On Grief and Grieving

The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness–
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

I have fallen a long way.

–Sylvia Plath, “The Moon and the Yew Tree” (1961, lines 17-22)

The more that I think about it, the less I believe what I experienced at 4:52 this morning was the ending of a dream. It was more of a spontaneous shamanic journey, the kind I’d had with disturbing regularity in the first two years of my brother Mark’s death. What I know for certainty was that I was in the Duat, and Sekhmet was next to me. She panted/grunted while scenting the air, Her lioness nuzzle awash in blood. Her pupils were massive, dilated, and gleaming like actual carnelian stones. Torch light either gleamed from behind or radiated from within Her. There was a wall behind us. We stood within a long, dark corridor. I knew unequivocally that Sekhmet protected me fiercely against evil entities that wanted to harm me. She fed on them. I was afraid–not of Her, but of where we were. I wanted out. And no sooner did I think that than did I feel myself being rapidly “plucked” upwards–in sheer nanoseconds. It was a jolting sensation, but I felt myself being pulled up out of the ground–even through my bed’s mattress!–before “crash landing” back into my body. I gasped and thrashed a bit–hitting my fiancé in the process–before sitting up and grabbing my iPhone from my nightstand. 4:52.

bloody_avenger__by_sekhmet_neseret

“Bloody Avenger” by Sekhmet Neseret, a French artist. Her work is available on Deviant Art. Pretty much how Sekhmet appeared to me, albeit with more blood on Her nuzzle.

For the first time since this past Monday, when my plunge back into intense grief over Mark’s death began, I didn’t wake up sobbing. Instead, I stepped out onto my condo’s balcony, which faces east, and I prayed–to Sekhmet, chiefly, and to Ra, but to Nephthys as well. I gave thanks for Sekhmet’s unwavering protection as Lady of Slaughter in the Duat. I asked Her to lend that same ferocious spirit in defending Mark, wherever he was. Mark, transfigured. Mark, now an akh (i.e., how the ancient Egyptians referred to a transfigured spirit that had favorably passed Judgment).

In the first two years after his traumatic and violent passing, I had intense, recurring, spontaneous shamanic journeys/spirit wanderings of trying to catch up with Mark’s akh. It presented itself to me as a series of clustered spheres of light that kept speeding ahead of me in strange, crystalline/kaleidoscopic tunnels. My journeys began in the same location: a primordial swamp (not far off from the Slavic Pagan depiction of the Underworld/domain of the god Veles). I would be wandering waist-deep in muck before having an end of a crystal tunnel’s tube-like apparatus appear before me. I would hop into it and use my hands and feet to ascend the tube before arriving in the main crystalline thoroughfare, which I understood to be a passageway of souls. Millions of light beings and whirring light balls would whizz past me. When Mark’s akh sailed by–I instinctively knew it was him–I would give chase, shouting after him to wait up for me,  only to have the crystalline tunnel crumble apart at a certain point and I would plummet for what seemed like miles through the air before landing back in those muddy, primordial swamp waters. Mother Alligator and hundreds of Her children surrounded me, bellowing in a way that only gators can, while I tore at my hair and the mud caked on my face, screaming in grief at having been so close, so close to catching up to Mark but losing him again.

1375896_10151918507576894_1076063335_n

My oldest and closest Spirit Ally.

Painful Lessons

All this week, I’ve barely passed muster as what my therapist likes to call “a highly functioning adult.” I’ve shown up at my desk crying and cried for hours on end during the workday. On Monday, I got zero work done at all. I went to a Catholic church a few blocks away from my office and attended lunchtime Mass, sobbing and lighting candles before the beautiful marble statues of the Holy Infant of Prague and Saint Therese Lisieux. Several people approached me, including a resident Franciscan friar, whose teary-eyed, compassionate response to my grief over my brother made me cry even more. A horrible anxiety attack set in and I literally ran down the aisles, horrified and embarrassed, and wound up running back to my office only to go cry in the women’s restroom another 20 minutes. That night I dreamt that I wandered about the mass paupers’ graveyard by my home, crying and leaving offerings of bread and smiley-face-shaped sugar cookies at the roots of the Hel-Tree. The nameless dead children I’ve always felt there, and who have contacted me through medium/spirit-worker friends of mine, were the intended recipients of those offerings, though I think in a way I was also leaving offerings not just for Mark, but for the 16-year-old, terrified girl I was when he died. Acute, protracted anxiety attacks dominated my workdays on Tuesday and Wednesday. I gave up on trying to hide the fact that I was crying at my desk from my coworkers also; I wept openly.

