Grief and Loss: A Perspective

“I am being driven forward into an unknown land… A wind from my unknown goal stirs the strings of expectation. Still the question: Shall I ever get there? “
~Dag Hammerskjold

There are many things that can be experienced within the safety of the circle or coven that a solitary witch cannot fully apprehend. Words cannot completely capture the experience, but the attempt can be valuable, and so I share it with you here.

This is an expression of the process I went through during my own leave-taking of my coven (also known as hiving). By definition it is a personal point of view, since I am the one who created the situation, and nothing that I say here should be taken as a judgment or antipathy. I began a journey that continues to unfold before me; I hope you will learn from my perspective.

Although this article was written about grief and loss within a particular setting, the wisdom herein can be applied to any experience of emotional distress or pain. In the aftermath of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, dealing with loss is a skill needed more than ever before.

Committing oneself to a relationship entails creating and accepting a shared vision of the future, a new set of roles and relationships, a new economic unit, and a new social identity. Dissolution of the relationship, therefore, entails multiple losses for both parties. Dreams are shattered, personal and social roles are transformed, economic security is threatened or even destroyed, life styles are radically altered, mutual friends and even family are lost, and self-image is damaged. Generally speaking, the longer the duration of the relationship, the more complex its dissolution and the more significant the losses…Additionally, unlike most other losses, in divorce and separation, most frequently the lost loved one does not disappear.”
~from “A Family Grieves” by Thomas Ellis, MA

What was I doing, spinning off? At its most basic, a hive occurs when the coven (either some of its parts or in entirety) chooses to ‘birth’ a new coven. There can be several reasons for a hive:

Ø Sometimes the mother coven will have become too large to administer effectively, so it splits into smaller covens.

Ø One or more members move to a new location and wish to found a new (more conveniently located) coven.

Ø It may be that a member finds him- or herself disagreeing with the administration of the mother coven and wishes to do it her (or his) way instead.

In some cases (and mine in particular) the Deity asks for the event . I had known for some time that I should lead a coven, but I did not think I was ready. S/He did, enough said.

For any reason, in any case, a hive is a serious stressor for a coven. A coven takes on an identity of its own, made up of the consciousnesses of the individual member, and when a person leaves, it is like a member of your close family has died.

One of life’s critical transitions for individuals and families is the loss of a loved one. These losses include not only an ending but also a beginning, grief, and mourning. Grieving is a process of discovering what it is that was lost, what is left, and what is possible. This grieving is the transformative process in which loss becomes choices involving growth and finding new stories with new meanings.

But, to paraphrase Monty Python, “I’m not dead yet!” From my perspective, I was a pregnant mother, about to give birth for the first time – I needed your excitement, your wisdom, your advice and help. I called for a Lamaze coach, and found myself listening to a funeral dirge. I felt like you ignored me, pushed me way, denied my state. I hurt — that was my place in the grieving chain. What was worse is that I could not see this was going on, none of us could, so I did not know to ask for the support I wanted.

Looking back, I do not know what I expected. to happen. Spinning off, leaving the coven, was a task laid upon me that I could not refuse. Intellectually, I knew the coven supported me, but perhaps I expected more excitement. There I was, pregnant for the first time, full of life and bursting with powerful energy. Yet my family members acted as if I had terminal cancer, lick an inevitable clock ticking its way towards a terrible end. The contrasting viewpoints were painful and marred what should have been a happy occasion. Loss enfolds me in her arms, still.

Some people, when they realize a relationship is going to end, will start an argument – that way they avoid the grieving. Righteous anger fuels their departure, soothing their fear, smoothing over their loss. Others withdraw in an attempt to protect themselves from the pain of the loss.

In all types of loss, the severity of the reaction depends upon the degree to which the individual or coven reality system has been attacked. This reality system is based on personal histories as individuals, families, communities and society. It dictates how we relate to others in our world. For example, when a parent dies, a large part of the child’s reality system is forever changed — what was once safe and nurturing is no longer. Environmental factors also influence such a reaction, including the quality of the relationship before the loss, and the psychological continuity of the individual’s surviving environment. Spiritual beliefs, supportive relationships, and positive self-esteem are just a few of the social factors contributing a more balanced recovery of one’s world after a severe loss.

