My personal path is one of grief right now. One of the dearest companions of my soul joined the Ancestors on Friday. And so I once more negotiate the weeping waters and shifting tides of a heart broken open.
Our culture, as a whole, fears death. The collective impulse at this time is to push away that which causes us discomfort. We grant the barest handful of days to those who lose a loved one and then expect that person to ‘get over it.’ And by ‘get over it,’ what is truly meant is ‘functionally pretend that everything is fine.’ Anyone who has deeply loved and then lost knows that ‘getting over it’ is not something that happens. But our culture needs the lie, for whatever reason. The groupthink requires that we hide our pain. And rather than take on that complicated dysfunction, I’m going to tell you what I do to support my grieving process while playing pretend.
The most useful tool in my kit is a Mourning Altar. One of the hardest things I have faced in my grief is finding the right place and time for the surging waves of emotion that rise in my heart. Rather than try to fight those tides, I create a space just for them.
A Mourning Altar is simple – a table, shelf, or other space draped in black. A single photo, or perhaps a few photos, of your loved one. A single candle, several if it’s meaningful to you. I generally stash a box of tissues somewhere nearby. Creating physical space helps foster the creation of emotional space. Mourning Altars do not need to be heavily laden or complex.
Let your Mourning Altar be in the physical space you spend many of your waking hours. Many of us hide our altars in our bedrooms. This is understandable, but frequently means that we don’t actually spend a lot of time with our sacred spaces. Allow a space in the living room, office or kitchen. We’re working on multiple layers of awareness here in terms of creating space. By placing your Mourning Altar in your ‘waking world’ area, you are acknowledging and shaping the container for grief. The waves won’t just hit when you are behind a closed door. Grief, especially in the beginning, is just part of breathing. So the space for it needs to be both easy to access and visually available.
If small, curious hands or creative felines are part of why you keep your altar tucked away, remember the power of vertical space. My altar is three-tiered, and the upper two tiers are set on curio shelves. Curio shelves are frequently available inexpensively from Goodwill or other thrift shops. If you hang them relatively high, and away from launching pads or climbable objects, you will be able to use your altar without interference.
For my part, I use my main working altar. When I am deeply in grief, I step back from other spellwork. Although our culture does not allow space for withdrawal from our careers, or sometimes even the social calendar, we absolutely have sovereignty over where we spend our energy. Grief is all-consuming, especially in the beginning. Allow it to be. Your other magicks will wait for you. Your Gods know loss as deeply as you do. You can set down your other Work. I place my normal altar dressing, tools and assorted magickal goodies in a special box and set it aside while I’m grieving.
Once you have set up your Mourning Altar, spend time there. Light the candles and weep. Talk to your loved one. Tell them how you’re feeling, or simply cry. Lean in, and allow that tsunami building in your heart to hit. It will crash around you, and you will feel like you might drown in it. But here’s the thing – it’s part of a fluctuating pattern. After that huge wave passes, you will eventually find yourself still sitting in front of the altar, but quieted. This is the power of having space for grief. It doesn’t make grief go away, but it gives it space to breathe. And when you allow your grief some space, it will allow you some space as well. The waves will return, but they do not stay. They ebb and flow.
One of my beloved friends is a Living Miracle. She survived a disaster that one would not wish on their worst enemy. Last year at either Rites of Spring or Twilight Covening (I can’t remember which), we were talking about the nature of pain, grief and struggle. I said ‘The fastest way out is through.’ She looked me deep in the eyes and said, ‘Irene, the only way out is through.’ (Sarah writes a wonderful blog – Walking with Ancestors)
She’s absolutely right. Grief will not be pushed aside. It will not be buried or silenced. All you do when you suppress it is extend your suffering. The only way out is through. The only way to learning again how to breathe, how to be, how to find your new normal, is to support your grieving process.
There are some other objects you can add to a Mourning Altar if you find it to be meaningful. One item I’ve seen in some practices (and use myself) is an Ash Pot. This is a container (generally earthenware) for ashes specifically from workings or ceremonies for the Beloved Dead. You can write your loved one a letter and burn it to send those words across the Veil. Then, those ashes go into the Ash Pot. I generally add some ashes from my Ash Pot to the fire pit at Samhain before we light it. You can also save your letters in a specific container and then burn or bury them all at once at a future date.
You could put out an offering dish or cup. Offerings to the dead can include pure, clear water, coffee, sweet liquors like rum, or simply the preferred drink of your loved one. A friend of mine makes an Ancestral Mead that is not designed for consumption by incarnate humans at all – it is only for the dead. You can adapt this practice by purchasing an offering of some sort that is solely dedicated to those who have already crossed the Veil.
You can use objects specifically dedicated to working with the Dead. I have a mala that I use for Ancestral work. When I am singing, chanting, or praying to the Dead, I use that particular mala.
You can bring in your own Ancestors. A newly transitioned human goes through a year, sometimes more, of getting settled on the other side of the Veil. It’s why we do not invoke, summon or compel a spirit during the first year of their passing. The transition is hard enough – we do not need to add to any confusion. However, we CAN ask our friends and Ancestors on the other side to assist in getting our loved one settled.
You can add space to make offerings to or honor Deities associated with death and mourning. In my own pantheon, that Goddess is Hel – the Goddess of the stricken, the broken, the dying and the dead. She is the Hospitable One who greets all comers with comfort. My own mourning altar includes a stone skull gifted me by a beloved Helasdottir that stands in as a representation of Hel.
A Mourning Altar is a wonderful tool for the home. However, most of us will have to leave our houses and interact with other humans at some point in the grieving process. In times past, black clothing, or a black armband, was used to signify mourning. I sometimes wish we still had a form of social signaling that indicated mourning. Short of wearing a tshirt emblazoned with ‘Grieving: Handle With Care,’ what’s a witch to do?
My answer is to take that principle and turn it inward. Maybe we can’t signal to others that we are grieving, but our clothing, jewelry or adornment choices can help us remember that we are grieving, and that we must be gentle on ourselves.
Add to, or change, some aspect of your daily appearance. You do not need to shave off your eyebrows, but perhaps if you are a makeup-wearer, wear less. Or, if you do not wear makeup, choose to honor your grief by doing so – wear a specific shade of eyeshadow, liner or lip gloss that will only be used for mourning. Add a necklace, ring, or earrings of black stone. Wear a black scarf or cardigan. Change the perfume, cologne or oil you wear. These signals are for you, so you can choose whichever one appeals to you.
The best advice I can give you is to allow. Allow your grief. Allow time. Allow tears. Allow stories. Allow nights with bad dreams, or when you do not sleep. Allow, allow, allow. This, too, is part of magick. The fullness of a witch is not just her capacity to wield magick. It is her capacity to LIVE. To be open, broken, growing, mourning, loving and learning in full authenticity. We frighten others because we stand in our own truth, we do not run from the shadows but instead look directly into them. We proudly wear our wounds and scars and the wisdom they paid for. We own our tears. And that completeness is terrifying to those who hide from their own darkness.
So be terrifying. Own your grief. Hold space for it. Breathe with it. Allow the new shape of what you are Becoming.
And know that I grieve with you. Grief is the proof of love, the price we pay for deep connection, and I am proud to offer up that coin.