The Air and the Flame: Honoring Grief as Pagans
By Elyse Welles
© 2021 Elyse Welles. All rights reserved.
As Pagans, witches, and magical practitioners, we acknowledge Death in a familiar way. We find comfort
in this relationship. Death is not ignored or euphemized for us - Death is not met with anger, but pain and sadness? Definitely.
Grief affects all humanity. But, if we engage with Spirit, never will we meet
Death with the rage of disbelief. In times of intense confusion, as we have been in the midst of, it’s hard to keep
grounded and move forward.
Here are seven ways to honor ancestors and deceased loved ones, and ideas for how to gain strength through actualizing grief and acceptance. Death is the Stimulus - We are in control of our reaction to It. “Death is scary” some say; instead let's say, “Death has made me feel fear (or anger, or sorrow)”. We should, instead of shying away, lean into the feelings it brings upon us.
These emotions feel uncontrollable, but it is because they are strong, and it may have been a long time since we’ve felt strong emotion. If we feel sorrow, we should cry. We should sob, we should scream into the sky, “this isn’t fair!” We can demand answers, beg for this to all be dream. Let those emotions flow, unmitigated, and do not apologize.
Death is not an enemy, but it is the only surety in our lives. No thing in life is guaranteed except that it ends. Death is so natural, so simple, and so solid that it should be a source of comfort. Globally, It is seen in our varied traditions, and is celebrated as the Circle of Life, the Wheel of the Year, as Ensō, The Sacred Hoop - we accept endings and welcome beginnings.
Emotion is power; Death brings strength. It moves us into the next tier of our lives, equipping us for the next phase of our time on this plane.
Using Shadow Work in Grief Death is a release: not just for the sufferer now at peace, but for those on this plane of existence who need to release the emotions they have for that person. I don’t mean release as in “let go”, but release as in “set free.” Live freely with your emotions, as long and as often as you need to. Come back to them when anniversaries or memories arise, however frequently.
Feeling pain is not weakness; working through pain is the biggest strength humans are capable of. Confront pain, name those emotions and ask, “why am I angry?” Allow yourself to fully exist in those emotions, feel why they’re there, no matter how messy or uncomfortable they are. The emotions Death leads us to feel are often why we fear death, more than the fact that the person is now lost. The truth is that they are at peace, no matter how they passed, and death is inevitable for us all. That peace is our comfort, whether we believe in an afterlife or reincarnation.
An emotion Death incurs that we don’t like to talk about is guilt. “I could have done more,” you may think, or “why didn’t she call me?”, “I had more to say to them”, and “If I had known the last time we were going to talk, I would have stayed longer… hugged tighter… said ‘I love you’.” The good news is that you can still do all of those things. This is the shadow work that spurns a revolution in your life. Regardless of religious beliefs, the energy, soul, or spirit of a person is not dead with them. Their life on earth is one path of the spirit. You give them new life every time they cross your mind.
In recounting stories, memories, journaling, making their favorite food, picking a bouquet to put on their grave, telling the next generation about them, or simply smiling at their favorite soda as you wait in the check out line, it continues their life. Living true to their memory, responding in your means of personal growth, giving that newfound goal or emotional level back to your living loved ones - that is legacy. A life is a spiral - we come into this world much as we leave it, and through childbirth and injury come back to that place of vulnerability throughout.
The Air and the Flame
A life is not a candle snuffed out and melted down into oblivion. Life is the air the candle flickers in. We are present on this earth in physical form for a time, but we all need to accept that the physical flame is only one form of the air and fire; we will return to the sky and the earth, and be as untouchable as they for more of our existence than any long life on this Earth.
Actualizing the Hard Truths
The hard truths need to be accepted in life is to really come to terms with Death. Our spouses will leave us, or we will leave them - loneliness is inevitable in the most loving of unions. Our children will bury us - and that is best case scenario, as otherwise parents bury children. Every person we know will die and become memories and stories, before or after us, it doesn’t matter. Death is a comforting truth, and it can bring with it strong emotions. Don’t let them be for naught. Use those strong emotions to remind yourself to always say I love you to your friends and family. Stay that extra hour, even when there’s work in the morning. If you’re “too busy”, consider: what does that mean? Why does that matter? What matters to you in this life? What regrets might you have? And choose Joy. Choose Love. Choose what serves you and yours.
Find comfort in those around you. Because Death is a bringer of comfort, not unease. When Death comes for one in your life, accept the emotions it brings with it. For some of those emotions are good - they bond us closer with those left on the earth. And find comfort that Death is a gift, it is a guarantee in an uncertain world growing stranger by the day. It is a unifier, as we all will experience it. And it gives us emotional depth like nothing else.
We will only be flames for a brief time, but we will all be the air around the flames for eternity.
Seven Practical Means of Honoring Your Loved Ones
These are ways I personally have learned to honor my ancestors and deceased friends. I often combine these, and some I’ve done them only once. It’s all about what works for you and brings you the emotional strength to persist on your Path, while feeling at peace in your relationships with those on the next plane.