I’ve been seeking out as much support as I can–not just from my fiancé and friends and even social media, but also in seeking out the wisdom of leading figures in bereavement and grief counseling. I stumbled upon the weekly online radio show of author, therapist, grief expert, and hospice trainer David Kessler. For the first time, I’ve encountered a sane voice, one who isn’t telling me to “get over” Mark’s death (as if his loss is a disease I can recuperate from). Mr. Kessler’s “Grief 101” video is something I wish the well-meaning but clueless nuns of my Catholic high school had at their disposal when I began my senior year of high school just days after Mark’s funeral and my seventeenth birthday.

http://understandinggrief.pages.ontraport.net/video

Mr. Kessler has affirmed what my experience has borne out to be true: that time does NOT heal all wounds and grief is something you learn to live with, not “get over”; that the experience of a current trauma opens up old, unresolved, deeper traumas and grief experiences; that feelings of guilt are completely normal (I have a lot of work to do in the self-forgiveness department); that disenfranchised grief is rampant in our society (e.g., there’s a cultural expectation to quit mourning in a year or less; also, people get flack for grieving the loss of a pet, or even grieving the loss of someone who lived a long time. Another example: women who miscarry their babies have disenfranchised grief with zero sources of support, etc.); and that people who mourn want their stories of grief to be heard. They want their loved ones to be remembered. What is remembered, lives.

In Memory of My Brother Mark, Born in April of 1970 and Died in August 1990

The 25th anniversary of his death is on the 31st, and my parents and I are organizing a major graveside memorial service for this coming Sunday (a difficult undertaking in light of the heart attack my mother had on August 19). Twenty short years on this earth loving and being loved by others, inspiring many (myself included). The first-born of my parents. My only sibling. Mark played these roles and many others in his brief time with us.

He was newly transferred to San Diego State University when a motorcycle accident a stone’s throw away from his dorm claimed his life; it happened a week before my seventeenth birthday. My father was with him as he’d helped him with the arduous cross-country move to his new school. A mere three nights upon arriving in California, on the night of August 30, my mother received the phone call from a hospital that no parent ever wants to receive. Mark didn’t die right away from the injuries that he sustained–doctors were hovering around and wanting my dad to sign permission for Mark’s organs to be harvested. My dad told them off and held Mark’s hand at his hospital bed, pleading with him to stay alive, saying that Mom and I were on our way and that Mark just needed to hang in there a little while longer. Supposedly, Mark slipped into a coma. The organ-harvesting vultures returned, pleading their case to begin immediate removal of desirable vital organs from such a healthy, young “specimen.” My father grew enraged. A Serbian Orthodox priest was called in to perform Last Rites, and as my father continued to sit, crying and pleading with my brother to stay alive just a little while longer, tears started to cascade out of Mark’s eyes. He died shortly thereafter, at 3:31 the morning of August 31–just an hour prior to my mom and I arriving at Sharp Memorial Hospital after a wild red-eye flight out of O’Hare.

Some emotional scars are so grievous that no amount of the passage of time can bring healing: Mark’s death was absolutely devastating for my parents and me. He was my parents’ only son and my only sibling. He was a loving and selfless human being. He was handsome, intelligent, and unimaginably talented. He was an outstanding older brother that I always looked up to, an adventurous Aries who taught me how to ride motorcycles (it was a pastime of both of our childhoods, starting with off-road motorcross races in the early 80s) and execute slick skateboarding maneuvers. He was a real Renaissance Man, or gifted with what Aristotle called arete–excellence: talented in the arts and music, sciences, philosophy, and athletics. After two years of undergraduate studies in a liberal arts curriculum and being tantalized by so many vocational opportunities to explore, Mark had decided that he wanted to major in aerospace engineering and perhaps someday work for NASA.

