I was clicking through one of my Youtube playlists, and came across one I have not listened to in a very long time. When I am feeling at my lowest, I’ll queue up Gary Jules’ version of Mad World. It is my go-to song for when I am feeling like things can’t get lower, and it made me start thinking about how we grieve.
I am part of the Polytheist Death Guild, and I think that part of my work with the Guild will be reflecting on death and grief as a polytheist, and how we can separate ourselves from the largely thanatophobic society we find ourselves in. Mad World hits me in a way very, very few songs do. It is completely absorbed in its loneliness and its pain, from the chords of the piano to the way that Jules’ forms his words. It also made me reflect on why, when I am feeling low enough to warrant listening to this song, I wait until this song to work with it as a kind of purgative.
I first started listening to this song when Sylverleaf and I broke up in 2006. I listened to this song on repeat for about a whole month. Like when I get sick, when I grieve, I do it really, really hard. It was to the point that the people I was living with more or less banned me from listening to it, because I’d sunk into a pretty bad depression and wasn’t taking care of myself much at all. Mind, I didn’t see the movie this song released in, Donnie Darko, until several years later, so I had absolutely no context for the song. I just happened across it, gave it a listen, and in my grief, kept playing it most of the spare time I had over and over again. Reading some of the comments on the video itself, I’m certainly not alone in turning to this song in needing to feel pain, grief, and sadness.
Why, though, do we wait even in the little deaths to grieve, and why like this?
I think there are a few factors:
- A toxic emotional environment that downplays or outright denigrates displays of emotions, even healthy ones.
- This country does not want to think on, much less acknowledge death in a meaningful way. For instance, much is made of Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day, but the celebrations have gone from largely somber affairs, and has been twisted into gaudy ways to sell furniture and celebrate empire via parades rather than actually being a time where we solemnly honor those who sacrificed life, limb, mind, and/or loved ones for this country.
- An actively toxic atmosphere in regards to feeling emotions at all, much less taking time to process them or taking time for oneself when being affected by them.
- Completely abhorrent mental health care in terms of preventative/therapeutic medicine, and direct addressing of psychological breaks, trauma, etc. There is active cutting going on in the overworked departments of the mental health care field despite needing expansion and reinforcement.
- Many of us do not belong to cultures that encourage grief, displays of emotions, or expression of how we, ourselves, feel.
I see this shutting down as an outgrowth of our culture in the sense of toxic masculinity and American culture’s inability to handle genuine, expressed emotion that is lived in the moment. The usual memes of ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘keep on keeping on’ were ways I was told to handle the grief I was in the midst of.
These are part of the same toxic soup that contributes to grief welling up inside and needing to break through, regardless of how healthy it is. I was not in a place that encouraged healthy grief. In fact, I was actively encouraged to look for a new relationship, and was shoved towards one within a month or two of breaking up with Sylverleaf. Not only was my relationship with this person unhealthy in its formation, I also delayed my grieving and healing that I needed to do.
If this is how we treat folks breaking up, how much worse is it for those whose loved ones pass away? The old adage of ‘time heals all wounds’ paled in comparison to losing my grandfather. It seemed like a slap in the face. Sure, my grandpa could communicate with me in a number of ways, including directly, but it is not the same as having grandpa in my life. Then there’s the “I need to be strong for my ___” idea, which both robs the person trying to be strong of their need and time to grieve in the moment, and also robs the person they are being strong for of being a helpmeet for them in turn with their grief. In other words, it denies Gebo (gift-for-a-gift) in the grieving itself, and in the healing process, between those who the grief itself affects.
How can my son learn healthy ways of grieving if I refused to show him what that looks like? How can he feel safe in bringing me his woes if I cannot show him they are nothing to be ashamed of, and that experiencing loss and reacting to it is part of living a full, and healthy life? To this end we brought our son to mark the passing of our cat, A., who died about two years ago. He was told why our furbaby was being put to sleep, he was walked through just as we were in what would happen, and he was able to grieve there and as he needed after.
This would be our son’s first witnessed death, and we wanted this moment to be as comfortable and sacred for our cat, and in so doing, make it as comfortable and sacred a thing to witness for us as a family, for our son seeing death for the first time. Seeing death is an initiation, one we would do well to take more care in.
We brought our cat’s brother along, K., and allowed them to be around one another as A. was being hooked up for the drugs that would end his pain. We each got a chance to hug him, tell him we loved him, pet him, kissed him, and hold him for awhile. When everything was ready, we made prayers, weeping the whole while, and asked Freya and Bast to take him gently into Their arms and help him cross over. We thanked him for his time with us, and that we would keep his memory. We told him we loved him as he shut his eyes for the last time. When he lay still, we wept, and we were loud. Well, I was. We were holding each other, and were crying without shame. Sylverleaf had taken him in at a year old, and though I certainly was not a cat person when we met, A.’s brother pushed me to becoming one about 3 or 4 years ago. He was our cat, and we grieved his passing.