Practical means of honoring your loved ones include:
Incense. An offering of incense is a great way to connect with your loved ones. A mediation follows that you can do while your incense burns. For your incense, You can prepare wrapped smudge sticks (bundled with burnable twine) or sprinkle these herbs onto a burning charcoal round; or incense of these varieties. Find herbs significant for Death such as:
- Rosemary for remembrance
- Rose petals for love
- Mugwort for communication
- Sage or frankincense for safe passage on/protection
- Basil for holiness/purification
A favorite recipe. Kitchen witches, you know what to do. What was their favorite food? Something you used to share together is wonderful here. Prepare a meal, if possible with a candle burning that you meaningfully charge with the intent of your meal. Taking a moment to share a meal, make up a plate for them as well, light a candle and reminisce. Play their favorite music. Smile. When you blow out the candle, offer the food to local wildlife. Leaving it out somewhere safe under the moonlight for the evening is an option as well to give your greetings time to be received. If it’s not safe to put your food outside, disposing of it with a thankful blessing to the Goddess is ok, too.
Create an altar to your loved one. I made an altar for my Nana using a shelf from 5 Below, a frame from the dollar store, a tea light holder that spoke to me at Goodwill, and two crystals gifted to me by her. I also dried a yellow rose when I was gifted a bouquet, her favorite flower. For $6.50, plus changing out the tea light every so often (a pack of 12 is at the Dollar Tree!) I have a small, meaningful space for when I want to send her some love. You can bless or cleanse your altar by running each item through the smoke of any of the incenses above, or another favored cleansing incense (palo santo or lavender, broom, or sweetgrass smudging bundles are other popular choices for ritual cleansing or house smudging.) Sit here or brush a hand on the photo of a loved one when you want a moment with them. PS: Some people say it’s bad luck to have a picture of the living on an altar for the dead; I am in the picture of me and my Nana and for me that was fitting, as it’s my place to communicate with her. If you’re doing seances and pendulum readings at your altar, maybe the superstition could be true; or if the living members on the altar are near death themselves. But as always, follow your instincts in your practice.
Journaling or writing a letter. I burn these letters with my Coven on Samhain to send them to the other side; you could do this at home on the Witches’ New Year yourself, or right after you write it. Keeping it as a memento is fine, too. It’s the intention - cliche, yes, but it’s true!
Burning a candle on the anniversary of their birth, death, or an important moment like an anniversary or child’s birthday. Sometimes I do this just because I’m thinking of them, too; there’s never a wrong time to honor the dead and remember our loved ones. Celebrating their way for the day adds strength to this. Burn a candle, either as part of a wider ritual like calling the quarters or a deity first, or as a simple moment alone with your loved one. Anointing the candle (lightly) with oil before burning, and/or carving a meaningful sigil or symbol for them onto the candle before burning can be a nice touch. Say a prayer for them and their loved ones, let them know you’re thinking of them. Remember that the flame burns down as our lives do, but they burn into the atmosphere as well, becoming a part of the cycle in a new way. Let the candle burn down in solidarity with this understanding of Death.
Meditating Together. This can be the traditional kind of meditation - counting down from 10 and clearing your mind, or having your eyes focused on a picture of your loved one. Some do a scrying technique, a mirror painted black, a flame, a dark-colored bowl full of water with a dime at the bottom.
A Meditation to Honor and Connect with Loved Ones
Get comfortable - I like corpse pose, or try sitting in a comfortable chair your like. It doesn’t have to be yogi-style with no back support, the goal is comfort so that you can realize trance, or unawareness of your body. Staying present in the mind, in this moment with your loved one.
Deep breathing in and out through the nose - square breathing (in for four, hold for four, out for four) or circular breathing (in for 6-8 beats, out for the same count) are great ways to relax your body and calm your mind.
Once you’re in your comfortable spot, breathing, relaxed, thoughts calmed if not blank.
Imagine yourself in the same position you’re in, in the dark. You have the sensation of a forest around you, though you couldn’t say what time of year it was. You’re comfortable, but don’t hear any wind through the trees. You can’t see, so you’re smelling the cool forest air. It’s loamy and green, like moss, or a clean greenhouse at the start of spring. No humidity, but no breeze, like it’s waiting with you for something. It’s a joyful anticipation, but you’re content to wait here in the open, cool glen.
Suddenly a large torch alights, about 6 feet from you. It illuminates the graceful shadows of leafless trees onto the backdrop of night sky, fading from black just behind the trees, up to an opaque grey overhead. The trees seem to loom around you, the center of the huddle, taking the very shape of the globe and reminding you that you are small. A shooting star passes through the atmosphere overhead as you take in the vastness of the sky. Your time on this earth is just as short, in the grand scheme of it all. You take a deep breath. Your eyes return to earth and you glance around the circular glen, assessing all sides of their shadowy embrace.
A sound, musical to your ears after such silence, draws your attention behind you. Stepping out of the shadow, appearing through the gentle mist you didn’t realize was between the trees at the border of the glen, it’s (your loved one… or a Messenger for them; you’ll know), smiling, their familiar expression of greeting spurring a wide reaction on your own face.
You gesture for them to sit with you; there’s so much to talk about.