The world lost a young man with so much promise. My parents lost a loving, supportive son who was proud of upholding our culture. I lost a protective warrior (Mark saved me and one of my classmates from a child molester who pursued us, intent on sexual assault in broad daylight in a public park when I was 10), true friend, and role model. The start of my senior year of high school, normally a time of celebrating adolescence and making optimistic plans for the future, plunged me into the Duat: Nephthys, Anubis, Sobek, Hekate Khthonia, Hel, and Mother Alligator–They were there, branding me with sorrowful Otherness, leading me far away from the sunlit, social spheres of my peers and having me taste the fruits of knowledge of Their realms. His death was a detonation event that left a huge, gaping crater in the lives and hearts of my parents and me, and there’s no filling it. My religious faith, though, sustains me with the promise of us being reunited someday (assuming I favorably pass Judgment) in the Halls of Amenti. My parent’s faith sustains them too with the same promise of reunion, albeit under the auspices of different Powers.

But for now I still stand in those waist-high swamp waters, keening, surrounded by alligators. I leave offerings with Daniel for Hekate Khthonia in the same paupers’ graveyard where I talk to Hel and the spirit children, right at the convergence of a three-way footpath. And of course, I go to my brother’s actual grave–about a 45-minute drive from my home–and leave on his grave the foods and drinks he enjoyed in his 20 short years of life on this earth. I talk to him as I do a living person, catching him up on the events of my life though I’m pretty sure he sees and is aware of everything I’ve been up to. I often wonder if he’s proud of me, of the woman I’ve become who dedicates her life to what he used to call “weird things.” Not three weeks before his death, just prior to his California move, I went to the Bristol Renaissance Faire and bought him a Seal of Jupiter talismanic necklace for safe travel. While he was a devout Serbian Orthodox Christian, he thanked me for the talisman and he put in on immediately. When my parents and I were presented before Mark’s battered and misshapen, formaldehyde-leaking body at the morgue and the head mortician presented us with the items Mark had on his person, the Seal of Jupiter talisman was not among his necklaces and woven friendship bracelets. I’ve always wondered who’d taken it from him.

As Mr. Kessler asserts, the processing of a recent trauma always evokes the grief of a traumatic loss from the past. The anniversary of Mark’s death, while definitely at the forefront of my mind as soon as this month began, reentered my heart with brutal force as I dealt with the anxiety of my mother’s brush with death just nine days ago when she suffered a major heart attack. The past, the present, my mom, my brother, a hospital in San Diego versus a hospital in a Chicago suburb–everything is fluid and non-differentiated for me right now. That’s what grief does. And that’s why metaphorical language likening grief to an ocean, which psychologist and popular author Thomas Moore does in his book Dark Nights of the Soul, is so apt:

The sea is the vast potential of life, but it is also your dark night, which may force you to surrender some knowledge you have achieved. It helps to regularly undo the hard-won ego development, to unravel the self and culture you have woven over the years. The night sea journey takes you back to your primordial self, not the heroic self that burns out and falls to judgment, but to your original self, yourself as a sea of possibility, your greater and deeper being.

You may be so influenced by the modern demand to make progress at all costs that you may not appreciate the value in backsliding. Yet, to regress in a certain way is to return to origins, to step back from the battle line of existence, to remember the gods and spirits and elements of nature, including your own pristine nature, the person you were at the beginning. You return to the womb of imagination so that your pregnancy can recycle. You are always being born, always dying to the day to find the restorative waters of night.

