Along with writing, teaching witchcraft, and offering readings, I am a minister. This September marks 20 years since my ordination – I have spent nearly two decades in service to the Pagan (and sometimes wider) community.
This means death and grief are familiar companions of mine. I have sat with the dying and held their hands, sung our songs, and listened to their stories. I have sat with the dead, calling to the Ancestors to gather up their spirit, kissing them on the forehead one last time, and offering the final blessing before the embrace of the earth. I have held the bereaved in my arms while their worlds crumbled. I’ve taken the mourning to see their loved one for the last time. I’ve whispered “I need you to take a deep breath from your belly right now. Otherwise you may black out” more times than I care to count.
I think as clergy it’s easy to focus on the gentler experiences – the weddings and counselings, the ceremonies and sermons. But as with many things, what is learned in shadow and pain is profound.
The Paganism of the United States is a religion largely nurtured and grown in a culture with a death problem. And that fear, disassociation, and attempt to suppress or hide death and grief is a worm in the apple of this religion. Although we don’t suffer from the Christian phrase of “god has a plan,” we have our own equivalent in “everything happens for a reason.” There’s a lot of work to do on how we approach death and handle grieving. If you are lucky enough to live for any reasonable length of time, death will touch your inner circle of friends and family.
So let’s talk about it.
How Not to Stick Your Foot in Your Mouth
Shocking, world-altering loss is tough to fit words around. I get it. But in our rush to try to relieve the pain we’re experiencing or perceiving, the language of spiritual bypassing often slips in.
What’s spiritual bypassing? I’m so glad you asked. It’s when someone uses spiritual explanations and language to dismiss or avoid complicated emotions. And my friend, grief is about the most complicated emotion I’ve ever experienced or held space for. Along with trying to avoid addressing the grief before us, people use spiritual bypassing to manage their own discomfort around death. The end result of spiritual bypassing in grief spaces is active harm to people who are already vulnerable and often barely hanging on. And, when we go that route, we also deny ourselves the chance to lean in – to get to know ourselves and the people around us a little better, and to step closer to authenticity.
When you are interacting with the dying or dead and their loved ones, there are some phrases to avoid:
“They’re in a better place now/They’re at peace now/They’re with the Ancestors now.” You. don’t. know. that. You may believe it. You may believe it with every fiber of your being and every shining bit of light in your soul. But you have no proof, and in the wide array of potential afterlife/reincarnation theories in the Pagan community, you probably don’t know exactly what the bereaved believes either. Remember that when you say that phrase, you’re also immediately dismissing the joys of this world. In my experience, if offered health again, 99% of the dying would take it and stay here with those they love. In most cases, this is the better place because it’s where our chosen family is.
“At least they’re no longer in pain.” Technically we don’t know that either, but I’m not going to get into soul redemption cycle theory here. Instead I’ll just point out what an awful, cold comfort that phrase is. House burned down? At least you don’t have to vacuum anymore. See how ridiculous that sounds? Yes, it is good for suffering to end. I’m definitely in line for more Death with Dignity options for everyone. But again, given the choice of life without pain/disease or death, 99% of the dying would choose life. “At least they’re no longer in pain” is an attempt to put glitter on a train wreck. Stop it.
“Everything happens for a reason.” This is our version of “god has a plan” and it’s every bit as offensive and unhelpful as that phrase. You may believe that there’s a higher reason for suffering, and believe it whole-heartedly, but it is not a universally held belief. Yes, even by other Pagans. We have a diverse set of ideas when it comes to fate. And quite frankly, not every terrible thing becomes just another obstacle on someone’s hero’s journey. Some terrible things break us. Sometimes we’re not able to turn pain into gold. And that’s okay – we’re not required to. And if you’re expecting someone to take their pain and spin it into meaning for you, it’s time to look deep into the mirror for some Shadow Work.
There are a LOT of other phrases to avoid, but these are the ones I’ve personally heard well-intentioned Pagans use in death spaces. Here’s what to say instead:
“I’m going to miss them so much.” In general, focus on your relationship with the decedent and use “I” statements when possible. “It always meant so much to me when they [insert behavior here], “ “I’ll never forget that time they [anecdote goes here],” “[festival or event] will be so much less wonderful without them,” etc. Believe me, the bereaved knows that their loved one is dead. It is the horrifying reality they are living with every moment right now. Talking about your own relationship with the decedent is a wonderful way to demonstrate that they are not being forgotten. It also indicates that you’re willing to hold space for discussions that acknowledge death.
One caveat here: although considered “I” statements are good, making a death about you is not. There’s a useful structure for thinking about grief spaces called the Ring Theory of Grief. The center of the ring is the person who died and their immediate family – partners, kids, and parents. The next ring out is close friends and family. The next ring out is social connections that are less intimate, and so on. The rule of thumb for this structure is that inner rings can “dump out” to outer rings – they can talk about their grief, curse the gods, cry on shoulders, etc. Outer rings, in turn, offer comfort inward. We sit with the mourner, bring food, and help in the ways we can. Outer rings should NOT seek comfort from inner rings – the closer to the center a person is, the less bandwidth they have for anything other than just surviving the loss. So, if you’re a friend of the person who died, do not seek comfort from their widow/er. Turn to those in the same ring, or a ring further out from you (or your therapist!) for comfort/venting/screaming at the sky.
“I’m holding you in my heart/thoughts.” This beautiful phrase allows us to convey our love and connection without the religious baggage of “I’m praying for you/them.” When you can’t think of anything else to say, this is a wonderful option. If you and the decedent share a specific path or Tradition within Paganism, this phrase could evolve to “I’m keeping you/them/your family on my altar/in my prayers” or “I’ve been making offerings for you/them/your family.” Know whether this level of familiarity and religious observance is appropriate before you speak, though.
