Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Dark Night: Grief, Trauma and Loss of Faith

Like anyone with something precious to lose, I used to sometimes think, What would happen if the worst happened? What would happen if the person I love most suddenly died?  How would I react?  

I could never think about it for long--it seemed too morbid, too frightening, too taboo to consider.  Even in intimate conversations with my husband, we would feign assurances and promises that we would die together, that way neither would leave the other behind.  I say “feign” because we ultimately knew we had no control over this, of course, and we actually had a very vivid, near-constant awareness (and subsequent gratitude) for every precious moment together, an awareness which seems rare when I look around at other couples.  Still, we knew that dealing with the death of the other would be too much to bear.  (Indeed, I’ve barely survived his death, and for all his strengths I doubt he could have survived mine.)  But I did assume that, should the worst happen, I would fall back on my faith and religious practices pretty hard, because that is what was most important, comforting and meaningful to me.

The stark reality was a little different, or at least not so simple, and I've only recently begun to sort out enough of that process to begin to discuss it.

Before my husband’s death, I thought I had a decent grasp on death, even a (sort of vague) theory of what happens to the soul, and what the point of this life and death cycle is.  But afterwards, when I tried to grasp any of that when I needed it, I couldn’t.  After my husband’s death, nothing was a “given” anymore.  All the work I thought I’d done had unraveled.

You hear a lot of people say that, after the death of a loved one, that they no longer believe in a god who would “let” something so horrible happen.  I was not so naive as this.  Not even angry, really.  But I was still spiritually floored.  Up was no longer up, down was no longer down, and most importantly…I was no longer me.  

I will say that again, because it is very important, and literal in a primal, emotional sense.  In an instant, my identity had changed.  So too had my “place” in the universe as I knew it, as if I’d been picked up from the path I knew, and put unceremoniously into the middle of the woods, where a new pathway would have to be cleared.  I've ended up mourning not only his loss, but the loss of the person I was as well.  

What did this mean?  It meant re-evaluating EVERYTHING from my new place and personhood.  My thought-process at this time was not so clear, however, just this profound sense of disorientation and confusion along with the shock and pain and terror of grief--and subsequent self-criticism that the well which had once been full was now empty.  If I was angry at anything, it was at how little I really KNEW, how little resources I had, and how little modern paganism deals with death in any real way. We’re supposed to be a path that acknowledges the shadow side of things, that doesn’t flinch at death, and yet… what has that given us?  The metaphorical, poetic Death-that’s-just-a-new-beginning à la the tarot? Or the seasonal death of a vegetative deity? Or the vague and slightly childish concept of the Summerlands (you know, like heaven but groovier!)?  Or reincarnation? (Not exactly a comfort to think that a loved one’s soul would be immediately reborn in a way that would forget you entirely.) This all seemed so aggravatingly meaningless in the face of finding the corpse of the person who was, only the day before, your most intimate and beloved companion.  What was his spirit going through in the hours and days after his death?  How could I help him, ritually or otherwise?  At what point does he “cross over”, and what does that really mean?  And, being in a faith that interacts with gods and other spirits, how can we still interact with our beloved dead?  Shouldn't we be able to?  I wanted real and practical, not pretty and polite metaphor.  I felt like I had to assure my husband’s well-being before I could even BEGIN to tackle my own. I suppose that’s just instinct, which does not die as easily as flesh does.

Even now, I want to say, “What the fuck, paganism?” when it comes to these topics.  It isn’t enough to wave our spooky fingers and say that no one knows for sure, or that it’s highly personal.  If our religion cannot handle these topics, then is it really fulfilling its purpose?  I find it hard to believe I’m the only one who’s had these thoughts.  Seriously, correct me if I’m wrong, but the only book out there about death and paganism is Starhawk’s The Pagan Book of Living and Dying.  And it wasn’t just the questions about death itself that were difficult, but my grief felt unique by virtue of my faith, in a way that I wasn’t able to completely discuss with a typical counselor.

And then there’s the really hard questions that I didn’t even want to admit I was having…

Did this happen to me because I worship Dionysos, because he wishes to challenge me in this way?  

Did this happen because my husband was himself Dionysian in nature?

Had I done something to offend the gods?  

In the immediate days after my husband’s death, I felt like I could not approach the shrines of my gods.  Something repelled me, and I felt guilty over it, like something was wrong with me.  It wasn’t until later that I considered the miasma I would have naturally had, and that my instincts were probably correct, but it was still difficult at the time.  I couldn’t even drink wine..  (Yes this was significant, for me. I’m still not sure if it was an intuitive sense of wrongness at the thought of using something so sacred to my god as an escape, or if I knew it would just take me down even darker avenues of my psyche. Maybe both.)