Non-differentiation. I’m simultaneously the frightened and shocked 16-year-old girl from 1990 and the frightened and shocked 41-year-old woman of right now. Another thing I can say with certainty is it feels positively perverse to have outlived Mark for a quarter century. I can’t wrap my mind around it, that he’s my big brother but I’m in my 40s now and he died at 20. That my parents are in their mid-seventies, that my dad became emotionally closed off due to his grief and my mom acquired multiple myelomar leukemia as a result of her grief. That, just prior to my fiancé, I endured a string of abusive partners with no Mark to protect me. Lady Macbeth said it right: “Hell is murky.”
My parents' shrine to my brother in their home.

My parents’ shrine to my brother in their home.

Fear, Guilt, Paralysis, and the Inability to Self-Forgive

Anniversaries are powerful grief triggers. Yesterday was the anniversary of when my parents and I last saw Mark alive. It was an uncomfortably hot and humid August 27 morning in 1990. My dad was beeping the horn of his Toyota pick-up truck in the alley, laden as it was with all of Mark’s things for the cross-country move. He was impatient to get on the road. Mark was saying his good-bye to our mother, who broke down sobbing in the kitchen and begged him not to leave. Mark was crying and saying that he didn’t want to go, but he had to now. The night before, several of his childhood friends and classmates from our Catholic grammar school and his high school had stopped by for a visit on the front porch of our apartment building. His closest friends, Danny and Glenn, were begging him not to go and everyone sat outside crying and talking for hours. I’d hoped in my heart they’d be able to persuade him to stay but I was bracing for the reality of his departure the next morning.

And I awoke feeling more than a little edgy and irritable. My anxiety mounted as I got up early also and got dressed and did my hair. (I had very long hair at the time.) I was itching from the collar of a linen-blend Italian dress I’d decided to wear for my senior year of high school yearbook photo, which was going to be taken at 9:30 that morning and I didn’t want to have to go to school, I didn’t want my picture taken–I wanted none of it. And on top of that stressor, it was Mark’s cross-country moving day.

When Mark, teary-eyed, stomped across the kitchen with arms open to give me my farewell hug, I literally slapped his hand away, chiding him. I said I didn’t want my dress wrinkled or my hair messed up. Yes, my last moments of interaction with him in his life were ones of me being outrageously bitchy, petulant, and horrible.

In hindsight, I behaved in a way that I know now is common between people who are close to each other and one person is physically leaving against the other’s wishes–the offended person gets angry, because being in a state of anger makes it much easier to cope with the separation. If you somehow can bring yourself to hate the person, you’ll be able to tolerate his or her departure. This dynamic would play itself out for me a little over 10 years later when I was married to my sailor spouse in Hawaii during the Bush years and he (Michael) was sent off to war: two weeks or so before his deployment date, same thing–I’d pick fights and find things to hate him for, and that would somehow subconsciously serve me to cope better with what I felt as abandonment and even betrayal (we were still newlyweds during his first deployment) at being left alone for months on end, and totally unable to communicate with him when he was aboard his submarine. It was death, it was Mark’s death and my grief over it, playing itself out all over.

Unconscious forces do not simply vanish. They reappear in symbolic reenactments, as when a woman whose brother drowned marries a man who also drowns. We constantly and unconsciously enter into and even recreate unfinished dramas, not because we are naturally self-destructive (as Freud had thought), but to give ourselves a chance to heal from the original trauma by making the story come out differently. (Storied Lives: Discovering and Deepening Your Personal Myth by Craig Chalquist and Rebecca Elliott)

But I of course couldn’t see any of this at the time, as a wounded and frightened sixteen-year-old girl who agonized over saying goodbye to her brother so much that she simply chose not to do it at the time.

I’ve been paralyzed by guilt and shame ever since, needless to say. In addition to yesterday being that sad anniversary, it was also National Forgiveness Day. I wish I knew how to go back in time and forgive the adolescent me who acted in the way that she thought best at the time, hurtful as it was to her brother. The look of despondency Mark shot me as he stood in the doorway of the kitchen’s exit into the backyard kills me to this day. I never told him I how much I loved him and looked up to him, how his integrity and hugeness of heart inspired me. That kills me also. What can I do?

