I heard the scream and it sounded like the wail of a bean sidhe. It startled me. My hands tightened on the steering wheel and tears poured down my face. I felt sick to my stomach and I wondered for the briefest of moments where the sound had come from before abruptly realizing that the scream had come from me.
In just the past six weeks, I have experienced more loss than I have in at least the past few years. Each time I pick myself up after falling to my knees, it is as if an unexpected wave comes out of nowhere and crashes over me, pushing me down once again. Ironically, late last year in a powerful ritual I had the revelation that this year I would need to work on letting go and surrendering; allowing myself to loosen my grip on my need to constantly be (or at least appear) strong and in control of my own life and my emotions. I guess you could call this my year of “breaking open” because nothing – and I mean NOTHING – teaches one about surrender as powerfully as loss and grief.
The first blow was losing a beloved animal companion. My cat, Callie, had been ill for some time with stomach cancer and had outlived the timeline that the vet had given us. Yet there came a point where it was apparent she was suffering and she was ready for us to let her go. She had been neglected for most of her life and it took some time and effort to get her to trust us once we brought her home. With patience and consistent effort, she and I built a strong bond full of love and understanding. So when the time came to let her go, I held her, speaking the words I had spoken to her so many times since she first came into my life: “You are safe, you are so very loved, and you are worthy of love”.
Earlier this month, a dear friend of mine passed. She was a force of nature, and lived a very full life. While she had been having medical issues for some time, she was having difficulty accepting the prognosis the doctors gave her late last year when they told her her situation wouldn’t improve. Therefore, her passing wasn’t a complete surprise but while my head knew that her time was coming, my heart was in solidarity to some extent with her refusal to accept the inevitable. I was fortunate enough to be able to see her shortly before she passed and to feel her spirit embracing me in what felt like one last loving hug.
Both of these losses impacted me strongly, yet none were as devastating as the unexpected loss of my 18-year-old niece, Anam. Anam and I were very close. We shared a similar rare medical condition, one which could be fatal in certain circumstances. This allowed us to relate to each other in a unique way and to understand the myriad of fears, anxiety and frustrations that each of us experienced. Our personalities that could be described as “quirky”, “imaginative”, and “compassionate”. The quirky description did not bother either of us; in fact, I think we both wore it as a badge of pride. We were so much alike that my family called her my “mini me”, yet, she was still her own person in so many ways and she possessed a sense of self that I never had at her age.
When I heard the scream mentioned at the beginning of this post, I had just been told that my niece had passed unexpectedly and was en route to my sister’s house. My niece had the heart of a warrior and was a fighter from day one. She was the embodiment of compassion and kindness and genuinely wanted everyone to feel loved and accepted. She was doing so well and had just started her first job. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
My mind and my heart warred between not believing it was real and trying to make sense of the fact that it was. I don’t think I have ever before made the kind of sounds that came out of my mouth at that moment. It was one of the few moments that I recall actually letting the mask drop completely and allowing myself to really fall apart.
There have been so many layers to these losses – the last loss in particular – that it has been difficult to untangle them. There’s the guilt both of wishing I had spent more time with her and told her I loved her more. There’s the guilt I feel that the condition causing Anam’s adrenal insufficiency was more intense for her and cut short her life while I am still here. There’s the fear that comes from the very real reminder that while I am ultimately pretty healthy, my body’s inability to produce adrenaline can be fatal. As an empath, I can’t even begin to put into words what it is like seeing my loved ones in such pain as they deal with their own grief.
Grief is a funny thing. It’s been said that it’s like a rollercoaster and I suppose that’s true, but in my opinion it’s also much like the ocean. Some days, I can cope and even smile or laugh but its frigid waters are always there, gently yet surely nipping at my heart and my mind to remind me of my loss. Other days, for no discernible reason, the grief suddenly crashes over me like a tidal wave, threatening to pull me down into the ocean’s abyss. My sadness overwhelms me and I feel as though I am suffocating. Some days I vacillate back and forth between these two extremes so frequently that by the end of the day I am exhausted.