I did rituals for him, because there was no one else I trusted to do them...and I did them alone because somehow they felt too intimate to share. Whether or not this was ideal, given my state at the time, I can’t really say. I did a ritual the night before he was supposed to be cremated, to assure that his spirit was completely released from his body.  Later, I did a more in-depth funerary rite, with petitions to the gods and a large amount of offerings.  This was a trial in every way possible, including physically, as I walked at least a mile into the desert at night with a very heavy suitcase of ritual accoutrements.  (I think I was half-hoping to get bitten by a rattlesnake.)  During that rite I was mostly looking down into the pit where my offerings were placed, or through my tears into the darkness, but when I finally raised my head and whispered my final thanks to the gods I saw a shooting star.  The way it responded to my words and actions at just the right moment made it a very moving omen.  Lastly, for his public life celebration (memorial), I had help from a couple other friends but I still wrote and put together the ritual aspects myself.

The couple months after that are a blur now but were excruciating at the time. I thought of suicide a lot. My husband’s birthday came around in August and for some reason, I did the hardest thing I could think of.  I went camping alone, which I had never done before, in the same place we had exchanged our private vows.  It was a significant turning point… the first time I did any Dionysian ritual since my husband’s death.  There, I found what I can now see was an incredible omen, a single pantherina mushroom.  Later that night, I imbibed entheogens, and literally walked to the edge of the cliff and thought for a long time about the shadowed crossroads in front of me.  Then I turned around, built a fire, stripped off my clothes and did what mad maenads do in the woods.

But in all honesty, every apparent turning point or decision in grief has need at least an extra couple months to really integrate.  In fact, I’ve spent the better part of a year being scared.  Me, who considered herself a Dionysian.  I used to be scared of death.  But now I welcomed it, and I was scared of everything else… the future especially.  Sometimes the only words I could manage to offer to Dionysos, in shame and desperation, were… “I’m so scared. I’m terrified of life.”

I don’t think I got any spiritual bearings (or sense of the gods) again, truly, until the Lenaia.  (Eight months, if you’re counting.)  And then Anthesteria.

It’s getting better.  I’ve realized even in the last couple weeks that I’ve been calling myself “a wreck” as a sort of defense mechanism, but in reality, I am not a wreck any longer.  I’m coping, even though it hurts to admit it sometimes. I’m having a hard time letting go of the idea that coping somehow diminishes the depth of my loss and my love.

I’m still not where I want to be, as far as finding answers to all my questions. Deep down I am desperate to gain enough clarity and skill to find those answers.  Unfortunately, desperation tends to be more of a wall than a window.  But I HAVE begun putting together what I believe, which has been a work of intuition and prayer as well as research and simple choice.  It’s easy to have faith when it’s easy, when you feel blessed.  When life kicks you in the ass… well, then faith takes on a new definition entirely.  There are times you have to take it on faith that you have faith because you can only feel pain.

Other than simply sharing my story, my most important point about a Dark Night is this:  Forgive yourself. You have not lost your faith, or the gods, although it feels that way some days. You have lost your Self to a new Self, and she must find her footing, first, and then find her own way forward.  (Not back, because we can never go back, can we?)  It’s hard because you have all the same memories, and it seems like it should all work the same… but it doesn’t, not exactly.  Luckily, the gods always know where to find us, and seem more than willing to meet us halfway no matter which way we walk.  But walk halfway, we must, even if it feels at first like we are simply going through the motions.  This is about making space for the sacred again.  You can’t renew your closeness to the gods if you don’t make time to sit at your shrines, pray, visit a sacred place, or otherwise turn your attention outwards again.  (It will feel different in some ways, keep at it.)  Within a month after his death, I had a shrine for my husband - it took me a little longer to cultivate a daily practice with it, but that has become essential to my equilibrium.  I believe, too, that omens appear when we are too numb for subtleties, although the full import of one may not sink in until later.

Another important point, reach out to spiritually like-minded friends, or acquaintances.  There was a very scant handful of such people that I was able to talk to in the hardest weeks and months that followed, and I cannot emphasize enough how critical that was for me.  You will have questions, doubts, concerns, may need help with divination or ritual.  Or even for simple reassurance. I have found that, in those dark times, even those things that you are pretty sure you “know”, you still need to hear out loud, from other people.  That the person you love is okay, and that the gods have not abandoned you, among other things.  It’s a cruel irony that in such times, the more you need comfort, the more grief-sick you are, the more difficult it will be for you to feel the comforting presences that you wish to feel.  Even if you’re usually psychically sensitive, you’ll probably need to outsource for a while.  Reach out.  (And if you’re reading this and you don’t have anyone, drop me a line.)

Grief is messy.  And it doesn’t take “time” so much as it takes a lot of work. A lot of exhausting, soul-wrenching, sanity-testing work. With the physical presence of my soul-mate, my life took on this glowing meaning, this greater purpose in the unconditional love of this remarkable person, embodying a shining example of what was possible.  Now, in his absence, I have to contend with the idea that life has some other purpose for me.  A counselor told me, “You either get better, or you get bitter.”  I don’t really like the phrase “get better”, because I’ll never “get better” in the sense of some end-goal or state-of-being.  I can’t be better without him.  But in the qualitative sense of improving, strengthening, becoming more accepting of life and who I am in the face of loss, it is absolutely true.