We may all remember 2020 as the year when we could no longer look away from death. Our western culture has hidden death away in hospitals and funeral homes for generations. However, in these past months we have all been inundated with daily images of COVID-19 patients dying alone in ICUs, terrified people and wildlife consumed by flames or flood, televised funerals of victims of racial violence, children starving due to droughts, the loss of icons of courage and compassion like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elijah Cummings, and John Lewis, and so much more. Even as we seem to be surrounded by death, we risk being inured to its tragedy by the sheer numbers of dead from these and other causes.
How we survive this time as individuals and a society may depend in part on how we are able to answer the question “Were we able to mourn each life lost – human or non-human — as a sacred being, unique and irreplaceable? Did we ignore the suffering of others or did we find deeper compassion?”
Even as so many deaths have occurred, it has been challenging to mourn. Restrictions on gatherings have hindered traditional rituals like extended family funerals and large public memorial ceremonies. The need to cope simultaneously with multiple catastrophes and the election as well as the everyday economic and logistical pressures of life with COVID-19 mean we all have less time and energy to grieve. But, unexpressed grief is an open wound causing trauma and unending sorrow, affecting our individual physical and mental health and possibly our ability to cope as a society with our most pressing problems. We must find ways to mourn our loved ones as well as all those our planet has lost even as we continue to respond to current events with political, social justice, environmental, and public health efforts.
In the past, goddesses from traditions across the globe freely expressed profound grief and gave comfort to the bereaved.
- The Greek Demeter wandered the Earth mourning the loss of her daughter Persephone to the Underworld.
- Egypt’s Isis similarly traveled over the planet to bring her murdered husband and brother, Osiris, back to life.
- Irish goddesses include Airmed, who mourned her brother from whose grave grew herbs who taught her their use, and Buan, from whose grave a magic hazel grew to show her love for her dead husband.
- Billions of people worldwide have found comfort in the Buddhist Kuan Yin, who “hears the cries of the world,” Mary, and other empathetic goddesses and holy women.
- And more.
What do these goddesses teach us about death and mourning today?
We must view all living beings as precious and of inherent, sacred value. Demeter and Isis literally went to the ends of the earth to save their loved ones, and all beings deserve that level of devotion. We are all interdependent. Everyone has something unique to contribute to the world, and even one death diminishes us all.
While individual grieving is important, communal grieving can be essential for helping us to feel supported and regain emotional centering as we navigate devastating loss. Followers of these goddesses heard or even re-enacted their stories of mourning at well-attended rituals and were perhaps thus able to be affirmed in the importance of expressing their own grief, find solace that their goddesses understood their sorrow, and experience catharsis.
Finally, when we truly mourn, we can be transformed. Many times people who are able to find healing after great trauma find themselves more compassionate, more aware of others’ needs, and more focused on serving others. These traits are sorely needed if we are to promote a just, peaceful, and sustainable world. I wonder if this bringing forth of our own new lives from our sorrow is expressed in the stories of the Irish goddesses’ mourning resulting in the growth of in herbs or trees and Demeter’s revitalizing the world after Persephone’s return.
What actions can we take?
We must, like these goddesses, face death head on. It is too easy to ignore the reality of death when we simply track numbers on graphs, no matter how large. We must remind ourselves again and again that these numbers represent individuals, each of whom suffered and left a hole that can never be filled in the lives of family and friends.
We can make sure we take the time we need to mourn our own personal losses. Your grief is just as profound as that of the goddesses and deserves as much care. We can also make sure that we are emotionally open and present to the grief of family, friends, and anyone we encounter, no matter how busy or overwhelmed we may be in this calamitous time.
We can also find creative and inspiring ways to mourn publicly despite COVID-19 restrictions. Recent public displays have included a Detroit Memorial Day in which the photos of the 900 residents that city lost were posted on a busy street, the planting of small flags, and the tolling of bells, among others. The skills of those in our feminist community who create public rituals are needed more now than ever.
Finally, we can use our grief to be even more inspired to take positive action. Grief and rage at the injustice of lives that should not have been lost has, even in the midst of restrictions, led us out of our houses and into our communities to grieve, protest, support those who are in the greatest need, and vote. We can each continue these movements in our own communities.
Grief is powerful because it is a form of love. If we had not loved, we would not mourn. But if we don’t allow ourselves or have the opportunity to experience and navigate grief, it can devastate our individual and communal well being. For millennia, humans have looked to goddesses to help them express and cope with grief. These same goddesses from our women’s religious heritage can help us work together to find our way out of these crises and deepen the compassion of our hearts for a better future.
Information about the goddesses mentioned can be found in Patricia Monaghan’s New Book of Goddesses and Heroines.
Carolyn Lee Boyd is a writer, drummer, community builder, herb and native plant gardener, and past or current denizen of Michigan, New York City, and New England. Her essays, short stories, memoirs, reviews, and poetry have been published in, among others, SageWoman, Matrifocus, The Beltane Papers, Feminism and Religion and The Goddess Pages. She would love for you to visit her at her website, www.goddessinateapot.com where you can read more of her work, find some of her free e-books to download, and contact her.