own obituary. Choosing or even paying for your funerary equipment can really help your loved ones give you the send off you want. Consider pre-paying for your casket, and outlining your will. Not only will you help the survivors, but you may learn something about yourself as well.
The truth is that our culture doesn’t deal well with death. Others may be uncomfortable around people who are grieving, as it may remind them of their own unresolved feelings. They may not know how to help. We are told to “get over it” and “pull yourself together”. The truth is that we never get over the ones we love, we just learn to live without them. When my friend in high school took her own life, I was told to leave the classroom, and spent the rest of the day sitting alone in the library or the nurse’s office. I guess they didn’t want me to upset the others, and I was expected to return to school ready to learn the next day. Unresolved grief can cause severe depression, compulsive behavior such as overeating, and substance abuse as people try to cope with their intense feelings. It may even lead to suicide. Recognizing that grief is a process that must be worked through is essential to healing. You cannot force a grieving person to feel better. You may distract them from their feelings for a time, but they still must be worked through.
As Pagans, we have certain advantages when it comes to dealing with grief. Use your support system. Talk about it. A lot. Talk about it until you have nothing left to say, and if you think of anything else, feel free to talk it over! Remember that those who love you may not know what you need, so tell them in advance. Let them know how they can help you. Some people want and need hugs and physical affection while they grieve, still others would prefer to be left alone until they can process the difficult emotions. Honor the needs of your unique journey through rituals that help you cope. Samhain is an excellent time to do rituals such as tending grave sites, inviting the dead for a dumb supper, creating an ancestor altar or scrap book, or indulging in sad movies and keening. Personally, I work through my issues every year at Sickle: if I am not grieving, I help someone who is.
Remember that theology and spirituality can be very beneficial when you have lost someone dear. For those of us who believe in reincarnation, we know our loved ones are reborn and living new lives and learning new lessons. For others, they will spend time in Summerland resting at the lap of the Goddess. Some lucky few are raised to Valhalla to drink a toast to battles won, and others are invited to the Elysian Fields. If you have the opportunity to ritually travel to the Underworld, do so: it’s hard to be afraid of death when you enter it each year when the veil is thin. Perhaps meet Anubis, Hades or Hel through safe guided meditation to work through your grief. Scheduling time to reminisce about loved ones or think about death helps to keep strong emotions from sneaking up on you, or manifesting in the body as illness.
Ultimately, grief is a process. Accept that a loss may permanently change you, and you will have to adjust to a new “normal”. The Gods never send us more than we can handle, but they expect you to learn what these experiences have to teach you. Take responsibility for your own grieving by telling people where you are, sharing your story, and asking for help. After this article, you will find some phone numbers of people who are trained to help.
“Today I flow with the river.
I am one with the moon.
I am peaceful and calm.
I forgive myself and everyone else”
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Hipp, E. (1995). Help for the hard times: getting through loss. Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden.
Roberts, B.K. (2002). Death without denial, Grief without apology: a guide for facing death and loss. Troutdale, Or: NewSage Press.
Santrock, J.W. (2007). A Topical Approach to Life-Span Development. New York: McGraw-Hill.