Not everyone in the coven is going to be at the same place in their grief process. Each member will most likely process various tasks of grief at their own rate and in their own way. Understanding the other members’ position and exploring each other’s feelings is helpful in restoring the equilibrium to the coven.

Experiencing Loss

The most potent message from our culture about grief and loss, one of the first we hear and the most often, is not to think about it if at all possible. As witches we are encouraged to work through our ‘shadow’ emotions, to realize their limited power and to accept grief as a moment in an endless cycle. How much work do we truly do on this, I wonder? I don’t mean that we don’t experience grief, loss, depression, or anger. But I question how much time we spend actually exploring these emotions, mapping out the paths they carve within our souls and just plain thinking about them.

Not allowing ourselves to think about the possible losses in our lives makes a monster out of grief. We do not try it on; we lack flexibility or resourcefulness about it. We keep it buried it in our unconscious minds under a heavy top-soil that screams “Danger: Toxic Material!” with an image of a skull-and-crossbones – a symbol of death! This perspective not only inspires a number of unhealthy attitudes towards loss, but also keeps loss associated with death.

Sex, birth, divorce, death and money have all come out of the closet; these once taboo topics are now, if not easy, at least accessible topics of conversation. Yet loss and her handmaiden, grief, continue to be taboo, shameful and hidden.

Exercise the ‘Muscles’ of Grief

“Life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans.”

~Chilean poet Pablo Neruda

Our capacity to let go, to lose, with grace, awareness and honor is supported by having certain developed skills. Each day presents us with the opportunities to hone those skills. I remember when the self-help book, “When Bad Things Happen To Good People” came out. My first reaction was to ask ‘define bad.’ It is an event that happens in life and, as a popular bumper sticker puts it: “Compost Happens.” (My second reaction was: who are the ‘good people’ anyway? Who passes that judgment?) How we deal with loss is a manifestation of our relative wellness. Loss happens. Lift the ‘light’ weights of loss that life brings you so that you can see your strengths and weaknesses before the heavier weights pile onto you.

When I sit with someone who asks, “Why me?” I always want to ask, “Why not you? Why not now?” Strength comes by practicing with each loss that life brings to us. Daily practice occurs by noticing how we deal with a lost earring, a broken leg or a broken date. It grows stronger when we examine our fears and resistances as they arise and when we pay attention to the little voices in our minds that say: “I would never be able to deal with __ (fill in the blank).” Or: “I can not live without __(fill in the blank).” Stop for a moment and ask yourself instead: “What would it take to survive that loss?” Do not diminish your particular struggle with a situation, make no judgments as to your ability or ‘fitness.’ Use it as a way into your mind and the many thoughts that create your belief systems. How good are you at surrender? At letting go? I am terrible at those skills. Patience is a virtue I desperately need to cultivate. Notice how you respond when plans change. When people change. When the weather gets in your way. When you make a mistake. When you break something. When you are disappointed, or when you disappoint another.

How can we trust our inner wisdom if we have not spent time struggling with it, listening to it, being taught by it? The time to seek our inner teacher is not in the face of disaster; it is in the everyday practice of life and loss. As a wise man once said: “While a tree with strong roots can withstand a harsh storm, it can hardly hope to grow them once the storm is on the horizon.”

Keep Faith

“To have faith is not to capitulate but to rise to a higher plane of thinking. To have faith is not to defy human reason but rather to share divine wisdom.”

~ Abraham Heschel

Loss wears many masks. For some of us, the first mask of loss we see is that of betrayal. “This should not happen!” Not only was this loss not in our plans but it happened in a way previously inconceivable. Loss comes to us suddenly, unexpectedly, in most cases. But even if we have had time to “prepare” ourselves, as during a lengthy illness or through a drawn-out process of divorce or relocation, we still often find the reality paralyzing. We look for someone to blame: a doctor, a bus driver, a lunatic, the Deity, our spouses, ourselves. Each finger pointing in blame is a pitfall because to place blame means that someone could have done something differently and there would have been a different outcome. Our minds scream, “It wasn’t meant to happen like this!” but who are we to say that?