Turning to the Goddesses of Grief
Lo, I invoke thee with wailing that reacheth high as heaven,–
Yet thou hearest not my voice. Lo I, thy sister, I love thee more than all the earth–
And thou lovest not another as thou dost thy sister–
Surely thou lovest not another as thou dost thy sister!
–“The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys,” Berlin Papyrus No. 1425, circa 300 B.C.E.
As a polytheist and spirit worker, I believe that the Powers we serve choose us, not the other way around. Tightly woven threads in the tapestry of Destiny bind our hearts, lives, and lessons with Theirs. Even our personal myths. Did Nephthys mark me as Hers long ago, knowing that in my teen years I would come to understand Her grief over losing Her brother Osiris? That I would know what it means to wander far in the quest to be reunited with the brother’s body, crying bitter lamentations in the skies? Of how it would feel to withstand the terrors of the Duat?
The sorrowing Isis and Nephthys.

The sorrowing Isis and Nephthys.

I know what I feel in my heart to be true, and that the experiences I’ve undergone and continue to undergo in mourning Mark’s loss (as well as other deaths in the family) make me a fitting Priestess of Nephthys in the Fellowship of Isis and initiate in the ways of the Sorrowing Mother. Images like the Pieta and Dark/Ravenous Mother Goddesses like Cerridwen, Demeter Melania (the “Black Demeter” who grieves Persephone’s loss), and the Haitian Vodou lwa Erzulie Dantor tug at my psyche and heartstrings powerfully. Fittingly, just this week in my Fellowship of Isis Chicago Lyceum, I’ve been pushed into the direction of the Twin Goddesses. We’re gearing up for our 22nd annual Goddess Convention on September 26, whose Main Liturgy of “Uranus: The Coming Forth By Day” is going to serve as the apex of ritual activity. Well, the ordained Priestess who had initially volunteered to take on the role of the Great Goddess Isis has suddenly stepped down; our Priestess-Hierophant has asked me to step in. I’ve read through the role, and it’s Isis and Nephthys enacting Their lamentations, searching for Osiris’ missing, hacked-up body parts. The role spans Isis in ancient Egypt and Her living force today as Perpetual Help and Comforter of Humankind.
Non-differentiation. The ocean of grief. Past. Present. Self. Other.
Of course I accepted.
I hope some of you can make it to the Goddess Convention. I’m happy to report that early-bird registration ($40) has been extended to September 21, and that I personally will be hosting the Champagne and Chocolates Reception the night before the Convention, on Friday, September 25, at the Life Force Arts Center from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. A $10 donation will treat you to a night of spiritual fellowship amidst fine chocolates and sumptuous champagne with me and like-minded people. The Life Force Arts Center will be running an exhibit at that time that showcases one of my sculptures; the exhibit is “The Spiritual Power of Art: Mystical and Religious Experience.” My Neolithic Serbian goddess statue replica (made out of terra cotta clay), which I’ve entitled “Velika Maijka” (“Great Mother”), is among the works being showcased. But that’s the subject of another blog post.
This is going to be a rough weekend, and I fought tooth and nail at my job to be given Monday and Tuesday off as personal days so I can be with my parents. Any prayers you can send my way or for the repose of the soul of my brother Mark will be greatly appreciated. Thank you, and may your ancestors be exalted in their gleaming halls of peace! Blessings of deep peace, even from my place of deep grief.
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2 thoughts on “On Grief and Grieving

  1. I couldn’t agree more about the importance, value, and timing of grieving. My own experience of cataclysmic grief included a powerful eruption ‘out of the blue’ two years before the death in question, and another, in a very public place, some ten years after it. I’d been calling this a ‘complicated bereavement’ but then found that precisely this term was being used to medicalise mourning deemed abnormal because of its duration and timing! For what its worth, I feel sure that Mark knows how much you love him, and what you’re doing for him.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Brian. I’m glad you undid the pernicious social conditioning that seeks to shame us for wanting to express natural, and completely normal, feelings of sadness for our departed loved ones. I’ve also had powerful experiences of grieving in advance.

    Like

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