I know that I must let the grief wash over me in its own time and I must feel it in my own way. When things like this happen, I find comfort in my spiritual beliefs and the deities I work with. The Avalonian tradition is one I have followed for almost 20 years and of the primary Welsh goddesses that we work with in this tradition, it is Rhiannon I typically turn to when I am in need of comfort. I was therefore very surprised when I undertook my imram (inner journey) and was greeted instead by Cerridwen.
While I have long admired and enjoy working with Cerridwen, she has always been a little bit intimidating for me. More than once she has hit me upside the head with a “clue by four” when I wasn’t paying attention to what she was trying to tell me, and I initially couldn’t grasp why Cerridwen would choose to come to me in the midst of my grief and my need for comfort. Once I stopped overthinking things and surrendered to her presence, I came to understand Her and Her story in a way I never had despite having worked with her for so long.
While it is true that Cerridwen’s story does not involve physical loss, she does experience deep loss and grief nonetheless. Cerridwen’s tale focuses on her love for her son, Morfran, otherwise known as “Afagddu” – a moniker meaning “utter darkness” because he was so ugly. Cerridwen desperately wanted a better future for her son, so she worked diligently to obtain herbs to make a potion that would grant him the three drops of “Awen”, or divine inspiration. Cerridwen had hoped that by granting him divine inspiration and the spirit of prophecy, Afagddu would be respected and would have a better future.
As the story goes, Cerridwen had a young boy named Gwion stirring the potion until the three drops of Awen were distilled from its ingredients. Depending on which version of the story you believe, Gwion either was given or stole the Awen intended for Afagddu and after an initiatory shape-shifting chase between Cerridwen and Gwion, Cerridwen ultimately became pregnant with Gwion and gave birth to him in the form of the renowned bard known as Taliesin. Meanwhile, the remainder of the brew Gwion had been in charge of stirring became toxic and broke the cauldron, oozing out and poisoning the land and nearby animals.
Cerridwen’s loss may not have been literal, but it was a loss nonetheless. Death cuts one’s life short and leaves a painful void in the heart of the dead’s loved ones. Similarly, one could surmise that Afagddu’s future was cut short once the Awen was imbibed by someone else and Cerridwen felt the loss of the hopes and dreams she had for her son. Cerridwen has taught me that her cauldron can be a beautiful and effective tool in dealing with my grief. This has been particularly helpful as I try to cope with the loss of my niece.
The exercise that has come to me from working with Cerridwen involves (literally or metaphorically) holding a cauldron under my heart and allowing all of my grief and sadness to pour out into the bowl. I empty the cauldron that is my heart of the grief and sadness I feel inside and watch it in my mind’s eye seep into Her cauldron. I may do this silently, or I may cry or wail – anything that will release what I am feeling into the cauldron I am holding below my heart.
Once I have released my grief and sadness into the cauldron, She whispers to me to sit with it for as long as it takes. This could be a few minutes or it could be an hour, but either way I am to let it brew and move freely. Each time I do this exercise, ultimately I eventually find the three drops of Awen in the midst of my grief and I surrender everything else that feels toxic as I give the cauldron back to Cerridwen. As for the three drops? They sustain me. One drop is the pure love I feel for my niece and the inspiration to honor her memory through action. The second drop is the renewed gratitude I feel for my life and my living loved ones as well as the renewed determination to pursue my dreams and leave a legacy. The final drop honors the sovereignty that exists both in me and in Anam.
I have found that this is not an exercise that can be done only once. Just as grief is a journey, this exercise is there to sustain me as I travel this difficult path. Healing from any loss can take years and just when we think we’ve “gotten over” our pain, something so seemingly innocent can cause a fresh wave of grief to wash over us. I don’t think we ever fully get over the loss of a loved one and unfortunately our society has a tendency at times to expect grief to have a time limit and want “normalcy” to return when the witnessing of grief becomes uncomfortable to the often well-intentioned loved ones and bystanders in the lives of those experiencing loss.
This has led me to one final, powerful understanding of Cerridwen’s myth and it is this – just as it took what was ultimately a dark and toxic potion to brew for a period of time before it could create inspiration and light, so too, must we allow ourselves time to sit with and experience our loss before any kind of healing can occur. Surrendering our pain to Cerridwen’s cauldron won’t erase the grief that we feel but perhaps it can help us access the Awen that can help us to begin to heal.