Remember, again, we are witches! More than any one else, our thoughts not only affect how we feel but also keep us open or closed to the possibilities inherent in any situation. Thoughts are physical energy formed by consciousness. We are more aware than most that ‘people make their own reality’ and therefore are more in control of that process. Our challenge is to be conscious of those thoughts so that we are in charge of them rather than them in charge of us. For instance, if I feel that someone has betrayed me, and all I can think is that s/he is a bad person than I am blind to all the factors leading up to the betrayal and many of the roads leading away from the betrayal. I become locked inside a prison of my own making.

There was a situation recently in which I felt as if my dearest friend had kicked me in the heart. I stared at the words she had written to me and knew the turned inside-out feeling of a shocking betrayal. I simply could not believe what I read. I called another friend and we talked for a long time. My friend said: trust sometimes includes betrayal. In the moment I heard those words, I felt their truth, the wisdom of the teaching.

Over my lifetime I have struggled to learn about and accept a trust that includes betrayal. To trust completely is to hold our faith so firmly that even what appears to be and feels like a betrayal can be included as part of the wholeness of that faith. What is such a faith? Perfect Love and Perfect Trust is such a thing and, like the Rede, is an ideal, a code I aspire to and frequently attain. It is a faith that life is not arbitrarily singling us out to harass and punish us, to wound us, to torment us; faith that somewhere along the line the wisdom of this moment of loss will be revealed to us. Faith that this is part of the plan. This is where I am now: How is betrayal revealed wisdom concealed?

Whatever the circumstances or the degree of the betrayal, every situation is like an onion skin with many, many layers, and our task is to stay present as long as it takes to peel away as many of those layers as possible. In this process there’s always a teaching. It’s rarely the one we thought we signed up for and seldom one we would have chosen. If we can hold onto the idea that every moment in our lives is potentially teaching us something, and that we always have some choices in the matter, we can hold ourselves open instead of collapsing around our pain, suffering and sense of betrayal.

Life is unpredictable. There are no guarantees of what will happen next. The Tibetans say: “Tomorrow or the next life, which comes first we cannot know.” That very unpredictability holds loss at its center. What we need and have today might no longer be ours tomorrow. This gives rise to the question of whether it was “ours” from the beginning. Trust in the ebb and flow of life is essential to our well-being. We trust that the tides will rise and fall, that the sun will come up each morning, and the seasons will follow each other. Can we trust that there is meaning and wisdom in the gifts and losses of our lives? More importantly, can we include betrayal — which is another kind of loss — in that trust?

Loss brings us to our knees. Trust in our unique life force raises us up again. Betrayal is a powerful threat to our survival. In the face of betrayal we think we must bolt all the doors and windows. We close our hearts and minds at the very moment when we need more than anything to stay open to let in the love and wisdom that life also offers in the face of loss. We need to ask ourselves: How big can we get in the face of loss? How wide can we open the lens of our minds and hearts as we look at the devastation that our lives appear to be? What does it take to keep our hearts and minds open?

Love

The seed of trust lies in knowing we did not lose everything we had, no matter how awful it looks in the moment. Nothing can be lost once it is in our hearts and minds. We stand in gale force winds buffeted by the duality of betrayal and trust. At the center, our hearts stand open being held by the love which created us. With love, you begin to honor the life that moves through you and that will enable you to create new and different relationships with people who leave, for whatever reason. It is not easy. Life and love ask everything of us, and in the end, they are asking us to trust enough to love in the face of the betrayal that loss brings.

Letting Go

For most of us, another lesson we are taught is to hold on so tightly to what we have that if we let go, we suffer — even if what we let go of was causing pain. Change is loss. Part of what we learn as witches is that life is a wheel, as full of downs as ups. We strive to be flexible in the face of adversity rather than tight, because to bend is to remain unbroken. If pain is all that remains of ourselves because we cling so tightly to it, then we have lost more than a lover, a partner, or a friend; we have lost our faith in life. That may sound like a big leap, but consider this:

I had a difficult time after I left my husband. Although it was my decision to leave, I still felt hurt and angry at the situation, I could not let go of him. I spoke with a friend of mine who said, “If you let him off the hook by abandoning your anger and blame, then it is as if you are saying that what he did was OK.” Yes, I cried, that is it exactly. “But in order to keep him on that hook,” she then said, “you have to hang on that hook with him.” The cosmic 2×4 smacked me hard on that one.

