Friday, May 25, 2018

Opening Up to Death: Using Ritual as a Coping Mechanism

All my life, people have assumed that I’m obsessed with death, and while to some extent that may be true, the more accurate answer is that I’m terrified of mortality and therefore so consumed with the concept of death that I’ve truly fallen madly in love with life. As such, I tend to live life passionately, and because of that excitement, I’m often always planning and multitasking too many projects and trips to keep up with, not to mention how careful I am about honoring my relationships with friends and family, never leaving without a giant hug and never hesitant to tell those I love how much they mean to me.

But as a woman raised in the Catholic faith, I’ve struggled to find my identity because I knew that the religion wasn’t something I completely agreed with, nor followed in my heart of hearts. While I think some of the practices are beautiful, and while I continue to maintain my beliefs (on my terms) to a certain degree, my journey exploring other faiths and practices has been a true blessing, not to mention one of the most enlightening spiritual paths I’ve had the opportunity to take.

Witchcraft was always something that sat in the back of my mind, but as a little girl who was taught “a man or woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death. You are to stone them; their blood will be on their own heads[1]” all I could think of was fire and damnation, and I was terrified about exploring something that –from what I read—aligned with a lot of my beliefs about energy, nature, death, balance, and cleansing.

Because of this, I’ve spent the past few years exploring the craft with a special focus on ritual as a coping mechanism for death, as well as looking at it through the lens of a guiding point in an effort to build a healthier relationship with mortality. As the past two years have brought with it the death of two of my grandparents, and the suicide of one of my aunts, I’ve been searching for a way to both honor death and celebrate life, forever looking for the balance between the light and the dark.

Now I have a rich history of depression swimming in my genetic makeup. I’ve battled chronic depression, insomnia, panic attacks, and severe anxiety for most of my life, and I’ve found that ritual has helped me not only to assuage some of my anxiety, but to express my grief and trauma through a way that promotes self-care while still acknowledging the great forces around me, thus grounding me emotionally and spiritually.

As such, here are some of the practices and rituals I’ve kept and stayed true to over the years. I hope they help bring you peace and comfort in trying times.

Remembrance Altars

When my aunt died, it was unexpected, and it was the first time anyone close to me had passed. When my grandfather and grandmother passed, and in such a short time after, the agony that followed was suffocating. To honor their memory and help keep their spirit alive, I made remembrance altars so I had/have a place to go in order to talk to them, pray, etc. as I worked through the stages of grief. For me, this aids with the grieving process because 1) it’s an honest reflection of death and one’s mortality, 2) it lessens the feeling of loneliness while still being true to the finality of the experience, and 3) it allows me to mediate and remember them through moments of joy, love, and peace, thereby showing the beauty of life rather than focusing on the sorrows of death. Some of what I use/d on my altar(s) include: 
  • White pillar candles (sometimes dressed with essential oils/herbs depending on the connection I’m looking for, i.e. love, advice, memory, etc.)
  • Personal items of the deceased (for example, on one, I use my grandmother's beads and the prayer card from her funeral)
  • Quartz crystals (white)
  • Dried flowers (again, depending on the connection I’m looking for)
  • My rose-infused rosary from Rome, Italy.

Funeral Rituals

My grandmother and I were very close, so at her wake, and then later at her funeral, I wanted to make sure she was buried with a farewell that suited her grace, especially because one night, she held my hand and apologized for me having to watch her die. To me, the western tradition of not handling our dead is a true loss because I think there’s something very beautiful and healthy about personally preparing our loved ones for their next journey. While emotionally, and at times physically painful--as grief can manifest in a variety of ways--I found every moment I spent with her prior to her death, and after, a true blessing. It is a great gift to be able to reassure and love someone during what makes for the scariest, and sometimes most painful, moment of their life, and as I told her then, there was nothing she ever needed to apologize for. She took care of me as a child, and now it was my turn to hold her hand and take care of her. 