“I don’t know what to say. This is so awful.” You’re allowed to be honest and vulnerable (again, without centering yourself in the story). It’s okay to acknowledge the tragedy of loss. It’s also okay to recognize that there really aren’t any words to effectively hold the feelings present. Try to follow it with “I’m holding you in my heart/I’m here to listen/I’ll miss them so much” or a similar phrase.
In addition to the words we use when talking with the bereaved, be mindful of the language surrounding funerary ceremonies. If the family is calling it a Funeral, call it a Funeral. If they’re calling it a Celebration of Life, call it a Celebration of Life. If they’re calling it a Memorial Service, call it a Memorial Service. Unless the family themselves are calling it a Coming Home/Homecoming Celebration, do not substitute that term for the title of the funerary services. Remember, the decedent’s home was here with their family. Implying their home is elsewhere can be a slap in the face to your grieving friend.
And yes, use the preferred terminology of the bereaved even if you don’t like it. Some of the Death Positivity movement doesn’t like “Celebration of Life” because it’s yet another example of trying to hide from death. But, it’s not your funerary rite. Respect the wishes and choices of those in the center of the ceremony.
The other area where I’ve seen Pagans make some errors involves how we behave, and what we say, to someone who is in the grieving process. A couple axioms to remember:
- There is no timeline for grief. Ever. Grief is not something you get over. At the very best, it’s something you integrate into your larger Self. It becomes part of who you are. I know that part of why I have grown more serious and less “take on the world”-ish as I’ve aged is the weight of my own grief. It’s changed who I am. That’s normal. If you’re waiting for someone to “get over” a death, drop those expectations. They’re not based on reality.
- There is no right or wrong way to grieve. The only person whose thoughts and feelings you know for certain is yourself. Some people will go right back to work and bury themselves in tasks. Some will barely be able to get out of bed for months or longer. Some will spontaneously burst into tears for the rest of their lives. Along with no timeline, there’s no right or wrong here. Grief is part of being human, and we are all unique. The only caveat I’ll offer here is that if the bereaved is talking about self-harm or suicide, or it’s a year later and they’re still not able to get out of bed, it’s time to bring in some professional support.
So, with those ground rules in play, here are some things not to say:
“I’m surprised you’re still [insert grief behavior here].” We are coming up on five years since my friend Kat died from glioblastoma brain cancer. As I’m writing this, I am wearing one of her shirts. I’ve been gluing and taping a pair of her (now falling apart) shoes that I’ve worn since she passed. I am under the care of a therapist, take my meds, and am reasonably well balanced. And also, I’m still going to wear this shirt and try to make those shoes last another season. We all cope differently and lean on different touchstones and forms of connection and remembrance.
Even if you’re surprised by a behavior, allow it to just be. The most you can safely do is ask about it in a non-judgmental way: “I’d love to hear more about that necklace you’re wearing.” “I know you go there every year. Tell me about what brings you back.” And then allow your loved one space to simply talk. Or to deflect and move on.
“You should come to [event]! It’s time to get back into the [dating/festival/kink/whatever] scene.” I think a lot of people mean well when they try to force dating or socialization, but aren’t factoring in the large amount of energy grief takes up. When your loved one has the bandwidth for more than just getting through the day, they’ll socialize more. If you’re noticing that they’re still absent from a world you previously shared, see if there’s something you can do to help rather than try to force them into situations they’re not ready for. Offer to buy them dinner. See if they need help mowing the yard. Grief is exhausting. Find out if there are ways you can lighten the load for them.
And one phrase that I’ve seen cause so much harm. DO NOT say any variation on this:
“We prayed/did a spell and got more time/remission/a miracle” So, let’s start with a reminder that you do not know the full story of whomever you’re talking to. If a person says this in front of someone who also prayed, performed magic, leveraged the entire spiritual firepower of a community, etc and did not get more time/a miracle/remission for their beloved one, it’s hurtful beyond the telling of it. If this is one of your stories, I recommend shifting the story slightly to “we were really lucky to…” as opposed to taking ownership of the miracle. Or at least add the caveat that you know people always put forth their best efforts and don’t know why your outcome was different. Yes, maybe the spell worked, maybe your deity intervened, maybe the prayers were effective, but do you really want to be the reason a grieving person feels like they failed their beloved one? That if they’d just done one more candle magic spell their beloved one would still be here, or they would have been able to say “I love you” one last time? Don’t be that person.
I’ll leave you with one last thing to consider. There’s a great phrase I learned from Unitarian Universalist teachings on spiritual companioning: the idea of embodying a “non-anxious, non-aggressive presence.” When you’re talking with someone who is grieving, try to step into this energy. They don’t need you to solve problems for them or give them advice. They’ll ask if they want your guidance. What’s most helpful is presence – gentle, calm, compassionate presence. Just listen. Use “I” statements. Ask gentle questions or invite discussion with opening sentences that create space for talking about their beloved. Especially in the beginning, when the grief is fresh, keep everything simple. Avoid overloading with information. If choices must be made, make the choices as low-stakes with as few options as possible. And, allow the mourner to feel whatever they’re feeling. Don’t try to cheer them up or “fix” them. Just allow. Agree that it’s awful and unfair. Acknowledge the difficult emotions. Just be there – a non-anxious, non-aggressive companion.
Let’s do better. Grief is a path we will all take, and Pagan culture needs to be able to support us in that journey.
So, what are your tips around managing grief and death spaces? Or, what phrase or behavior is one you want to make sure people know not to say/do? Hit me up in the comments. You never know when your experience is exactly what another witch needs to read.
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