Even now, remembering him as the barbiturates took him into death, my throat tightens and tears tug at my eyes. Yet, it was the best send off we could have given him. I am not grieving his death itself, but missing his presence in our lives, and how he could light up a room with his inquisitiveness, or make us smile when he threw himself into our laps for petting. How he had this bad habit of being underfoot when we needed him not to be. We asked for a piece of his fur, which lays on the animalvaettir shrine on top of his paw casting and ashes.
In talking about A.’s death, it makes talking about my grandpa’s death easier. It is unfortunate our son did not get to talk with him before he passed, but at the least, they had met. He was in the hospital, and a cousin had me up on Google Hangout Video Chat. It had been a few years since I had last seen my grandpa, and I knew from talking with my Dad that he was nearing his death. Still, when I saw how small and sick he looked I damned near broke down crying on the spot. I was gritting my teeth and trying not to wail.
My Mom took the phone from my cousin, and told me I needed to get it together for grandpa. Grandpa wasn’t one who wanted us to grieve him. He said as much while he was dying. I took myself away from the phone for a bit, shed a few tears, collected myself, came back, and talked with him. I let him know, cradling the phone in the basement of the Wandering Owl, that I loved him and that I missed him. He looked to be in such pain, and I had never seen him so small, so vulnerable. Grandpa was a guy who fixed everything, and was rarely in one place when I was a kid. It hit me right in the heart to see him like that. Still, he knew me, and could say he loved me, and knew who I was, and that itself is a privilege. I told him I would pray for him, and he asked me to pray for his wife and the family. I told him I would, and that evening, I did.
I did not think about it at the time, but the last words I said to him were “I love you grandpa. We’ll speak soon.” when I let him go. Whether when I was a Catholic or now as a polytheist, my religion tells me our Ancestors are hardly silent, and can offer us companionship and guidance. Still, this was the first grandparent I had had a good relationship with and was losing. So that evening, with the help of my Kindred, I grieved him.
The Catholic Ancestors were around me, getting Themselves ready to welcome him, and there for me, too. The local Catholic church had closed for the evening. However, I remembered something from a post on Galina’s website.
I saw more than one person kneeling on cobblestones outside of churches, when the church was locked but the person wanted to pray before that altar, or that icon.
I remembered somewhere, perhaps from the Ancestors Themselves, that one way to pray when the church was closed like this, was to pray the rosary at each step of the church, and to kiss the church doors. I carry my First Communion rosary and the Book of the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs I was given then for my Catholic Ancestors. I use the book to do bibliomancy and receive messages from Them. I prayed the rosary on each step for my grandfather, in offering to his spirit and the spirit of my Ancestors, and asked Hela with each step to make his transition into death as painless as possible. I sang songs I remembered from when I was a child, and felt my Catholic Ancestors all around me. When I had finished, I sat on the bench near the church, and smoked in prayer to my other Ancestors, and to Mordgud, Garm, and to Hela Herself.
That Sunday after his death I went to a Catholic church service near me, and walked the Stations of the Cross outside among the pine trees. When I came to the central garden labyrinth, I walked it, and left offerings as I asked His God to shepherd him, and to care for him, and to let him speak with me when he was settled. I made offerings at the shrine for St. Francis de Assisi, and at St. Joseph’s, asking the same. I returned home and felt at peace.
I will not be putting his image on the Ancestors’ altar until a full year has passed from his death, which is soon. This is in respect to him and so that when his image or an object of his is placed on the altar, he has had a chance to adjust to being dead and will not be hungry or confused.
As polytheists develop closer community ties, intergenerational ones especially, we need to speak and make our plans about death and the process of dying, how we grieve, and what we do for the dead. It’s my hope that this post is one point of dialogue that touches this off.
Me? When I think about what I would like done when I die, I do not want to suffer. I do not want to linger in endless pain. I want to leave my loved ones with the ability to say goodbye, as my grandfather did. When I am dead, I want to be cared for by my family. I want a rite that gives people a chance to mourn and a chance to celebrate. To pour out tears and mead. To comfort and cry, to laugh and enjoy each others’ company. To drink in stories, to sing songs, to talk about the good times and the bad.
I want to be buried on my family land in a hallowed mound. I want a tree planted on it, one that will last generations. Maybe plant a whole grove by each person who gets moved in getting a new tree planted for them. A boulder before it, maybe with a flat top, for offerings, for meeting, for divining. For saying hi. A runestone with our names, maybe scenes from our life if someone has the skill. A new boulder for when that one is full so others’ stories can be passed down. Whatever it is, I want it to not just be for me, but for my loved ones. My tribe, my family.