Life Without End - Death From a Pagan Perspective
If I have a gift, it's for metaphor and analogies. I just seem to have this knack for taking hard concepts or difficult subject matter and putting it in a way that helps someone make a connection. It probably goes without saying that I've found this skill to be a life-saver as a parent. And there was never a time I was more grateful for it than the day my daughter's guinea pig died.
Yin and Yang were my daughter's first pets. They were named such because one was mostly black with a white spot and the other was, yes, you guessed it… mostly white with a black spot. I won't forget the morning that we woke up to get ready and off to school and the morning chirps at Yin and Yang were halted almost immediately with the cry of "Mom!"
Sometime during the night, Yin had died. Her little body was splayed out flat in the bottom of the cage, still and unmoving, stiff and cold. My daughter, who had never experienced death before, began to cry. Isn't it interesting that we know instinctively that death changes everything and we mourn because we know we have lost something? This thought crossed my mind sometime during the dawning of the frantic realization that I was going to have to explain this. And quick. And with conviction because a little girl's world had just been turned upside down and she needed an answer to fill not just a guinea pig sized hole in her heart, but one that would fill any sized hole, now and in the future.
"What happened, Mommy?" These are some of the hardest words to hear. They are words borne of loss, of frustration, of sadness, of confusion. These simple words comprise the same question adults ask when we lose a loved one and we raise our faces to the Goddess just like my daughter was raising her tear-streaked face to mine. I gave her a kiss and a hug, each lasting an eternity in that stillness known only in moments that are truly real. I wiped away my own tears and took my daughter's hand and led her into the kitchen.
I took a glass from the cabinet and filled it with water. "Come outside, baby girl… I want to show you something." And out the front door we went, stepping into a beautiful October morning as we paused on the cement pathway leading to the front steps. What I tell you now is what I told her two years ago.
I showed her the glass. "We all have a body, like this glass. And our bodies are full up with Spirit, just like this glass is full of water. Sometimes we feel like we may be really full and some days we may feel kind of empty, but this is us – spirit and body. Your guinea pig was the same way… spirit and body.
"But sometimes, we get sick or we wear out and our body doesn't work right anymore. It gets broken and it can't hold our spirit anymore," I said, and I dropped the glass on the hard cement where it shattered. My daughter jumped back and gave me a panicked look.
"Yes, when it happens, everyone around us gets scared. We jump. We aren't expecting it," I explain to her. "No one really knows when their body is going to stop holding onto their spirit. That's part of what makes life special… if we knew we weren't going to lose it until a long time away, we would probably not care until the day we were going to die got really close."
"I didn't know Yin was going to die," my daughter said, tearing up again. "Are you going to die? I don't want you to die!"
I knew this was coming. "Honey, dying is not the end of things," I said soothingly. "Just because your body breaks doesn't mean your spirit's gone." This got her attention. She looked up at me hopefully and I pointed at the ground.
"Look, the glass is broken and can't be put back together, but where's the water?" I asked her. "You can't see the water anymore because it's soaked in and become part of everything again, but it's still there. It's part of the ground and the stones, some of it is going into the air right now because the sun is heating it up. There's no way we can get the water back in the glass, but the water's not gone.
"And a person's spirit isn't gone just because their body breaks. When people die, our energy becomes part of everything again. You can't see them the same way, but you know they're still there, just like you know the water is still there because the ground is wet." I hugged her closer as I watched her try to understand what I was telling her.
"So, Yin's body broke, but her spirit is still here? And even if you die and I can't see you anymore, you'll still be here, too?" she asked. I could do nothing but smile. Exactly, I told her. Exactly.
We buried Yin in the back yard beneath a sweet gum tree. We cried a bit. My daughter said she was really going to miss her guinea pig, and to that, I really didn't have an answer. Sorrow and loss are the price we pay for incarnating into a human existence. We develop those attachments because we are physical beings. We, hopefully, mature and grow in our faith enough to know that we are something more than physical beings and that loss is an illusion caused by the narrow view of our humanity. But for now, for her, death and the acknowledgment that it is ok to mourn are lessons enough for one day.
