The evening is crisp, with a hint of dampness still in the air. The descent of autumn in the Northern Hemisphere brings the blessings of bountiful pumpkins, crisp apples, and leaves just waiting to be crunched beneath boots on long walks through the woods. This is the in-between time. In my home tradition, we celebrate the sabbat of Thesmophoria when Demeter mourns the loss of her daughter, and Hades rejoices at the return of Kore, who will mature as his queen, Persephone.It is a time of tumult and the weather reflects this. One day could be warm enough to wear thin cotton tops and shorts, while the next is so damp and cool that the urge to reach for a thick comforter or to turn on the furnace is almost irresistible. As transition, it is a good time to reflect. My care-giving has come to an end and now, like the changing season and the blowing leaves, I try to follow the too-often given advice: it is time for you. Take care of yourself.
Care-giving after crossing the river with a loved one is as strange and unfamiliar as the death itself in many ways. What comes first? Does the caregiver gush relief that the loved one has crossed in peace, and hopefully without pain? Or does the caregiver collapse under the weight of final duties, paperwork, and the incessant need to recount the end, the death, and the dying process? Do the steps taken closer to the edge, then the steps that float in the water, and finally the realization that a separation has occurred overwhelm the caregiver?
Crossing the river for the dying has a clear and specific meaning: one has reached a point of physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional depletion. Atropos has cut the length measured by Lachesis. Whatever deeds have been the product of the person dying, for better or for worse, have been completed. Perhaps there are regrets. There is never enough time for the living to say goodbye; there is even less time for the dying to accomplish what was destined, or even what was desired. When the soul in decline approaches the river, the caregiver is there to guide and to protect at this crucial time.
Even in today’s hectic society, there is a space carved for those who are preparing to leave life: hospice. The idea of hospice is comfort, but the reality is one that many desire: to end life on one’s own terms, in the manner that best suits the individual. Instinctively, even those who do not know what to say around those who approach the end of life react with the idea that this is the one time to give whatever the dying wish. Favorite foods, beverages, songs, toys, people, television shows, flowers, or books appear with regularity. The usual trappings of a successful life mean little to the dying: health will not reappear, possessions are practically useless, and money may help to bring additional means for physical comfort or medications, but little else.
Touch, be it the comfort of a human hand, the nuzzling of a comforting animal friend, or the feel of a favorite blanket or quilt mean more to help those who are crossing. For the caregiver, watching at this time is a type of waiting, a helplessness. Each moment is a suspension between an awareness of a chasm of grief and an ocean of release from human pain. The pain of the dying and the pain of the caregiver intersect and align during the final steps through the river. Lachesis’ last threads spin out in infinitesimally small steps, each one slower and smaller than the last. As the heart rate of the dying slows, whether by natural means in sleep or medicinal means through morphine, there is a point where the thread’s pace is so slow that it appears Atropos has completed her task.
For the caregiver, the threads that bind the dying also bind the living. In an effort to not leave the declining spirit alone, the caregiver may give up the ordinary tasks of the living: eating, sleeping, working, and household tasks. There are attempts at living, yet the crossing marks the visage of the caregiver, as it marks the fading physical form of the dying. Whether in a hospital bed at home or in a facility, the shrinking body, sunken eyes, and sagging skin indicate that the end is near for the dying.
Exhaustion and anticipatory grief are harbingers of the impending end of the caregiver’s journey. Tears come, go, and come again. Mourning perhaps seems like a distant shore, held in abeyance by the final moments yet to come.
A part of the caregiver departs with the loved one. Whether it comes back, that remains to be seen. The before can never return. The after will not be the same.The crossing of the river can be a time of joy for some, as Hades welcomes his bride. It can be a time of great sorrow, as Demeter accepts both the loss of her daughter and the innocence that Kore represents in lieu of her responsibility to the world as a queen, the goddess of abundance, fertility, and harvest.
Each autumn, we experience the fluctuation of the weather, we harvest the abundance that falls to the earth, and we turn our gatherings to both outdoor and indoor pursuits. For the caregiver, regardless of the time of year, the harvest is the time of realization that the task has been done, the dying has reached the final destination, and the ability to rest on the near side of the river can begin.
What makes the crossing so difficult for the caregiver is that the crossing is not done by one person, but by two. However, Hades’ realm does not permit the living to enter, and the caregiver can only go so far. When the caregiver performs one final task, to mark the time closest to when Atropos wields the final cut, there is a moment of silence, when the air is still. In a moment, the loved one is on the far side, and the caregiver is on the near side. The river flows between them. For the living, the mourning can begin. For the caregiver, each breath taken as they step away from the river is silent agony and awareness: the task is finished, yet there is an emptiness.
Each day is a step towards a new awareness. Just as birth brings celebrations and tasks, so does dying. The caregiver may remember that each tasks is a step in fulfilling the responsibilities of caring for the one who has died.
As with so many other times of the year, these are uncertain times and prayer is not only needed, but required. As a polytheist, it is comforting to know that there are gods around for comfort and solace at 3am or when just crying is not enough. After care-giving for another, the care for the self can take some time. Care-giving calls for compassion to others; release from the care-giving lends emphasis for compassion to the self.
It is hard. Mourning will come. It may come in waves or not. It may not seem to come at all. During this harvest time, the tumult resembles the uncertainty that comes after crossing the river. Stepping out of the river means planting each foot with care, and reaching out to lean on others when necessary, just as the caregiver provides the support branch for the dying.Now in the autumn, the sun rises later and sets earlier. The day begins with feeling refreshed, yet tired. It is different from the tiredness when caring for the declining. A lingering weariness steeps into the bones like a fine tea, and it languishes in the blood. For a time, sleep does not seem enough. Yet it will come. In stepping away from the river, water dripping from our bodies, the sun will provide warmth. The soul will steep in a renewed awareness of life as the caregiver leaves the closeness of Atropos and re-embraces the familiar length of Lachesis’ cord. The cycle continues.
* * *
The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.