Painting a Goddess of Grief by Angela Yarber


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

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Categories: Art, Goddess, Grief

Tags: , ,

24 replies

  1. So sorry for your loss. It is doubly hard to recognize that some people refuse help. I also thought of She Who Hears the Cries of the World, Kuan Yin. I also offer this: https://feminismandreligion.com/2014/04/21/the-divine-drama-and-the-universality-of-death-by-carol-p-christ/

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    • Thanks, Carol. Yes, Guanyin came to mind as I’ve painted and written about her multiple times. Perhaps I’ll repaint through the lens of grief and placing all departed souls in the lotus flower.

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      • Or should it be all the broken hearts of the living?

        I have also found that the Orthodox tradition is right to mark the 40 days after a death and the year after. In my experience the first 40 days are passed in shock and intense grief and the whole year in prolonged grief, which gradually lessens.

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  2. Sending my prayers and love. I am so sorry for your loss.

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  3. I am so sorry for your loss and for your mother’s and for all the people who are grieving for your brother. Prayers for you and for his spirit. All the women who loved Jesus come to mind. Mary the lover as well as Mary the mother. You’ve already mentioned Isis who mourned and searched for her brother for years. I have heard that mourn and remember share the same root. And the word remember literally means to make whole, which is what Isis does for Osiris. May all the goddesses of grief hold you and your mother close.

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  4. I send sympathy and blessings for your loss. It’s enormously sad when people refuse help, but we are, alas, sometimes powerless. It really sucks.

    Yesterday was my brother’s birthday. He died (cancer) in 2000. He came out of the closet in the 1970s, and I wrote his story in the 90s. Here it is on my website http://barbaraardinger.com/short-nonfiction/

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  5. I lost my brother several years ago to a different addiction, alcohol. I feel your pain. A few weeks ago I lost my husband of 42 years. I’m struggling to come to terms with that loss. I have been researching goddess to help me and keep coming back to Kwan Yin, I don’t know of any others.Mary Beth died that morning at 7:00 along with him, but a minute later a new MaryBeth was born. Widows have to deal with grief and then the birth of a new person that they don’t know and finding their new way on their own. It’s a lot to handle at the same time.

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  6. Having lost my only brother to suicide 6months after he graduated from Harvard I became the “mother of stone.” Unable to grasp the enormity of this loss I involuntarily shut down, fleeing my dead body, because when I lost him I lost myself. My brother was my “gemini twin.” It was twelve years before I re-entered my abandoned body to shed the first tears and I continue to weep today 45 years after his death. I returned to the church briefly and took solace from Our Lady of Sorrows eventually discovering La Llarona whose ongoing grief fit my own because I was my brother’s little mother. Thirty five years after my brother’s death I finally held his ashes in my hands as I buried him down by my brook under Trillium rock… for years I had dreams that my brother had no body and could not rest. After the day I buried him I wept uncontrollably without cessation until the anguish abated… Tears opened my heart and after that burial I never dreamed that my brother was still wandering…In retrospect I see that the tears I was unable to shed kept me in limbo – the land of the un dead – for twelve years.
    Just a few weeks ago I went to a desert monastery ( I’m living in the mountains of New Mexico) where free medals were offered. I picked two to bring home with me – when I got home I read the inscriptions -One was Our Lady of Sorrows, the other Our lady of the Mountains – the both and message hardly surprised me.
    My heart goes out to you in your grief.

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  7. My tears mixed with yours and your mother as I read your post Angela. May the waters of your heart bring new life to yourself and others.

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  8. I am so sorry for your loss. May God bless and comfort you in this time of grief. I have a son who is mentally ill, yet he works everyday, but is never happy. I do not know what to do so I just “stand” on God’s word and pray for assistance. He has never done anything wrong, in fact he tries to be perfect, but that is impossible and I think he suffer from clinical depression, but he refuses to get help. I will pray for you and your family, because your pain is great. Please pray for us too.

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  9. I’m so sorry for your loss. I love your painting. I went through a terrible miscarriage and as I labored, I felt the presence of many women with me. I don’t know who they were but it was almost like their main job was to help women through birthing a still born. I wrote about it in my blog, maybe you have some insight.

    http://theinformalmatriarch.com/jonahs-story-part-1/

    The only thing is…Jonah ended up being a girl. My midwife got it wrong. But it doesn’t really matter.

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  10. I am so very sorry for your loss and your mothers…Peace

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  11. Oh Angela, I am so sorry that your brother died. My husband died of alcoholism nearly 10 years ago. He also was addicted to painkillers, but when the doctors took him off of them he abused the alcohol more. I knew he had liver disease and didn’t have long to live, but his death still hit me very hard! My heart goes out to you and your mother, and I will keep you both in my prayers. Thank you so much for writing and creating the Goddess of Grief. May she help you and all who are grieving.

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  12. We are not alone. Those of us who do not find solace and community in traditional religions need to find ways and rituals to re-enact our grief as shared.

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  13. I came accross this accidentally. To say im sorry for your loss seems inadequate. but universally its something we FEEL. Thank you. I too am grieving but it is locked inside. my usual outlets of writing and painting are not available somehow. your painting may just have given me the inspiration i need.

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  14. Peace be with you Dr. Yarber. I am a Religious Studies major seeking my bachelors currently, and I have a brother who worries me greatly. Reading your piece almost empowers me, as I feel we are similar. Seeing how your position, progress, and story are almost parallel to what I hope to achieve, I can only feel more ready to take it on and become like yourself. Thank you for sharing! You never know how much you may help others with your writing.

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  15. A few years ago, my sister sent me a photo of The Angel of Grief statue in a cemetery in Rome and my heart cracked in two. To see the evident grief and apparent exhaustion of even an angel, touched me in the place where I need to be touched to heal. I lost my mother to suicide when I was 16. I am now 57 and recently I found a photo of she and my father where they looked so Happy. It was about 8 months before her death. I was caught unawares in finding this photo and felt a deep pang of loss and that familiar ache and longing , still. One thing I do to help me along with my grief is to attend the funerals of any friend or co-workers mother ( or other relatives) and it helps me in a way that I can’t explain. Maybe to know that I am not alone in my personal sorrow.
    I am sending you a hug from Colorado. I wish you Peace and a safe journey down into the grief of your heart.

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  16. This is beautiful. Thank you.

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