Grief is a difficult emotion for pagans, because for many of our non-pagan friends and family, the comoft they offer tends to reflect their religious beliefs and not ours. Over the past year, the need for supporting one another in our grief has grown exponentially. We've been isolated and removed from our typical support networks, and when we turn to our family and coworkers--the only folks most of us have seen in months--the mismatch between what we need and what they offer by means of support can be jarring and leave us feeling even more alone.
Understanding grief from a non-religious standpoint is a key way we can learn to communicate our needs to those whose religious beliefs are different from ours, for this understanding is more universal. When we experience loss, the comfort we seek falls into one of the stages of grief. When we are suffering, understanding how we feel and being able to communicate this to others will guide them in how to better support us.
Let's start by talking about the grief cycle as it relates to death. There are five stages of grief, and we move through them in different ways based on the circumstances of our loss. Some losses will leave us lingering in one of the stages of grief for far longer (or far shorter) than another.
In the first stage of grief, we are in denial. Our reality has shifted in an unacceptable and permanent way, and we don't want to believe it is true. Even for our Christian loved ones, the denial phase is not a time for focusing on the "better place" our loved one has reached. During this phase, we need help allowing the truth to wash over us. The pang reverberates through us, and we are frozen by the weight of what we have learned, like a deer trapped in headlights. As the denial begins to ease, the full gravity of the loss sinks in, and we become angry at the injustice of having to live in a word without them.
When we are angry, we are often making a list of the should've's and never's of that relationship--and some of these can be pretty big! Losing a father can leave items on this list such as should've called more often, should've made that trip to visit, never getting walked down the aisle, and any of a myriad number of words left unspoken (including I'm sorry). The loss of all the things that will never happen again is infuriating! Holding space for that anger is hard even for the best trained support person, and what most folks really need right now is not words or advice but space to make that list and be heard.
The third phase is bargaining, which is complicated. Bargaining is more common when a loss is imminent and has not yet taken place. When a loved one is in the ICU and being moved to hospice, there may be an internal dialogue between the person being left behind and whatever higher power they perceive to have control over death and dying. "If you will spare/heal my loved one, I will [makes promises]." This is also a time when guilt, angst, panic, and hopelessness may kick in. Again, the bargaining phase is a time for holding space and listening.
When the third phase has run its course and we realize there is nothing we can do to stop or reverse the circumstances of the loss, our hopelessness leads to a situational depression. It is at this stage that I think we truly begin to grieve. It is here that our sadness benefits from the balm of compassion and the strength of our friends and family. When we reach this fourth phase, we are ready to seek comfort, and for the Christians in our lives, this is a time to turn to God. It is here that the mismatch in our religious affiliations and belief systems are the most at odds. We don't want to hear about the good life the departed has lived that has given them entrance into "heaven." We don't want to hear about seeing them again when we pass into the same realm.
For Ancestor-centric faith practices, comfort comes through the realization that the departed is not lost to us. What we need is to be reminded of the memories and how this person will live on within us and through the stories we tell. We have the framework in our everyday work at our shrines to make offerings and keep their memory alive. We may speak to them, and through our divination practices, they may speak back to us. These moments of clarity, of being able to see the way forward, will ultimately lead us to break out of our depression and move onto the final stage: acceptance.
Acceptance doesn't mean the pain of the loss magically disappears. In fact, the acceptance phase may even make the pain of the loss feel more acute as we understand the breadth and depth of this new reality, of the new world we have to live in without our loved one. And that's okay. In the acceptance phase, we are perched at the threshold of this awful rite of passage, and the liminal space between what was and what will be is uncomfortable to say the least. We are best served by help moving out of the doorway to the past and taking the first step into our new future.
Ways our loved ones can help us make this transition include practical things: helping us clean and sort the loved one's belongings, listening to our stories of the items we uncover, and allowing us to find laughter and tears in equal measure as we release each of the emotions we have within us tied to this person's life. We need to share the memories of happy times and find peace in them. We need to share the things that we will miss the most. We need to be met with patience as our waves of emotion stop us in our tracks and utterly distract us from the task at hand. And the only way those who are here to help us can get it right is for us to communicate with them.
I have a list of things I tell people when I need support. I tell them how I am feeling right now, even if how I feel is best described as "I don't even know." I ask for what I need and guide them in helping me. I may ask for their ear as I share stories. I may ask for their silence so we can just be together. I may ask for them to leave me alone to process on my own, adding that I'd like them to check on me later. And when the loss is new and I cannot speak to what I need, I mostly just let them hold me, because hugging makes me feel stronger and more able to handle whatever is happening that I am trying desperately to understand. It may help you to make a list of the things you typically need when you are the most upset, including whether touch is okay, so that when grief strikes, you can hand this short list to those who are there to help you through.
In the end, our non-pagan friends and family mean well, and as in all things, grief requires us to articulate what we need in a way that they can understand. They may not get it right the first (or second) time, but those who truly love us will always be learning how to be in right relationship with us, just as we are with them.
May the losses you have experienced lead you to richer relationships with those who remain in this world with you, and may the memories of those who have passed on always be a blessing.