(may the writing of this get the bee from my bonnet)
This is a follow up to my previous post, A Problem with a Human-centric View of the Spirit Worlds which was, in essence, a rebuttal to Erin Lale’s “Humans, Stop Misusing the Rainbow Bridge.” In truth, the first was not truly a rebuttal, but more of “ . . . er?” This post, however, is more properly a rebuttal, though it’s my intent that this essay be more than just a rebuttal. I’m not interested in arguing for the sake of arguing, and I’m not really out to change peoples minds so much as I am out to explore as fully and as deeply as I can the ideas that I come across that disturb me – and the imagery of Bifrost being littered by carcasses of dogs and cats, far as the eye could see, does disturb me, deeply. Why? Where do I start?
The most immediate and perhaps the most simple of the reasons I find this disturbing is the image Erin’s story conjures up: the bodies of dogs and cats across the bridge, curled up like dead ants, a throng of the inanimate dead, without their souls, whose physical weight is such a burden to this divine bridge that Bifrost is weakening, is threatened. This image does not mesh at all with the image that’s put forth in the Rainbrow Bridge poem. In that poem, the souls of our beloved animal companions are active, are happy, and are running around fields, unburdened, whole and hale and content – or, mostly content. They are, after all, waiting for their beloved humans to join them, to be reunited with their special people. I have issues with the idea of Bifrost as a pathway for the dead to the underworlds, as that bridge is Gjallarbru, but I have to remind myself I am not a lorehound (I view the lore as UPG with the weight of tradition behind it, nothing more) and that alone is not a reason to have such a reaction to this idea. Once I have that nit-picky reaction set down, what really bothers me with this idea is: now I have this fucking image in my head that I cannot get out of my head, and I find it emotionally and mentally disturbing.
If visualization has power, if how we imagine things matter to such an extent that we are shaping the afterlife of our loved ones (rather than they themselves, as beings with their own agency) then it does not follow that the imagining of thousands of people – people who may have skill and focus and practice with visualization, but at the same time people who may not – of their loved ones, romping and playing and well in some halfway-world that they reached along a rainbow bridge thus becomes an image of dead bodies littering Bifrost. Are these their bodies, or are these their spirits? Does visualization have power, and thus we create what we visualize, or is there only one Rainbow Bridge possible, and only one way of existing in the afterlife, and thus, no matter how you picture it, there are dead physical bodies scattered all over Bifrost? Which is it? Because if it’s one, then I don’t see how Bifrost can possibly be threatened, and if it’s the other, than visualization cannot possibly matter and surely they are ending up there anyhow.
But this is still nit-picking at what I see as a lack of logic as well as human-centric shortsightedness. Because I’m interested in being as honest as possible, I’ll admit here and now: I find the idea offensive. There are few ideas that reach out and hit me in the “ugh, sacrilege, hubris, repulsive!” center, because we all come to things as we come to things, and what other people think is none of my business. If I only found the idea offensive, I’m not sure I’d even be moved to write about it, because, again: not my business, and the gods and spirits do not need me to defend them or anything of theirs. But I’m more than just offended and repulsed – I’m also a good deal angry at this very idea. Why?
We are so ill equiped in our society to admit that death and dying is a thing that happens. There is very few rituals and rites of mourning, of recognizing the agony that can be surviving our loved ones, especially as we move outside of religious communities and are dealing with by and large secular culture. To give you some understanding of where I’m coming from let me explain to you that death and dying was a part of my life from a very young age. I know there are people out there who go for decades before they experience losing a loved one. Not so, in my case. I was two when my father buried his eldest daughter. I was four or five, maybe six, when my great-grandmother died. Her husband followed her the year later. The year after that my paternal grandmother died, and it took two heart-attacks to finish the job. My mother gave birth to and lost a daughter when I was seven. We lost my paternal grandfather two years after that. There were a number of great aunts and uncles that died between my Papa dying and my own father, who passed away after five years of fighting his illness, five years of the doctors saying he really ought not still be alive, five years of bedside vigils and wondering, is this the time he won’t wake up again? Will this be it? We reached a point, once, when they could not get him to come off the respirator, and we were faced with making that call – is this it? Do we have him come off and let him die? (He woke up, and made it clear that no, he wanted to keep fighting, which thank the gods that he was able to wake up and let us know, but how, in all those years of near-misses, had that not already been made known to people? I had no idea, but I was thirteen when all this started, and it wasn’t really my place to know such things. And yes, this is when a lot of my ‘what the fuck is wrong with people? Head – > sand-ing this does not make it go away?’ took root in my heart) Five years is a long time to play the denial game, but in the end, he died, as well. Because we do, you see.
