Column: the Impact of Collective Grief

In last month’s column we explored the topic of grief and some of the ways that people experience grief within our community. Such a vast topic cannot be exhausted in one article, nor should it be. With a topic like grief, one that is so very complex, there are many different aspects and approaches to unpacking its impact.

Individual grief will always be a part of the process of life just as loss will continue to be a process of life. The past month we have seen several high profile celebrity deaths that have promoted a lot of sharing around the sadness that death leaves behind. Collective grieving within communities and within society is a real thing, and we witness that manifest most obviously with the loss of celebrities. Grieving does not just symbolize the absence of a person, but also the loss of reflections, memories, and connections as a result.

You don’t have to know a person personally in order to grieve them, or to connect to that emotions that are brought about by that loss.


Whether we are exploring the impact of loss in a larger societal context or within more intimate communities, the concept of collective grief is not something new. The ripple effects of the any loss have the potential to reach far and wide, and way beyond the boundaries we might have anticipated.

In Grieving in Community, Erin Coriell wrote the following about the importance of grief within a community context and the significance of hearing our grief:

In many indigenous cultures, grief is often a collective experience. Through sacred rituals and praise, grief is expressed out loud as a uniting force of remembrance. In the Mayan culture, each individual is given permission to grieve openly and mourn completely at the time of loss. Author Martin Prechtel describes grief as a poem, no matter how messy, inappropriate, amateurish, or loud, it deserves to be heard. There are said to be entire villages around the world that understand the importance of honoring grief as a community.

Here in the West, we seem to have placed a time stamp on grief. There seems to be an unspoken expectation that after some time, one will simply get on with life. This concept seems to be wrecking out entire culture. If we are unable to grieve in community, it is nearly impossible for individuals to heal fully. Grief demands to be heard, from all beings. This grieving thing makes us human, it is what unites us all at our core.

The recent deaths by suicide of fashion designer Kate Spade and culinary genius Anthony Bourdain have impacted many people in this very way. Discussions of depression, grief, loss and suicide have permeated social media, news and television. We often see this with celebrities and other well known people in society. The deaths of those with whom we connect through popularity or fame often put people in an emotional place to revisit their own mortality and the meaning of life.

Reminders of our own fragility can play a major role in the way we experience grief and the loss of those with whom we feel a connection.

Collective grief also has a place within the Pagan and polytheist communities. While there may only be several publications that share the news of a person’s passing versus the onslaught of media attention that celebrities get, the voicing of grief that takes over the internet and social media can have a similar impact. Within a community as small as ours, we often have a sense of knowing people through others, by affiliations, or over Facebook; this cultivates a sense of connection that we might not otherwise have.

It is important to note that the way a particular community frames related topics, like ancestral reverence, lineage and legacy, will also sculpt the way that a community processes or holds the passing of a fellow Pagan community member.

In the 30 days since this last column on grief we have lost several Pagans within this writer’s local California community: Reclaiming priestess Lizann Bassham, Faery elder Valerie Walker (Veedub), and the extraordinary Darrin Barnett. The collective weight of grief has been especially heavy this month, reverberating through many different circles and evoking many memories.

The Pagan History Project administrators said it best: “It’s a sad week for Bay Area Pagans – and beyond. What is remembered lives.” It has been a sad time indeed.

I found myself experiencing the collective grief of others even though I did not have a close relationship with the first two priestesses. My experience of grief deepened when I heard of Darrin’s death; my memories of him became enmeshed with the feelings of loss. My experience of this is a genuine reflection of just how collective grief happens, how the impact of loss moves beyond a small group and has an impacted our a whole community. And, the impact of that experience does not stop there; it becomes a part of the way that we relate to the legacy of the person for years and generations to come.

Out of all of the many different posts about the deaths of Lizann, Veedub and Darrin it became clear that the impact of their lives left a mark on many people, leaving behind a sense of confusion, sadness, joy, and gratitude. The reflections shared were just as diverse and vast as the people lost to us this month.

Left to R\right: Lizann, Darrin Barnett, Valerie Walker (Veedub) [file].

Ellie Skye Faulkner wrote, “I can’t say that I have a detailed memory of Darrin Barnett, my memory is not that great. I can tell you how he made me feel. He was a teacher who saw potential, and I could see my potential through him. No matter how much time went by, he always offered his knowledge and protection. Which is really nice when you’re a teen/young adult witch with self esteem issues, trying to figure out which path to take. To have a community that sees you is very important, I am grateful to have been able to be in the same community as Darrin.”

