Death and the Grieving Process

Grief has usually been allied with death but it encompasses so much more. Throughout our lives grief makes its presence known through all the great and small acts of loss we suffer, loss of good health, death of a pet, redundancy, loss of friendships, loss of favourite keepsakes, the list is endless. Each loss impacts upon our psyche in differing ways. Sometimes we recover quickly and move on, other times the loss cuts deeply and the pain never fully subsides. Each person’s reaction to grief differs depending upon factors such as life experience, personality, spiritual beliefs, culture, circumstances surrounding the death of the deceased, and familial relationships.

Conflict also has a place within the bereavement process, most often manifesting during the arrangement of the funeral. Societal relationships may become strained as people attempt to cope with the burgeoning emotions assailing them at this difficult time. Death it seems to be the last great taboo we are scared to face. The thought of our own mortality can open up a vista of fears, a landscape devoid of all those we love and care for. Perhaps in our modern, technologically advanced societies we have forgotten how to approach important rites of passage, such as death, passage into adulthood and the wisdom of the elder years.

There is much material evidence available from numerous ancient and modern cultures regarding the transition from life into death. Detailed instructions and rituals abound to ensure the safety of the deceased through the underworld. It is a lonely journey nevertheless, which can only be made by the one who has passed beyond the veil. No substitutions I am afraid, unless it is a willing sacrifice undertaken for either the whole of the tribe or community. In times past this was an important act. In modern times it is more a symbolic journey.

What of the different stages of grief? The bereaved may undergo a process of catharsis, moving through several stages of grief ranging from:

  • Numbness and denial
  • Yearning and anger
  • Emotional despair, sadness and withdrawal
  • Reorganisation
  • Letting go and moving on

Suppressed feelings may manifest in symptoms such as tiredness, inappropriate anger, psychosomatic illness, depression, and hyperactivity. There may be a sense of unfinished business to contend with.[1] The sense of loss may continue for years without any appreciable improvement. Some people who have lost their husband, wife or partner seem to descend into a state of numbness, forcing them to live a “normal” life but with no purpose. In certain cases the partner that is living may die soon after.  The grief is no less devastating with the

loss of a child, friend or pet. Brings to mind Tony Lake’s comment about commitment to life in the midst of grieving.

“But these people who are less than fully committed to life seem to me to have partially given in to death. They have accepted discouragement and decided that for a certain part of their time, life is not worth living.”[1]

Others talk about the deceased as if they have just “popped out” and will be back later. Such is the strength of the bond between the two people. I say “is” because it appears to be an unbreakable bond, untouched by death. Was this the case with Orpheus, braving the depths of Tartarus to bring back his wife Eurydice, only to lose her for all eternity due to one mistake?[2]  One can only wonder at the power of the mind and how it is utilised to revivify the dead and create memories. Letting go can be so hard but a necessary process if we are to live healthy lives.

The manifestations of grief can present certain challenges to all parties concerned, in particular the Priestess or Priest involved in the organisation of a ceremony. They have in a sense have taken on the (symbolic) role of the “Walker between the Worlds”, guide and protector of the deceased, officiating over the sacred rites of life and death. Accordingly the weight of responsibility upon their shoulders is a heavy one, as are the expectations of the family who has engaged their services. The grief being experienced for loss of the loved one may also touch upon deeply buried emotions, which may relate to their feelings around death.

“You cannot help a dying person until you have acknowledged how

 their fear of death disturbs you and brings up your most uncomfortable fears. Working with the dying is like facing a polished and fierce mirror of your own reality.” [3]

Death used to scare me when I was younger; the pain of losing loved ones, leaving them, dying a painful death, and so forth, was disturbing. It was the Void of no return. I have grieved deeply at the loss of many things in my life, and to an extent still doing so. This is not a negative thing. Our empathy, compassion and understanding shape us into people of responsibility, who are strong enough to take on the task of helping others cope with their grief. The important thing is to learn to transmute these strong emotions, feelings and beliefs into tools to enable us to move on and grow. With this in mind it is important for the Priest or Priestess to consider how best they can facilitate the needs of their client and adhere to a high professional standard. All this without losing either a sense of humanity or compromising boundaries.  Sometimes the person or persons who are bereaved may manifest symptoms, which require professional help to address underlying mental health issues. It is not desirable for the Priest or Priestess undertake counselling duties or encourage emotional dependence from the client.  Under those circumstances appropriate agencies may be suggested to provide further support. The boundaries are in place for a good reason, even though our sense of compassion and empathy may want to override them and at

times these boundaries are indeed breached. The reality of the grieving process will unfold over time from the first contact to the conclusion of the ceremony and beyond. We can only accompany those in our care to a certain point in this process, safely contain the plethora of emotions encountered and ensure that our own emotional well-being remains healthy. Grief in its many forms displays itself on the faces and inner world of those we serve, but, they ALLOW us the privilege of entering into that private world. This is an important point to keep in mind.

How prepared are we to face the reality of our own mortality? Death inspires fear and panic, a long shadow that we hope to escape but our steps only seem to lead back into its presence. The journey is circular and never linear, it is a walk into the centre of the labyrinth. We grieve at our losses (loved ones, memories, possessions, sense of self), bitterly at times. The emotion can be all consuming, trapping us in its darkness. At other times we stand before it filled with fear but asking it to do its worst (“feel the fear and do it anyway”). The vulnerability we feel at these moments cannot be put into words and I ask myself, does it need to be? We are never left to cope on our own with such shattering experiences. The gentle presence of Azrael is ever present, watching, guiding, preparing us in life as well as in death. The great Angel of Death is clothed in many guises, depending upon our spiritual inclinations. That is a story for another time perhaps.

Sogyal Rinpoche comments quite wisely in “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” that we can use our lives to prepare for death and not wait for the death of someone close to reassess our lives. We can use the present to find meaning, make every moment count, take every opportunity to change and prepare with peace of mind to face death and eternity. Wisdom wrapped in simplicity but at times so difficult to put into practice.

Jan Malique

Pagan Federation Interfaith Manager

[1] Stages of Grief, Cruse Bereavement Care.

[1] “Living with Grief”, Tony Lake, p 5

[2] “The Greek Myths: Volume 1”, Robert Graves, p 112

[3] “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying”, Sogyal Rinpoche, p 179