Grief at Samhain
At Samhain, celebrated the eve of October 31 through November 1, the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the spirits becomes more permeable. Our Halloween traditions come from ancient Celtic pagan practices to honor and feed the dead, listen to their advice, and scare away evil spirits. Many pagans believe that the spirits of those who have died during the past year cross fully into the spirit world at this time.
Many if not most of us have experienced significant losses over the past three years. During the peaks of the COVID epidemic, loved ones died and survivors grieved in isolation. Samhain offers an opportunity to share grief in community, to feel the pain and gift of our hearts breaking open.
During the third week of August, the same week that I had knee surgery, three beloved members of Seattle’s LGBTQ+ communities died. I name and honor them here and link to their obituaries so that you can learn a bit more about them: Shan Ottey, Bob Allen, and Deb Bowen. (Shan’s obituary has not yet been published; you can read it starting in November online at the Seattle Times or Seattle Gay News.) And I have just heard of the death of another, today on Samhain: activist and country musician Patrick Haggerty. These are huge losses. Each of these people in their own way brought creativity, knowledge, wisdom, mentoring, love, and joy to the communities around them and the larger world. May they each have a place in our hearts.
While still feeling the impact of the August losses, I found out about another, totally unexpected. On August 17, the day before my total knee replacement here in Seattle, Marion, a childhood friend, had the exact same surgery in Pennsylvania, where she lived. Marion and I were next-door neighbors from the ages of eight through eighteen, and we were in the same class at school. We played together, slept over at each other’s houses, ate pancakes that our mothers cooked, played on sports teams in junior and senior high school, shared secrets about boyfriends. We went separate ways in college and afterward but kept in touch; we saw each other sometimes on my trips back East. We hadn’t talked in a few years.
In September, her niece contacted me and told me Marion had died ten days after her surgery, probably from a blood clot or infection, one of those rare complications that the surgeon had informed me about before I signed the consent form. I was doubly shocked: her death was sudden, and her experience so closely paralleled mine. Except that I was still living, and she wasn’t.
During the next few weeks, as I sat on a bath bench in the shower, did my physical therapy exercises, and gradually regained my ability to walk unassisted by walker or cane, I thought many times, “Marion should be doing this too, recovering, visiting her grandchildren, getting on with her life.” But she wasn’t. She was gone.
Every time I experience the death of someone I love, I feel the strangeness of still being in a body, carrying on with daily activities, engaging with the world, while that person is no longer physically present. It’s perhaps the biggest mystery for us humans. And yet I continue to communicate with those who have passed on. I talk with them, meet them in meditations or otherworld journeys, listen to their guidance. They often come to me in dreams just before or after they die.
We each can communicate with our beloved dead in a way that works for us. It comforts me to know that the soul lives on after the body wears out. To receive the love and guidance of those whom I have lost, I have to open my heart to the deep grief of losing physical contact with them. There is no way to avoid that. Holding each other in that grief, knowing that it will ease over time, is perhaps the greatest gift we can give each other in our families and communities. Being present for each other, allowing the feelings to flow, love and joy along with pain.