In many ways, I’ve thought of the myriad Holy Women Icons I’ve painted as mediators, guides who accompany us, women who have shown us the way. Whether they enliven us to create, inspire us to sustain, or embolden us to empower, these holy women have taught me to rage, praise, hope, endure, persist, love, and laugh. Recently, though, I discovered that none of the Holy Women Icons I’ve researched, written about, or painted have helped me to grieve. Surely, many have experienced grief, or give us tools for coping with the grieving process, but no Goddesses of Grief filled my heart when I needed it most.
Last month, amidst my worries about walls and bans and words that exclude, grief came along and sucker punched me in such a way that I continue to grasp for mediators, guides, and ways to cope amidst tremendous sadness. On March 6, 2017 my little brother, Carl, died. An addict for much of his adulthood, his recent addiction began spiraling out of control over a year ago and he refused to go to rehab. My family worked hard to try and reach out to him, to open him up, to offer him support, but he refused to let anyone in, drowning his anguish in blackouts and overdoses. Though we filled his life with tremendous love, he also experienced pain—externally and internally—that he never shared with anyone. The drug of choice for the past year—duster—runs the risk of cutting off the oxygen to the brain every time it is used; in fact, there are instances of people dying the first time using duster. And this is precisely what happened when my mother found my brother. My beloved single-mom, Mary, became Our Lady of Sorrows, as she held the lifeless body of her 33 year-old son. Our lives will never be the same and the grief is overwhelming.
As ordained clergy, I’ve officiated a lot of funerals. For fourteen years, I shaped burnt ash across congregant’s foreheads on Ash Wednesday and reminded them that we all come from dust. To dust we shall return. As I officiated my little brother’s funeral, I held the ashes of his body in my bare hands. I’ve never done this with anyone else’s remains, but I wanted to somehow touch him one last time, to feel his pain and let his torment fall through my fingers, as fragments of his bones stuck to my hands.
Even as the dust of his body filtered through my fingers, as I kissed his cold face in the funeral home before he was incinerated, even as I weep with my mother, knowing that my pain pales in comparison to hers, I feel as though I am living someone else’s reality. That his death is not real. As I face this new reality, I am reminded that addiction is a savage, relentless beast that rips families apart without remorse, and is nearly impossible to overcome.
As an artist and writer, I had to find something constructive to do with my grief. So, I began researching saints and goddesses of grief: Frigga, Nanna, Borghild, all Norse goddesses who have lost children or brothers and who aid us in the grief that threatens to swallow us whole; Nephthys and Isis, Egyptian goddesses of funeral rites; Demeter and Persephone, Greek goddesses whose love guides them into the underworld; Elizabeth Anne, the patron saint of grief; La Llorona, the weeping woman who has been reclaimed by chicana feminists to wail so that our voices may be heard; Our Lady of Sorrows, the mother of Jesus who weeps as she watches her child die. All of these goddesses will be a part of a new series of Holy Women Icons of Grief. But first, I painted the Goddess of Grief. With an opening nod to the poem Catullus wrote upon his brother’s death, I penned the words that continue to break my heart, as the Goddess of Grief cries out to us:
Speaking in vain to the silent ash,
Her heart large enough to contain
Lamentation, sorrow, and memory,
She wept tears of grief and rage
Until she opened wide enough to hold all the sadness.
And she bid farewell…
As the Goddess of Grief mediates on my behalf, and on behalf of all who are grieving, I invite you to share what goddesses and saints help you to grieve. What goddesses and holy women of grief inspire and console you? Tell me who and why and I may add them to the forthcoming Holy Women Icons of Grief series. Though the grief is sometimes unbearable and I ache with loss, I find comfort in these holy women who ache and grieve alongside me. I hope that their stories of courage, their tears of sorrow, and their legends of consolation may offer you hope, as well.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship, Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today, Holy Women Icons, Tearing Open the Heavens: Selected Sermons from Year B,Microaggressions in Ministry: Confronting the Violence of Everyday Church, and Holy Women Icons Contemplative Coloring Book. She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com