Take a deep breath. Feel your chest open and expand as it fills with air. Let it out. Take another breath and think about the blame and anger that often accompany loss. As you breathe in, consider the idea that when we are in pain, we need to find the source of that pain. A simple pain in your chest, for example, could signal an oncoming heart attack, but we do not usually waste time side-tracked by anger or blame during a physical crisis. Blame and anger are the pitfalls, the danger zones, of an emotional crisis as well as a physical crisis.

Anger and blame serves an important purpose in the recovery process – they allow us to make changes, to learn and to identify sources that need healing. But do not stop here: this is not where you want to spend the rest of your life. Instead, pass through anger and blame — and even pain — on your way to someplace else. And where might that someplace else be?

We are all students in this school of life: being taught. Instead of getting caught in dead-end questions like: “Who is to blame?” or “What went wrong?” we can instead ask: “What am I being taught?” This is hard, because to even ask that question, we must have faith that there is a teaching taking place, that life is not randomly destroying our happiness.

In order to risk trusting again, you might need to keep your heart open and flexible in the face of your loss. How can you remain pliable in the face of pain, especially when everyone is telling you to be tough? Begin an awareness campaign. Notice the parade of thoughts going through your mind. Pick a few settings where you are not doing anything else: waiting on a red light; on hold on the phone, in line at the bank or the supermarket or the movies. Pay particular attention to the thoughts that fill you with anger, pain or fear. Do not “do” anything with them, just become aware of which thoughts hurt. When you can, the next step is to breathe deeply when these painful thoughts arise. Do not run away or tighten up, collapse, or start looking for someone to blame, just breathe. Feel the tightness in your heart loosen as the breath goes deeper. Just by breathing, the sharpness of the pain begins to recede. Once you are comfortable with tagging the thoughts and breathing through them, go to the next step.

Begin a dialogue between those thoughts and your own “inner wisdom.” One of my teachers used to say that when we’re healing, we sometimes need to “change the channel.” While we pay attention to the program on one network, we forget that all the other stations are simultaneously broadcasting different shows. Imagine that your mind has several channels, and when you find yourself caught by the fear channel or the anger channel, remind yourself that there is other programming available. What is the channel in your part of the world for the wisdom?

When the heart breaks from loss, it can break open. Breaking open allows us to include more than the loss, more than the pain and betrayal. It lets us go beyond the limits of who we believed we were. If you can keep yourself open in spite of the pain, then this loss, this death, this divorce will become something else. It will transform from a death to a birth: the birth of your inner wisdom or guide that you can trust to lead you back onto the playing fields of life where love and loss go hand in hand.

Loss is Not Polite

Within the idea of “lost” is the feeling of being alone. We say “I have lost” and mean “I am lost. My way is no longer known to me.” When we are attached to someone or something and we become unattached, we lose our sense of being connected; of knowing where our place is in the world. We have lost our place. Whether it is temporarily lost or permanently lost is up to us. Part of the task of grieving is finding our place in the world again. Who am I if not Maat? Lisa? High Priestess? Author? Mentor?

The issue of ownership and responsibility are intrinsic to the idea of “lost.” In order to lose something, it has to be yours. If it is yours and you lost it, were you irresponsible? Did you not take care of it? You lose something when you are not paying attention to where you put it.

Our first reaction to severe loss is often visceral and convulsive. We feel as if we have been punched in the belly. We double over, crumple inward, in an effort to ward off the blow. The initial shocked disbelief, the physical revulsion we feel, quickly turns into a torrent of emotion. Loss now deluges us with feelings of guilt. Was I careless? Did I not take care of this gift entrusted to me? What could I have done to prevent this? Then the guilt gives way to thoughts of blame — whose fault was this? — or punishment: I’ve lost it and now I’m being punished. Why me? Why now? Circling the questions endlessly, exhausted, falling apart, we begin to hear the cry of the spirit: I am what has been lost! Where am I? Who am I? Nothing looks or feels right. Amidst the pain and guilt and anger of loss, we hear the voice of our own soul wandering, lost and beyond our reach.