It doesn’t stop there. I lost a few classmates while in highschool. Parents of friends passed away. And then, it did stop, at least for a time. And then, then? Then the Big Ones began hitting. In 2007, Angel, my beloved companion, my best friend, the being who wedged his place into my heart before Poseidon ever uttered his name to me, died. One weeks before my birthday he was diagnosed with end-stage heart failure. A week after my birthday he was dead, and I was inconsolable.
I knew he was going to die – I’d been mentally preparing for his death for most of the time he’d been with me. It’s something I still do – I play what-if. What happens if my younger brother dies before me? What will that funeral be like? Will I even be able to attend? What about if my mother dies first? What will that be like? What’s it going to be like when our dog dies, when the cats start going. It’s part of how I hold onto the idea that the last time I see anyone could be the last time, and it helps me remain aware of our mortality, to how fleeting life can be. But, mentally preparing is shit, utter shit when it comes to some deaths, and Angel’s death broke me. I knew it was coming – he was a Pomeranian; chances were good that I was going to outlive him. He was my first animal companion. He was by my side for fourteen long years. He was with me as I left my mother’s house. He left Massachusetts with me, first to northern PA, and then, later to Philadelphia. I was terrified that he’d be picked on, both by Beth’s Maine Coon Sassy and her Keeshund Orion (in fact, Sassy took to him like she did not take to most of the other animals that came into our lives, and Angel bullied Orion.) He saw me through many changes in my life. I wrote my first book with him at my feet. We rambled through nature together. I shoveled pathways for that dog through feet and feet of snow during our long winters. We had a kinship that went beyond words, beyond species, and everyone who met him commented on his spirit. He was a dog . . . but barely, it seemed. Angel was . . . Angel. I don’t have words. And when he died, I was wretched. Grief unlike any I’d ever known consumed me. On the one hand, it made no sense – I was already Odin’s by this point, already Poseidon’s. I believed in, and interacted with, spirits and gods, and I knew that death was just a gateway, that it was nothing more than a transition. On the other hand, having someone physically present, and then having that physical, tangible presence taken away is a hard, hard adjustment. It hurts.
I wish I’d had something in place, some tool, something, anything, that could have provided comfort. Instead, I went a tad bit insane. Everything came into question at that point – all my decisions in my life up to that point, everything I planned for my future, everything. And then, it didn’t stop again. A year and two days after Angel died, we had to put Orion to sleep. The year after that my uncle died – and that was a hard one, too. He’d been more like a father to me than my own father had been, and his death was, while not entirely unexpected, still hit hard. But – and here’s where the “cold” bits come in, though I maintain that we all grieve differently – it did not have the impact that Angel’s death had on me. It’s likely because Angel was part of my every day life, whereas I saw my uncle on holidays and for birthdays and the like. He wasn’t a daily part of my life. And, he’d been sick and fighting it, for some time. It’s possible, too, that Angel helped pave the way for the devastating deaths, so that none would ever hurt quit that much again. I dunno. Grief is funny. Whatever.
There was a year off, then. Such a nice year. And then in 2011 Sassy died – at home, and Icannot praise our lovely vet team enough, that made such a thing happen. My grandfather followed half a year later, and his death really put to the test the theory that none would hit as hard as Angel’s did. My grandfather’s death threw me down into a very black place. We lost Princess two months after that, and then my grandmother died in December – five months after my grandfather, to be buried on his birthday.
