Grief is one of the emotions and experiences that everyone will go through at some point in life. The impact of grief can be all-encompassing and elicit a range of emotions that evoke sadness and confusion. The individual and collective impact of grief is often shaped by the context of the loss and this makes dealing with it much more complicated.
The range of situations that can provoke feelings of grief are plentiful. Physical death, loss or change of any kind can ignite this process. While change is the one constant in life, we cannot always predict how we will react when change occurs.Dictionary.com gives a simple definition of grief as “keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret, a cause or occasion of keen distress or sorrow.”
The Mayo Clinic gives a more in depth definition of grief.
“Grief is a strong, sometimes overwhelming emotion for people, regardless of whether their sadness stems from the loss of a loved one or from a terminal diagnosis they or someone they love have received.
They might find themselves feeling numb and removed from daily life, unable to carry on with regular duties while saddled with their sense of loss.
Grief is the natural reaction to loss. Grief is both a universal and a personal experience. Individual experiences of grief vary and are influenced by the nature of the loss. Some examples of loss include the death of a loved one, the ending of an important relationship, job loss, loss through theft or the loss of independence through disability.
Experts advise those grieving to realize they can’t control the process and to prepare for varying stages of grief. Understanding why they’re suffering can help, as can talking to others and trying to resolve issues that cause significant emotional pain, such as feeling guilty for a loved one’s death.
Mourning can last for months or years. Generally, pain is tempered as time passes and as the bereaved adapts to life without a loved one, to the news of a terminal diagnosis or to the realization that someone they love may die.”
Some of the most common symptoms of grief include anger, rage, disbelief, depression, guilt, confusion, fear, disconnection, loneliness, panic and anxiety. All symptoms of grief are not psychological and there are a host of physical experiences one might have as well since grief changes the body’s response to its environment. Fatigue, restlessness, body aches, loss of appetite, headaches, inability to focus, short of breath, and lowered immune system are some of the physical effects of mourning on the body. It is important to remember that grief is a stress response that triggers a higher level of cortisol in the body and shifts the body into survival mode.
One of the most well known theories on grief include the “5 Stages of Grief” by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. The five stages as identified in this theory include 1. Denial and isolation; 2. Anger; 3. Bargaining; 4. Depression; 5. Acceptance. While people cycle through these stages at different speeds and sometimes in a different order, it is often believed that these stages are the common experience of mourning.
The disbelief, loneliness, depression, desire to bargain and finally the slow and painful process of acceptance are often described as the spiral into grief and the eventual outward spiral to healing. Mourning loss of any kind is a painful experience compounded by regret, loss of control and rebuilding. Much like with the Tower card of the Major Arcana… as our loss tears apart the existing structures of what once was, rebuilding is an essential part of the restabilization process.
While grief is an undercurrent of life’s experiences, the current political climate around the world has brought about a multitude of experiences of loss. Processing the grief of change in political landscape, sense of freedom, and hope can amount to individual and collective feelings of despair and sadness. These events and the tone of society have impacted people in all intersecting communities, including Paganism. Loss of a sense of safety or even social capital also brings about feelings of grief.
It can be a normal response for people to look to their spirituality or the mythology of their faith when looking to make sense of the pain they are experiencing. Most cultures and spiritual paths have their myths about the natural process of death and the experience of grief, some of these are more overculture reflections while others are specific scriptures or folk stories. Since modern Paganism is more like a community of communities, the folk stories and myths will vary greatly among our own factions.
Even within the Pagan and Polytheist communities we have experienced events that have equated to great loss of friendships, leaders, groups, and even life. We experience loss in our own distinct ways as a community, as well as experiencing it within society. All groups have their own distinct, cultural experiences that represent the microcosm of greater society. Paganism is no different.
In a recent conversation with a fellow Pagan practitioner they mentioned to me the impact of “losing” leaders in our community due to death or scandal. The potentially devastating impact of losing a leader or elder in our craft due to misconduct can have the same impact on a community as a death. Just as individuals will grieve the loss of a physical body, the loss of relationship symbolizes a death as well.
So with the vastness of this experience, why are we not talking about it more within our Pagan and Polytheistic communities? Of course these conversations are complex, sensitive and triggering, making for a challenging conversation to facilitate at times.
In my own experience of grief, it was very hard for me to reconnect to a sense of spiritual knowing. The things that I believed, the practices that I incorporated into my life, and the connection that I had with my ancestors and deities became foggy and distant. My sense of anger extended to the deities and guides that I served, making a huge part of my grief process about questioning and bargaining for something to make sense.
As grief does not always make sense, those answers we hold now may or may not be what we are able to hear while in the throws of such devastating disconnection. I found myself very detached and confused in the process of all of it.There are some within the Pagan and Polytheist world that have written and spoken more about experiences of grief, and the connection of death and dying with our belief systems. Starhawk and M. Macha Nightmare published “The Pagan Book of Living and Dying” in 1997, adding some valuable information to the discussion of death in the Pagan culture and giving ideas for prayers to utilize during the death process.