While the analogy worked to explain death to my daughter, the loss of loved ones can create a real crisis of faith for those who are Craft. Most people who come to this path arrive here via a Judeo-Christian background. And, the simple truth is that religion is primarily designed to do two things: explain life, and explain death.
One of the difficult aspects of dealing with our societal Christian-rooted programming is that we're rarely put face to face with those issues until the death of a loved one actually occurs. It's all fine and good to explain that people "cross over" and that the water, like the spirit, never really goes away. But it's another thing entirely to believe it. This can cause the person who is mourning to have to face another battle besides their grief – a battle of belief.
The truth is, there is no definitive answer for what lies beyond death. I like to think that Witches have the closest answer to the actual truth. We know that all life flows in a circle, that energy cannot be created or destroyed. We know that death and birth happen all the time because Nature herself shows us this with every turning of the Wheel. As part of that Wheel, we are subject to greater laws than anything that man can create and offer us as an answer. Whether man creates Heavens or Hells, Summerlands or rebirths, there is a truth beyond all our stories.
That truth is that Life is eternal. Not life as in "a physical body", but life as in "the force that is beyond form". Anything given form deteriorates, whether it be a cell, a human, or a star. But the energy, the vibration of that thing is constant. The Universe cannot and does not destroy anything within its completeness. Death is an illusion.
It is difficult in this Judeo-Christian culture to put aside the ideas of heaven and hell. They are deeply entrenched in our social collective mind. But despite the prayers of preachers who choose to use funerals as "come to Jesus" opportunities, there is nothing we have to fear. The fear we are taught to feel is fear passed down from other men who fear. It is passed to us like a virus under threat of a right or wrong answer being the determining factor for all eternity. Answer correctly, go to a good place. Answer incorrectly, and go to a bad place. It sounds like a grade school final exam.
Nothing else in our human life needs a right or wrong answer to occur in a "proper" way. When you are born, there is no "right" way to be born unless man put his hands on the matter. Even people who have never been exposed to Western culture still have babies the same way and they still have souls the same as we do. Why, if birth and its deep mysteries need no intervention from the minds of men, does death need some intervention from the minds of men in order to assure that we do it correctly? No, I think that death is the one question which no one can answer, and thus it is the Mystery used in the black market trade of Fear.
Death happens. It is an event as simple as the sunrise. It is the Life that preceded the Death that is precious and that cannot be erased or overcome so easily. It is the Life that we mourn. It is our experience of that shared Life that tugs at our hearts and makes us realize that every day and every moment is precious, that we cannot unbreak the glass and get the water back.
Though it is hard to do, as Witches we must keep our eyes on Life. Death is but a moment, a passage, a blink of an eye. Life is all the moments except Death. We move through many rooms called Life, and Death is simply the doorway. The Gods do not ask us to stand on the threshold and suffer. The Gods encourage us to Live! To live well and fully and know that when it is time to pass through the door, it is to go on to another room of Life, another party, another scene, another time. Death is like the White dot on my daughter's guinea pig… a speck. A small thing.
Regardless of what loss you have experienced at this moment, regardless of what faith your loved one followed, the words and myth-makings of man cannot supersede the laws of Nature. The Mother gathers us each and every one even as She births us from the stuff of stars. Say your farewells, not to your loved ones, but only to the day-to-day existence that you shared with them. They are never farther than your mind, never farther than your heart. Like the water that soaked into the ground, they have soaked your lives through with their presence and you will never be without them.
Through our relationships we learn this greatest of Mysteries – Love and Life never end. May this Truth keep you now, in these times of sorrow, and in all times to come. Blessed be, to those on both sides of the Veil we all must cross.
Sitara Haye is an author and songwriter, public speaker and word-witch, creative muse and mother. Founder and HPS of the OldeForest Craft Tradition, Sitara offers the perspective of over 20 years of Wicca/Craft experience and training in her written articles and essays, books and musical compositions, public workshops and WWW (Wise Woman in the Woods) online question/answer series. She lives with her daughter and two cats in the beautiful "Scenic City" of Chattanooga, TN.