So – I’m not one of those people who make it into my twenties or thirties before I have any experiences with how we deal with death, dying, and mourning. And I learned that, mostly, we don’t? In my family, we have the wakes. We have the funerals. Sometimes they get combined. We have the reception. We don’t talk about death, save for making gallow’s humor jokes. (Guilty of that myself. Kevin and I giggled all the way through Gippy’s funeral mass, so I’m not judging) We don’t, for example, talk about people looking at death as though they are looking at death. We don’t talk about end of life care frankly and openly – we use euphemisms, and we dance around it, and we talk of hope. When death has come, we talk about life, and we make jokes, and we eat food – and I understand the point to this ritual, but we do these things, and then we are expected to get on with life. We get time to grieve for our parents, our siblings, our grandparents or our parents’ siblings . . . but barely. Grieving is a private thing, and we don’t talk about it with others, and when we are caught up in it, we do our best to not bring other people down. When it lingers, when months and then years we are caught by this grief, seized by it all unawares, we do not share it. We hold it close and we pretend all is fine. We would rather scream our lose, our pain, our agony, but we don’t. Because it’s private.
And these are for people. What tools do we have for mourning our beloved companions? Angel’s death laid me low, and his constant press against me, the awareness of his presence, wanting to reassure his dear friend, made it all worse. He left for a time – of his own violition, not mine – so that I could adjust, but it would be years before the brush of his mind against mine did not have me sobbing out the ache in my heart, or before just a glimpse of a Pomeranian wouldn’t bring tears to my eyes.
Personally, my mourning rituals are established at this point. I hold the grief as it comes up, and I refuse to pretend it’s less or more than it is. In our tradition, Hunt Season, the time of year when Odin’s Hunt rides the worlds, informs our yearly cycle. Hunt Season spans a huge part of the year, from September to May Day, and in our practice, the veil between the worlds (which is never more than a thin veil for us anyway) is non-existent. Our beloved dead are welcome in our home and in our lives year round, but during this season we make sure to set aside time to honor them. For years, we held the Festival of Treats on September 29th, between Angel’s death and Orion’s death, but when Sassy died in October, we decided to move the Festival of Treats to Samhain. We hold a Dumb Supper for our human dead, and the Festival of Treats for our animal companions. We honor people individually on their birthdays, or on other anniversary dates, as well. We don’t pretend death doesn’t happen, or that it hasn’t happened, and we don’t pretend to that the boundaries between the worlds are not porous, flimsy things. I maintain a relationship with my father. I’ve received messages for cousins and aunts. It’s not regular – I’m not a medium – but it has happened, with somewhat unsettling (for me) results.
Now – I understand the merit of “faking it until it’s true” as a method of coping for some people, in some instances. Hit with the avalanche that can be grief, letting it consume you and tear your life apart around is not necessarily the path you want to take, because eventually life does have to go on. We have, though, a decided lack of mourning customs and rituals in our society. I’ll go so far as to say that even within religious communities, there is a lack. While I do believe that the best way for any one person to process their grief is to do what works for them, there are a range of tools and options that many people simply do not know about because we don’t talk about these things. It’s better to have too many options rather than not enough. Mourning traditions, which can include not speaking the deceased’s name, wearing certain colours or refraining from wearing certain colours, avoiding certain places or seeking them out, telling stories about the deceased, avoiding certain activities. I know in some places, in some cultures, not speaking the names of the dead was a method to keep their spirits away, though I see that less of a warding away danger and more of a not getting their attention as they transition into a new way of existing.
After my grandfather died, I started wearing my black veil all the time. I wear two at a time, wrapped together, so there was still colour, but I rarely wear the black one, and it’s set aside now specifically for mourning, ancestor work, and deathwork. (During the Vigil for the Bulls, for example, it’s worn). I made a greater effort to walk part of the way home from work every day, because walking the near two miles each day was symbolic of some in-jokes, reminded me of the rambles we used to talk around town, honored his memory of being the man who walked everywhere (once, including some absurd distance – close to 40 miles round trip, I believe – to watch a college football game), and helped me feel closer to him. The spring after my grandmother died, I mentally and then physically wrote her letters detailing the transition from winter into spring as the flowers began to come out – something I had been doing since our move to Eugene, because springtime flowers in January. I found myself missing that exchange, and so I wrote to her, anyway.
