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Grief, Death, and the Wheel of the Year

This has been a tough fall for a lot of the people I love.

My daughter’s stepmother has died, my favorite aunt has cancer, and one of my closest Quaker friends lost his wife at the end of the summer; her memorial was on Samhain itself.  Throughout this fall, I’ve been watching as people I love feel grief and loss.

It has been a lot like watching them drown.

I know, intellectually, that grief rarely kills.  I know, intellectually, that the wrenching sobs and the painful moments in between are not the sounds of my friends and family dying too.  I know it, and they know it… intellectually.

It looks a lot like knowing, intellectually, that you’re not going to die while you’re being waterboarded.  I mean, probably.  Almost certainly… right?  And meanwhile, every cell in your body is screaming at you with the certainty that you cannot possibly go on living.

Grief is so much more terrible than we think it will be.  Grief is horrible.  Grief hurts, and just watching it leaves us questioning the whole point of being alive.  How can anything this awful be OK?  How can a life that includes anything this awful be worth living?

Grief and loss are the worst of life.  And they are built in–not a bug, but a feature.  “The wages of sin are death,” the Evangelical says.  But the wages of everything are death.  As the wit would have it, “No one gets out of here alive,” including those we love best in the world.  We can’t help them; the best we can do is hold their hand, walk with them while we are all still here.  Nothing we do can outwit time.

What does my Pagan religion have to teach me, when it comes to this painful truth?

Wheel of the Year, Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle
Merely that it is a painful truth.  All life feeds on life, and birth, evolution, change, growth… all these things depend on loss, depend on death. Is there another world?  Another life?

At times, I feel confident of it.  Certainly, many Pagan traditions hold out some hope of it: of rebirth, or a Summerland, or something.  Sometimes I can feel a joyful sureness running through my body like fire: nothing that lives is ever wholly lost.  Everything that was, in some way, still is.

But whatever there may be, the truth is, we can’t any of us be sure–not fully sure–and whatever there may be after we die, at a minimum it includes a transformation so complete that we can never touch one another again, know one another again… not while we are still here, in this life, in this body.  When we have lost someone we love, we cannot hold them in our arms and be with them now, here, where we feel our loneliness and our yearning so bitterly.

And here, in the season of death, in Black November, between Samhain and Mid-winter, we can at least acknowledge it.  Death is necessary and death is terrible,  and there cannot be Maypoles and fireflies without paying the price for them: bitter loss and grief.

What is the wisdom I can bring to this, as a Pagan and a woman?

Just this–this hard nugget of truth: embrace this truth.  The world is awful and bitter and bleak–and also worth it.  The price of admission to living fully is understanding that, yes, the price really is this high, and everyone pays. It doesn’t matter.  Love your life anyway.

Embrace the Wheel of the Year, that damned wheel that strips us, ultimately, of everything and everyone we know.  Embrace the Wheel, the bleakness of not-knowing and of letting go and of grief. No: we can’t know there will be a morning after the dark of night, for any of us, as individuals, nor for anyone we love.  But we share that truth of our mortality together.  We are not alone in this, our humanity and our grief. We have each other, and we have life itself.

This is what it means to love the earth, to love being alive. Just as the answer to the inevitability of loss is not to wall ourselves off from love, the inevitability of pain and death is no reason to reject or deny the wisdom of the Wheel.  This world is beautiful.  This life is glorious.   It is made of summer sunlight dancing on clear water, and birdsongs in the morning, the smell of fresh-cut grass and freshly-poured mead.

And it is made of the turf that grows over the grave, and the tears that are shed onto it.

We don’t get to have one without the other.  You cannot say you love the kitten if you will not love the cat, and we cannot embrace any of the Wheel, unless we embrace it all.  So embrace it, even when it scorches you, cuts you, freezes you to the marrow of your bones, because this life is your life, your only life. Don’t miss a moment of it.  Even the hard parts, even the awfulness of it, is good.

Everything in this cauldron is good.  Drink deep: every drop. You’re here.  Live.

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