In Starhawk’s introduction to the book she states,
At one time, every Pagan tradition had a similar body of custom and tradition. Now much of this has been lost. We do not know what words were on the lips of the Witches who burned. We do not know what whispered prayers were said under the breath of those who watched.
But we do know how Pagans viewed death – from our oral traditions, from the evidence of burials and artifacts, from folktales and myths, and from our own experiences. The core teaching in the Pagan tradition is that birth and death are one. We pass through the same gateway coming into life and going out again, and on the other side is a realm of change and renewal. Death will bring us to rebirth. And our encounters with the gates and the passages, the choices we make and the dilemmas we face, are our most profound encounters with what we call “Goddess”.
In looking to the internet to explore what others have shared about grief and the process, I found some writing around the experiences and beliefs that people had shared.
I’m having a crisis of faith. My partner of 18 years died last year, and in addition to grieving the loss of his tender presence and our precious time together, I’ve watched helplessly as my spiritual foundations have crumbled around me. I wasn’t prepared for that.
When he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, my faith — an idiosyncratic blend of Neo-Pagan traditions that include modern druidry and shamanic practice — gave me an abiding sense of peace and purpose throughout his illness. But once he died, those same practices ceased to sustain and comfort me. And despite having what I thought was a strong spiritual support network, I have found myself adrift without a community and unable to find any Pagan-centered resources to help me manage my grief. I wasn’t afraid to lose my partner, but I never expected that his death would take with it the one thing I thought I could never lose. – Wes Isley
“Suffering brings women to god.”
So says Igraine in the Mists of Avalon movie (I can’t remember if she says this in the book as well, it’s been so long since I last read them.) This is something I’ve contemplated a lot lately, and without a satisfactory conclusion. The only solid thing I’ve deduced is that suffering either brings people directly to their source of faith, or sends them running the other direction. And that changes, sometimes minute to minute. – Ayslyn
Our understanding, however, is a bit more complex than my childhood certainty. In The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, I wrote: “The heart of the Pagan understanding of death is the insight that birth, growth, death and rebirth are a cycle that forms the underlying order of the universe. We can see that cycle manifest around us in every aspect of the natural world, from the decay of falling leaves that feed the roots of growing plants, to the moon’s waning and waxing. Hard as it is for us to die, or to accept the death of someone we love, we know that death is a part of the natural process of life.
“Therefore we can trust that death, like every other phase of life, offers us opportunities for growth in wisdom and love.” (1)
Our metaphor for death is of a journey . When we die, the soul voyages across a dark sea to the Shining Isle, the Isle of Apples. There, we walk beneath the apple trees of the Goddess, trees which are in bud, blossom, fruit, and decay all at the same time, reviewing our life and its lessons, and growing ever younger, until we are at last young enough to be reborn. – Starhawk
Pagans and Witches experience the same emotional process around grief that everyone does. We deny. We rage. We think of bargains. Eventually, we accept. Our anger blasts at the “death is only transformation” belief. Yet, after a profound and personal confrontation, most of us return to that belief with a deeper sense of commitment to it. One friend said that, at first, he was so enraged that he hated it when people tried to comfort him with notions that his mother would be “around, but in another form,” or would return “but in another shape”. In our grief, we just don’t care. We want our physical friend — the one we laughed with, yelled at, hugged. Nothing, no energy, no life form, will provide us with our friend again. We cannot imagine how life will feel with this person gone. We turn inward with a personal, private agony, wondering how anyone can assimilate this much intensity. And we surprise ourselves. Slowly, over days, over years, we change our shape, not only accepting our loss, but using the catalyst of our own grief to transform while living, reaffirmed in the idea of transformation by death. And so in dancing with death, we grow deep. – Sue Curewitz Arthen
There is no right or wrong way to experience grief. The process of acclimating to loss has its own context and flavor depending on numerous factors. As well, there is no way to anticipate that impact on an individual or community; our physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual bodies have to go through their own process in order to heal from a loss. We cannot convince ourselves to “move on” and we are not in control of the way that we grieve. It is perfectly normal to be in this process and to feel helpless as it works its way through.
Proper rest, nutrition, and support are some of the fundamental things one can do while going through this process. And when a person is able, connecting to spiritual practice, communing with the gods and aligning to our ancestors can give us relief from the mundaneness of such a process.
It is also important to note that professional help with feelings of grief, depression or prolonged sadness can be useful and necessary. Seeking therapeutic support is an important part of caring for the self when needed.
I hope to explore grief more in follow up pieces. There is much to explore in the way of community grief and ongoing restoration after change.
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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.