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Wes Isley

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Honest Questions About Grief From a Pagan

Posted: 02/07/2013 10:07 am

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.

I have lots of questions. One question is why aren't there more articles or blogs or books about how a modern Pagan deals with grief? One thing Pagans do well is celebrate: We celebrate the Earth with outdoor rituals and planting gardens; we celebrate the Goddess with thoughtful liturgies and inclusive leadership; and we celebrate creativity with drumming, colorful ceremonies and by making space in our lives for play. That's all fine and well, but the painful loss of death is just as real as joyful celebration. Pagans talk a lot about how we are more in tune with the natural cycles of the world, of the seasons, of life and death -- but why do I find more resources for dancing around a maypole than for mourning the death of someone you love?

Another question of mine but one often raised by other Pagans: Will there ever be a more cohesive Pagan community? When Christians die, for example, the faithful rely on established congregations, caring pastors, prayer circles and comforting Bible verses. But so many of us Pagans are solitary practitioners, or we frequent loosely knit groups that may only meet for workshops or special events. If you're grieving during those gaps in the event calendar, where do you turn for support?

The diversity of belief among Pagans is one of our strengths, but it also poses a challenge for the grieving person. When everyone determines their beliefs or spiritual path from an internal compass rather than a mutually accepted book of Scripture, for example, it's difficult to know how to offer spiritual support. What kind of prayers should be said -- and to whom? Does a circle need to be cast? Am I allowed to perform certain ceremonies or is that only for initiates of the order?

I think that, in general, our culture doesn't know how to process death and grief. We want to keep it busy, focus on the positive and offer empty platitudes. I've found that true of people from most any faith. Yet isn't faith supposed to help us accept the inevitable? Sometimes Pagans seem the most insensitive of all, offering nothing more helpful than, "You must let go" or "Life is a series of changes." Oh, is that all? Whew, now I feel so much better.

Pagan practice is predominantly self-directed, or at least that's my experience. But grief saps your energy to such a degree that you simply can't maintain your personal altar, focus during meditation or push yourself to attend the next drum circle. In my grief journey, I feel I'm moving mountains if I'm just able to pay my bills, maintain my friendships and show up for work every day. In other words, the ancestors and spirit guides are on their own. But why, when you felt them calling you so strongly before, why are they now so silent?

Maybe that sense of spiritual isolation after grief is universal no matter what faith we practice. And maybe I'll feel more like my old self in six months or so. But what if I don't? What if I abandon this Pagan path? I've already lost my partner; must I lose my faith, too? This brings me to my central dilemma: Whatever spiritual path we choose should be able to sustain us through the toughest of times; if it fails to do so, is it worth keeping? Once before, I changed my faith when it no longer made sense and failed to sustain. Is that about to happen again?

 
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