Focusing on what is not possible, focusing on what is absent in our lives, as opposed to what is present, and possible, keeps us caught in a cycle of fear and despair that often manifests itself as anger and blame. We can understand that the emotional defense against fear is anger and the defense against despair is blame. Anger is pro-active, focusing outward against another, as opposed to fear which is reactive and aiming inward toward oneself. Despair is transmuted into blame for much the same reason: To turn the focus of attention off of oneself and onto someone else. While this mechanism might be effective in some circumstances, it is a poor and inefficient healing mechanism in the face of grief and loss. Why? Because we have more power over ourselves than we have over another. I can choose to change my mind but I can not choose to change yours. To take my fear and despair and make it someone else’s fault is to dis-empower myself.

As children setting off on our own, maybe to the park or the circus, our parents told us that if we got lost, we were to stay put. Stand still and someone will find you. There is a wonderful line in the children’s classic Paddington Bear, where Paddington is in need of assistance so, being a polite bear, he calls out in a small quiet voice so as not to disturb anyone.

Do not be Paddington, I say. Call out, loudly. Disturb the silence with your soul’s cry. Let your pain, your loss, your grief, disturb the world. The forces of chaos and destruction have been unleashed if only for a short time.

Seven Tasks of Grieving

This life is not concerned with health but with healing.
This life is not about our being but our becoming.
This life is not about rest but about exercise.
We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it.
The process is not yet finished but it is going on.
This is not the end but it is the road.

~Martin Luther

It is important to work, actively, to integrate and resolve our grief, not to just passively experience our reactions. Grief carries us until we learn to carry it. It seems to me that there are certain tasks to perform when grieving. They are:

• to express all the feelings over this loss: anguish, longing, relief, anger, depression, numbness, despair, aching, guilt, confusion, and pain ;
• to review your relationship from the beginning and to see the positive and negative aspects of the person and the relationship;
• to identify and heal your unresolved issues and your regrets;
• to explore the changes within your coven and other relationships;
• to integrate all the changes into a new sense of yourself and to take on healthy new ways of being in the world without this person;
• to form a healthy new inner relationship with this person and to find new ways of relating to him or her.

Perhaps that sounds like a great deal of work to do for a person who has only left the coven, rather than the world. A hiving, however, offers a special opportunity to explore many aspects of loss and grief in a safe, nurturing environment. It is a changing experience, not just in terms of who does what, but also in terms of the group mind’s ‘feel’ and its quality of energy. A hive affects the coven on many levels – physically, astrally, and etherically. To ignore the opportunity to explore those changes is a loss of another nature.

In the end, what I understand is this: Loss is the physical and mental experience, it is the event of knowledge. Grieving is the process of moving into the emotional and spiritual realms that the months and years ahead offer to us, it is a a journey, not a destination. We all grieve because we have loved, and through our journey we can be healed.

Bibliography

“Helping A Friend Who Is Dying”, brochure from National Hospice Organization, Arlington Virginia. Copyright 1996 All rights reserved.

“Helping Yourself to Heal” by Tom Sullivan From: http://griefnet.mgarts.net/news/archnews4/accept2.html

“Acceptance” by Judy Skapik. From: http://griefnet.mgarts.net/news/archnews4/accept2.html

“Learning to Trust Again” by Deborah Morris Coryell. Originally published in Divorce Magazine, excerpted from “Good Grief”

“Living between Life and Death, The twin poles of existence: Life anxiety and death anxiety” source unknown

“Seven Tasks of Grieving” by The Grief Recovery Institute, copyright 1998, all rights reserved.

“The Expression of Grief” by The Grief Recovery Institute, copyright 1998, all rights reserved.

“A Family Grieves” by Thomas Ellis, M.A. Copyright 1999

(The article was first written after I hived JaguarMoon in May, 2000. It was reprinted in Issue #27 of The Beltane Papers, Winter 2001.)

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