Today’s offering comes to us from Sheri Barker. Sheri is an author and artist, wildlife enthusiast, Pagan, and poet living in western North Carolina. Visit her blog, From the Bear Path.
Editor’s note: today’s column involves description of drug overdose and the loss of a child.
Brigid. Imbolc. Corn dollies and candles. Iron and poetry.
For many years this sabbat has held a special place in my heart. Brigid was the first goddess about whom I conducted serious research and with whom I developed a personal relationship. I felt a connection with every aspect of her, and although I do not believe that any of the divine require a link to their land of origin from their devotees, every Celtic cell in my body fired up when I first encountered Brigid.
I looked forward to Imbolc every year. I loved the public rituals and my own solitary rites. I loved the spark of creativity and light in the midst of winter’s darkness. I loved this goddess.
On January 28, 2017, I turned my hand to yet another creation for my Brigid altar, working for hours on a Brigid’s cross made of copper wire. As I crafted, I prayed for my youngest daughter, who had disappeared more deeply than ever into the darkness of the mental illness and addiction that consumed her.
Within half an hour of my completing that Brigid’s cross my phone rang. It was Beth, my daughter, calling for the first time in a month. It was nearly midnight, and as always, a call from her number filled me with both joy and dread. I can’t remember how long we talked. She was crying for most of our conversation; she was upset, she claimed, because her kitten was missing. I do remember that she agreed to have dinner with me the following week. I do remember that the last words we said to each other were “I love you.”
Two days later, on January 30, 2017, my bright and beautiful girl died. She was a victim of murder by fentanyl-laced heroin, another number added to city, county, and national statistics, and her death became another segment of the nightmares that her mental health and addiction issues had brought to our family’s lives.
There was no Imbolc for me that year. In the depths of my despair and sorrow, I tried to seek comfort in my faith, but I told myself I was unable to think or feel clearly enough to perform even the simplest ritual. Nothing felt right, so it was easy to dismiss the particular something that felt wrong about my missing connection with the Divine.
I had conversations with Brigid at that time, hoping that she was there to greet Beth at the greatest of crossroads, to comfort and guide her on her journey through death and into the next realm. Brigid was the only divine, other than the higher power Beth created for herself when she was in recovery, that my daughter ever expressed any interest in. My red-haired girl took a great deal of delight in images of Brigid in red and gold, and half-jokingly said that maybe she could relate to another Irish female. Who else, she said, could better understand the depths of misery in which a woman can exist? Who else, she said, could understand the duality of her own fire and darkness?
I made it through the celebration of life. I made it back to work. I made it into an attempt to recover some sense of normality, and even made it to some group rituals over the following months and years. There were a few occasions when, in seeking justice for my daughter, my instinctive need for a connection with the divine brought me to a place where solitary ritual was an intuitive necessity.
I continued to publicly talk the talk about the wheel of the year and other spiritual matters that were and are important to me. But somewhere deep inside, I had blocked my connection to the divine and I didn’t even realize I was doing it. The times that awareness of the disconnect tried to creep into view, I dismissed it by using any one of a dozen life factors as an excuse or by distracting myself with writing, creating, or community work.
Grief is a powerful force. General society tends to treat it as a linear and singular construct. People who are grieving are supposed to move forward through a healing process that involves only sadness. That is not so; grief is a complex back and forth, up and down, interwoven series of sometimes stealthy emotions and actions. It more resembles the waves, riptides, gentle rises, and under-tows of an ocean than the calm surface of a quiet lake. It can pick a person up from a quiet shore, spin them around, and drop them on their head before they even know what is happening, and it can do that multiple times a day, a week, a month, or a year.
Grief can leave us uncertain, befuddled, and confused, and to make things even more interesting, it sometimes hides behind other emotions. For me, those other emotions included anger, frustration, and depression. Then, two years into trying to process my grief and all those other feelings, some additional significant life changes removed the distractions that I had used to shield myself from the true depths of all that I was feeling.
It wasn’t a zero-to-60 in 5.2 kind of situation, but I recall a rapid tumble down a painful emotional slope. At times I was consumed by anger, and in those moments, I began to lash out at the Goddess, specifically at Brigid. How could she? How could she have allowed my child to suffer and die the way that she did? What worth was there in all that I had learned and believed in – what worth was there in magic if my faith could not save my child’s life? There were nights I would sit by Beth’s altar on our deck and howl and scream at the moon, then curse her for showing what I perceived to be a cold and dispassionate face in response to my pain. I couldn’t see that it was not that she was not responding, but that I was not listening.
Pagans who understand the divine to be both immanent and transcendent can probably understand how dangerously toxic this type of confrontational, antagonistic, and borderline pugilistic behavior can be. Every time I lashed out at the Goddess, I was also lashing out at myself. This cycle of self-inflicted abuse drove me deeper into depression, deeper into the dark, and ever farther away from any comfort that faith could have allowed me.
I am privileged and fortunate to have access to mental health care, and to have family and friends who have been supportive and loving while I have journeyed this dark road. Working on the human and mundane aspects of my grief and all that it entails has been a process I would liken to crawling one handhold at a time back up the slope I previously tumbled down.
Reconnecting with the divine has been a muddy process. I had no amazing vision, no rainbow with talking bluebirds flitting about, no visitation during a dream. There was, however, a gentle and steady and sometimes humorous display of the presence of the divine all around me, as if the Goddess were just waiting for me to remember not only who I am, but who she is as well.
There was a rabbit in the middle of a patch of dianthus, and an autumn equinox morning with the light of the rising sun shining through the petals of a red sunflower. There were hours spent sitting on the ground in my garden, physically connected to the earth and so to the great mother, marveling at the richness of this river valley soil. There was the day I found my little felted Brigid doll inexplicably wearing my mother’s round metal cookie cutters like a helmet, as if she were telling me she were willing to do battle with me if necessary.
There were days of soft wind blowing through the branches of the loblolly pine, and baby mourning doves who would talk to me from their perch on the ground whenever I sat on the front steps. There were fat, round droplets of water running down the copper lines of the front porch rain chains, catching diamond points of light from the sun. Then, finally, there was a winter solstice celebration where the voices lifted in joyful song filled the vaulted ceiling of a parish hall until it seemed to open to the sky beyond, and those voices were joined by the voices of every creature and divine being welcoming the return of the light. Here Comes the Sun, indeed.
The ultimate realization of my grief for my daughter had dropped a rock wall between my spirit and my connection to my beloved divine. Somehow, despite hours of therapy and hours of consultation and conversation with family and friends, I could not see that rock wall until it started to crumble and the light began to break through the cracks. That only happened when I began to look beyond the darkness in which I was wallowing to see the world around me once again. In doing so, I moved towards closing the spiral dance back to divinity as both an imminent and transcendental presence.
I recently remembered a Brigid prayer I wrote long ago. Originally crafted as a protection spell for a friend who was being deployed, I also use it as a protection prayer for children. I used it many times as a prayer for my daughter. When I was still angry with Brigid I would hurl the words at her in accusation, especially the last two lines, the true meaning of my own words lost to me behind that rock wall.
A prayer for protection I offer to you,
to keep her from harm’s way,
for harm and ill-will to be turned
and ever kept at bay.
Brigid, fiery arrow, her protector be,
stand between her and harm and strife
and keep safe inside your faithful hands
the essence of her life.
Standing now in a place where I feel more safe and somewhat more sane, I remember the intention I set when I empowered that prayer; that in asking Brigid to keep safe the essence of my daughter’s life, I was asking her to safeguard the well-being of her soul. My restored connection to my faith gives me a sense of peace in knowing that she has done so.