Aline “Macha” O’Brien wrote, “The loss of Veedub to our Neopagan community is great, though not unexpected. I know she moved beyond the veil in the way she wished. The very first sabbat circle (as opposed to circling in class) I attended, also as a student of Starhawk, was co-hosted by Compost and the late Coven Honeysuckle Coven. That’s where I first met Valerie. The scene was unlikely: a penthouse in the Marina District of San Francisco, We two visitors undressed and blindfolded were led up a flight of stairs to the penthouse. It was Samhaintide. I don’t remember a lot of specifics; however, I do remember our being led on a trance journey to the Isle of Apples, standing in a forward-facing line, each touching the shoulder of the person immediately in front of them. We rocked back and forth as we sailed, singing a chant about ‘Set Sail.’

“This may be the same song that has been used at Reclaiming’s annual spiral dances ever since. This was back in the day when all Craft rituals were performed skyclad; thus, Valerie and I were both naked at our first encounter. . . . Valerie and I remained friends since then, although we didn’t cross paths frequently. I have always considered her available to me if I were to contact her and vice versa. In 2006 I produced a video screening and panel called Visions of the Past and Memories of the Future: NeoPaganism in California — thank you and your memory be praised, Charley Murphy — sponsored by Pacific School of Religion and the (SF Bay Area) Pagan Alliance. That happened to be at a time when Faery (what it was called when I was a baby Witch) practitioners struggled to give the trad a clear definition and there was a fair amount of discord. There were plenty of people from whom to choose for that panel from various tendrils of the wild Faery vine, and I was asked why I didn’t choose so-and-so or so-and-so (the favored Faery/Feri of the inquirer). Valerie, however, was a no-bullshit kind of person and Witch, besides being a long-time initiate, so I chose Valerie to speak on behalf of Faery at this event. Veedub was a huge presence, and will remain so, because those who knew and loved her will keep her alive in our memories. Hail the goer!”

Gwion wrote: “Dear Lizann, I am supposed to be writing about you but the words won’t come. More accurately, as soon as the words start to flow so do the tears. There’s nothing written on the page because everything I’d want to say is written in memories and laugh lines and moments of sublime stillness as two foreheads rested upon one another. I’m going to walk in the sun today and eat fresh fruit and skip a little as I do it. Perhaps I’ll find you there and you’ll guide my pen.”

Grief, while painful, can be one of the biggest indicators of the impact of life. How we preserve legacy within a community matters, and how we speak about those who have transitioned from this life matters. Some of the hardest challenges with collective grief include the process of recovering as a whole, not just individually. This parallel process is complex and takes its own course on the path of healing, often bringing us to a place of revisiting our own grief with each aspect of community in which we are healing. Every discussion, post, ritual, or community meeting has its own significance in the process.

Cultures throughout time have celebrated transitions from life to death, utilizing rituals and ceremony to memorialize the moment. There are also ceremonies and processes within modern Paganism that support the celebration of life, transition to death, and the healing of those who are dealing with the pain of the loss. Grief circles within spiritual groups, therapy settings, and community gatherings can be one of the most useful and beautiful ways to honor the collective experience that comes when someone transitions.

As we continue to experience the excitement of connection and the sadness of loss within the interconnected communities of modern Paganism, we will need to continue to cultivate a way to support the grief that is an essential piece of the human experience.

In the meantime I will continue to grieve the loss of someone I came to respect in this community while also holding space for the grief of my fellow community members. May we all find a way to celebrate those we have loved and lost.

Below is a ritual and prayer, written by Starhawk and adapted by Thea in 2017. It is used by some during the dying and grieving process and helps to ease the journey for all.

Beloved one, you are dying

Beloved (name), you are dying (dead),
But you are not alone.
We are here with you
The beloved dead await you.
You go from Love Into Love.
Carry with you only Love.
May our Love carry you
And open the way.

(Draw opening pentagram over loved one..)

Carry with you only Love.
Carry with you only Love,
Lay down your pain,
You are the best of men!

(Adapt lines as needed)

We remember you with love.
You go from Love Into Love.
Carry with you only Love.
May our Love carry you
And open the way.

(Draw opening pentagram in the West.)

Carry with you only Love.
Over the Rainbow Bridge,
You travel to the Summerland.
Waiting to greet you on the other side,
are the beloved friends and familiars who have gone before,

(All in group list the names of people who have crossed,
describe images of animals playing, and what delights will be waiting your friend).

You go from Love Into Love.
Carry with you only Love.
May our Love carry you
And open the way.
Carry with you only Love.

(Repeat this line a few times until you’re sure that the loved one has passed through the veil.
When you’re ready to move on say:)

What is remembered, Lives.

(Draw closing pentagram and then in the West.)

*   *   *

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.

The Wild Hunt is not responsible for links to external content.

To join a conversation on this post:

Visit our The Wild Hunt subreddit! Point your favorite browser to, then click “JOIN”. Make sure to click the bell, too, to be notified of new articles posted to our subreddit.

Comments are closed.