Beth and I still haven’t worked out the mechanics of our Dumb Supper to where we want them to be. We want to honor people with favorite dishes, but we have a huge assembly and that’s too much food from too many different cultures – traditional Jewish noms (that would in no way be kosher), traditional American south dishes, Germanic-American foods, some nice apple pie with cheese . . . I just . . . it’s too much, and too overwhelming, and maybe we need to start a rotation or something. I dunno. But, we are working on it, and though the Dumb Supper in 2012 was hell on earth for me, having them regularly has helped, a ton.
Our Festival of Treats is a longer standing tradition – that started in 2008, and we’ve held it every year since. I also tend a shrine that houses the remains, or visual reminders, of Angel, Orion, Sassy, Princess, and Amadeus, a former cat of Beth’s who I wish I’d been able to snuggle in life. An icon of Bastet presides over the shrine (we were, for a time, a family of eight cats, and we’ve done cat rescue in the past. We’ve got a working relationship with Her, and it suits us all) and in the morning, as part of my opening-of-the-shrines-to-the-day ritual, Angel gets hailed, welcomed, and I spend a moment being with him, being together. They get offerings and they get attention, and they are as part of our lives as our gods are – and that helps, too. This, too, is part of my dealing with my grief, and having this ritual helps immensely, on days when the grief rears up and threatens to overwhelm.
What about people that don’t have this? What about people that don’t have anything in place? No one in my extended family would dare say to me that Angel was just a dog, and I should get over it – they know me too well, even if they hadn’t seen our bond in action, to utter such a foolish phrase. But not everyone is lucky enough to have family members with the sense of when to hold their tongues. What of those people, with no methods of grieving in place for those whom they love, with friends and family who do not understand the grief that can come from losing one’s animal companions, and whose attempts to help sound callous and unkind? What of these people whose first experience to pet grief and grieving is the Rainbow Bridge – a useful, sweet imagery that is, in many cases, all a person has, the only accepted outlet that wider culture may recognize, know, and understand? For many people, this is the reality, and the idea of taking that away, more than any other part of this conflation between the two bridges, is what sets a sour feeling in my stomach and revulsion in my heart. It is the part of this entire idea that creates a visceral reaction and ignites anger. This is the root of why the very idea turns me off and upsets me so. Not the conflating of Bifrost and the Rainbow Bridge. Not the idea of cultural appropriation (which I cannot seriously entertain, because I cannot get my brain to accept that the two are one and the same; no one owns the rainbow imagery, and the Scandinavians were not the only ones to use it as such). Not the seeming confusion about the power visualization can have (does it make it one even if people have no idea of Bifrost, or are they creating their own, other bridge? Is there power to visualization, or is there not?), but this. We are so lacking in tools for grief and grieving in this culture – to take one away that many people find comforting, and useful, over such an absurd idea that anything we humans at all can do could threaten the integrity of a construct of the gods, that exits for the gods – and, too, the temerity that humans will or can make or break something of the gods has fueled these essays, I have to admit, hence the previous part of this – bothers me. On the compassion and empathetic levels, it bothers me. I don’t think that challenging ideas are wrong, necessarily – but I do feel that we should be held to a certain standard of compassion and empathy when we are doing so. I believe more harm than good can come from doing so carelessly. Grief and grieving is, in my worldview, a sacred and oft-times neglected place. The process, the stages, deserve (and in my view, need) honor and respect and care, and the people going through the stages also deserve that honor, respect, and care. Compassion, humility, empathy. Not the stripping away of one tool that may be the only tool some people have access to.
The disturbed feeling remains. The very concept still hits my ‘eh, hubris, sacrilege, uggh’ centers. But, I’ve explored why, and I’m content that I understand why, and I’m happy, now, to put the very concept out of my mind. Someday, I hope to get the fucking image of dead animals strew about Bifrost like so many grains of rice out of my head, too.