I think, to some degree, my mom would agree as well. 

 As you can imagine, my grandmother's death was traumatic for me, in a lot of ways--Alzheimer’s is a cruel, horrid disease—and I grieved hard while sorting through home videos, photographs, letters, and old birthday cards.  At the funeral, my mother and her siblings put her purse (which in the later stages of the disease, she consistently lost and asked about) in the casket, and inside her purse, I put a long letter that I wrote to her (which can be read here). The following day, I carried a rose to her grave, and read a poem I wrote in her memory for everyone, including her, to hear. It was a beautiful moment of connection and closure, and I feel very much at peace knowing that I said goodbye in a way that was more than be standing in a random funeral home for four hours.


Before I visit one of my altars, a grave, or if I even just sit down to meditate, I like to ground myself. Usually I picture myself sitting in the woods, surrounded my trees and a subtle light. As an avid listener of Mantras for Precarious Times by Deva Premal, I usually take my beads and do the chant for the removing of obstacles, i.e. Om Gum Ganapatayei  Namaha. I envision roots moving through my feet and into the earth, grounding me to the world and the energy around me. This has especially helped me during the acceptance stage of grieving as it lessons my anxiety about death and helps me to see it as a cyclic part of life, something that is neither a blessing nor a curse, but rather another step in our journey. 

Insomnia/Sleep rituals

Sleep has never been my friend, and during times of grief, it becomes particularly difficult for me to sleep as I’ve struggled with nightmares and insomnia for as long as I can remember. In fact, it’s taken me most of my life to get matters under control. I have one tea ritual that I like to use, as well as another recipe (along with some products) that I’ve found to greatly help me achieve a state of peace and serenity during the night.

  • Hedgewitch Apothecary’s Tea, Enter the Sandman
  • C&C Apothecary’s Dream Salve
  • Burning (or chewing) mugwort
  • A sachet of lavender and balsam fir inside your pillow
  • My Dream Milk Recipe

      • 1 cup warm milk (heated either on the stove or via the microwave depending on your preference)
      • A dash of cinnamon (sometimes, I like to stick an entire cinnamon stick in there if I have one)
      •  A splash of vanilla
      •  Honey, to taste 

    Grief Cleansing

    Last but not least, I have two water rituals that I like to do in times of trauma and grief, but also as a means of self-care. Each of these, to some degree, is reminiscent of baptism, but something that always bothered me growing up is that baptism wasn’t a repetitive act. I love the idea of using water and prayer to cleanse us of our pain and suffering, thereby allowing us to start anew. As such, I like to charge a small bowl of water under the new moon/full moon as a way to heighten my experience with starting fresh/understanding the cycle of life.

    (1) Bath Ritual

    For this, I usually run a bath and fill it with Epsom salts and essential oils (usually lemon). If I have some dried roses, I’ll throw some in the tub, too, along with some rosemary. I’ll line the tub with rose quartz (love and spiritual nourishment), selenite (guardian angels) and amethyst (spiritual connection and protection) and in between the crystals, I’ll put seashells that I've collected at the beach. Usually I light white candles during this as well, and then as I’m soaking in the tub, I’ll concentrate of waves of light washing over me, helping to lessen the trauma and grief with each metaphorical wave that crashes against my body. Even focusing on the in and out of waves at sea is a great calmer, and again, it reinforces the idea--in a gentle way--that what comes in to the life, must also be taken back.

    (2) Crystal Cleanse/Meditation

    If I’m feeling particularly tense, I like to wind down in the evening with a couple rounds of moon salutations, followed by a light shavasana (or corpse pose) to help me relax and sort through my emotions. For me, this is useful at any stage of the grieving process, but especially during times of denial, anger, and blame. In those cases, I usually cast a circle and work within it, sometimes even lining my body (third eye, throat, and heart chakra) with quartz crystals during shavasana. 

    [1] Leviticus 20:27

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