When Grief Becomes Ritual, When Remembering Renews

When Grief Becomes Ritual, When Remembering Renews October 13, 2014

by Irisanya

In my mind, she will always be beautiful. Green eyes. Insistent.

I met her at a coffee shop.  She greeted me at the drive-thru as I worked, and I looked forward to seeing her.  I looked forward to her peering in the window night after night.

And I was in a rough part of my life. In love, yet lost. She was consistent, reliable, and a bright spot.

One night she came home with me – and, truly, life changed.

Her name was Shebe. And she was my cat. She died last year on September 19, 2013.

I was devastated, broken, and torn.  I felt her everywhere.  I heard her, I smelled her, and I saw her out the corner of my eye.

My partner and I brought her body home from the vet, sore from crying, shocked at the suddenness of a decision we never wanted to make.

“In love, may she return again…”

photo by Irisanya
photo by Irisanya

Her body lay in a box, and she looked like she was sleeping.  For two days, she stayed there, because we weren’t ready to stop petting her.

During that time of tears, we wrote letters to her, telling her what we remembered about her, what we would miss about her, and what we were sorry for – the time we pushed her away, how we couldn’t do more to keep her in our lives.

We created sacred space in the sunlight.

We read the letters aloud over a hole we dug in the backyard.  We cried and we laughed at the nicknames we’d given her over the years (Shebe-rella, Shebe Claus, She B. Kitty, Shebe Underfoot…). We lowered her body into the ground, placed the letters beside her, and covered her with catnip, flowers, green leaves, lavender, and our tears.

It was during the covering of her body when I began to feel peace.  I was sad and broken open, but the ritual helped to bring her memories alive and her body to rest.

But the process of grief is not a simple one, is it?

In the next few days, I went to the Reclaiming Spiral Dance website, to the link to list the names of our Beloved Dead, those who have passed since the previous Samhain.  I typed in her name and carefully wrote out how to pronounce it.

I had to be there, I had to be at the ritual.

Entering Kezar Pavilion, I feel the way the bodies are holding space for the dead, for the grieving, for the allies, and for the gods. It’s early in the day, and only volunteers are there.  I move around, doing some on-site marketing and connecting with people I only see once a year.

The altars are built in loving service. Ritualists and priestesses rehearse and deepen into the energy of the day.  Sacred space is set before the final run-through, and we hold hands to prepare for the magickal journey.

Before long, the doors open and people enter the Spiral Dance.  The lights are dimmed and the altars are lit.  There are altars for the cardinal directions (North, East, South, West), altars for those we have lost to violence, altars for the Fey, for the bees, for the things that anger us, for those we celebrate and honor, and many others.

During this time of reflection, the names of the Beloved Dead are read aloud.

I hear Shebe’s name called. It echoes and lingers for a moment. I hold my coven mates and smile.

The ritual begins and we come together to remember, to dance with our Beloved Dead.  We create sacred space with dance, with voice, with song, with our hearts.  We invoke the Spirits of the Land who we honor as they still whisper in our ears. We greet the Fey. We invoke the Queer Gods, the God, the Goddess, the Transgender Gods, Ancestors, Mighty Dead, and Beloved Dead.

We invite and invoke them all, all of their forms, aspects, and energies.

And then a journey starts.  We make our way to the place where our Beloved Dead wait.  We follow the path from shore to water to shore.  The boat scrapes up against the isle.

We sing, we mourn, we remember.

Photo by Michael Rauner
Photo by Michael Rauner

We are not alone.  We find the hands of others around us, as only magick can guide us, and we begin the Spiral Dance.  (This year will be the 35th dance.) Slowly at first, we walk, trying to find our steps and our rhythm, and we look into the eyes of those who pass before us.  Green eyes find me there.

I see myself.  I see my beloveds, those whose names I don’t know and those I know deeply.  I see them and they see me, and we are connected, if only for a moment.  Passing person after person, each radiant as we sing, “Let it begin with each step we take, let it begin with each change we make, and let it begin with each chain we break, and let it begin every time we awake.”

Again and again; the song will be stuck in my head for weeks.  The dancing continues with those who hold me as I hold them.  The dance continues until we sing and create a cone of power, sending the energy up and out into the year.  It is exhilarating, exhausting, and indescribable.

We sing again, devoke and move out of the space… into the night air which is filled with the whispers of ancestors.

I know there are many Samhain rituals at this time of year, some part of the Reclaiming tradition of witchcraft, many not. There are ancestor dinners and private rituals, rituals outside and indoors, rituals of the heart and rituals of memory.

In all of these moments, we celebrate and dance with our Beloved Dead, the Mighty Dead, those whose names we know, and those whose names we do not know.

But in all of it, we remember. I remember.

What is remembered, lives.


Irisanya has been a practicing Witch since 1999, having read The Spiral Dance by Starhawk. She has been active in the San Francisco Reclaiming community as a teacher, priestess, and ritualist since 2008. See more of her work at www.irisanya.com.

For more articles on remembering the dead and honoring ancestors, check out the Patheos Pagan Ancestor Remembrance Project and the Patheos Public Square series on Remembering the Dead.

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