In my last post, I promised to start posting some notes on the grieving process, in the hopes that what helps me may also help others. I have tried thing after thing after thing, and much of what I have tried has helped, while other things have helped not at all. So I’m going to post more than once on this topic, in an attempt to cover all or at least most of the things. This is long, but if you want to see my recommendations and don’t want to read the rambling post, just scroll down: I’ve added a short summary of recommendations at the end, and in this case there are two, one for divination and one for routines.
When I first received the news of my husband’s death, probably within 30 minutes of it having happened, I was away from home, and the first responders at the scene were not people who knew him. And he had been found not in our home but in a public place. So my first reaction was: was this really him? Is he really dead? Or is something very weird going on–is someone else being mistaken for him? And because I was away from home, and needed to fly home, I couldn’t just get in a car and zoom over there and look for myself. The first responders had looked at a photo and thought it was him, but they couldn’t make the official ID. His doctor looked at a photo of his body and then texted me to say that he was very sorry but he couldn’t identify him. He eventually, a little later, ended up making the ID based on his feet (because he had recently seen him for athlete’s foot). So you can understand why I had some doubts or why I at least wanted to be certain it was really him. Although as time passed and he didn’t show up asking what on earth was going on, it seemed less and less likely that it was anyone else. As his brother said to me, “If it’s not him, then where is he?”
I don’t believe in JUST relying on mystical methods to find things out. I think we need to ground our beliefs by verifying whatever we can using evidence. I was going to say “physical evidence,” but it isn’t always physical: sometimes it’s other people’s recollections, sometimes it’s digital, sometimes it’s financial records, etc. In this case, I have spent a lot of time since this happened gathering every detail of evidence that I can find, far more than other people are even interested in knowing about. Ultimately I think I’ve been far more thorough than the police were. But, on receiving the news initially, none of that research was available to me.
So of course, my first step, once I had talked to people on the scene and gleaned whatever I could from those conversations, after I had had many hard conversations with people who needed to be informed, and after I took some time for myself to just let myself react emotionally, was to turn to divination. Sitting on a bed in a hotel in Albuquerque, I did a reading for myself and then a reading for JP. I didn’t really know how to read on this topic. This was totally uncharted territory for me. I turned to the Celtic cross as a sort of “what’s my current situation” map, or a “WTF is going on?” spread. I only had one tarot deck with me, one of my smallest decks, the mini Tarot of Trees.
Reading for Myself
Reading for myself, it seemed like the tarot was telling me I was surrounded by family and a supportive, loving community, but yet was in some kind of unwanted perspective-changing limbo (The Hanged Man, or Inverted Tree in this deck, crossed by the Ten of Pentacles). The crowning card was the Seven of Cups, which to me now looks like the many options that were crowding my brain as I tried to imagine what could have happened. The foundation of the situation was the King of Swords, my rational, analytical, adorably sarcastic husband. For the recent past I accidentally drew two cards, and they were the Hierophant (my husband’s birth card, but also a card that can signify marriage), and the Lovers. For the future I drew the Tarot of Trees’ extra card, Regeneration. What to know came up as two cards as well: the Seven of Swords and the Two of Pentacles. The Seven of Swords was to keep coming up again and again in the coming days, and to me, it ultimately came to represent the wild theories of my husband’s family and friends regarding what exactly happened to him.
A Digression on the Seven of Swords
Let’s take a moment to zoom in on this Seven of Swords for those who are interested in tarot and card interpretations: While the Seven of Swords is often regarded as a thief card, I also see it coming up a lot as lies and deceptions–kind of as, people trying to put something over on you. The Seven of Swords–I should write about this in a separate post just on this card–often seems to come up as reverse stealing, where people try to put things on you that are not yours: to me that can indeed be people trying to put stories and beliefs in your head that are not the truth, but I also was to experience this, in the days to come, as one person telling me that this was all my fault and that I supposedly owed it to my husband’s friends to handle all of his arrangements differently than I was handling them. (I don’t want or need to hear the outrage over the way this person reacted: this was someone who loved my husband and reacted in a particular way, and everyone reacts differently; there has been enough judging, and I’m not here to judge anyone else’s reactions. I am only sharing this detail to add to our divinatory knowledge of what the Seven of Swords can be associated with.)
Justice, the Chariot, the Hermit
I’m going to keep my thoughts about the Two of Pentacles to myself for the moment, but it is also relevant.
Going up the rest of the spread, I found three more major arcana cards. My support network card came up as Justice. In the days to come, when I asked JP with the tarot what he wanted/needed from us, Justice and Judgement came up again and again and again and again. And again. I mean it. I can’t count the number of times I saw these cards. I didn’t journal each time. If I had been up to journaling each reading I did, I would have, as it would have been interesting to know.
My advice was the Chariot: in a larger sense, keep moving forward, but I think there was also an element of it that on that day meant, come home, find transportation, get going. My outcome was the Hermit.
Overall, this looked to me like JP was really gone.
Reading for JP
Next I read for JP. Can you do a Celtic cross for a dead person? I decided to try. His situation was Judgement and his crowning card was Justice. (See my comment about these cards in the paragraph before last.) Judgement was crossed by the Hanged Man (the Inverted Tree in this deck). His foundation was the Three of Wands, which I’ll pass by for right now, but I think it’s very interesting and perhaps does go to why and how this happened, but perhaps not. This situation has taught me not to leap to conclusions.
For JP’s past, I again ended up with two cards: the Page of Pentacles and the Four of Wands. To me that was him working at home, or me working at home, or both, since we both did. His future was the King of Cups. What to know, for him, came up as the Four of Swords. I didn’t know what to make of that at the time, but now I think he was asleep as I was doing this reading. I think it was a few days before he woke up, I think it was even longer before he realized he was dead, and I think we are so closely connected that his confusion contributed to mine. For his support network I pulled two cards: the Five and Seven of Wands. And I guess that makes sense: his friends and family were competing with different wild theories of what happened, but we were also on top of things in that we reacted and did the things that needed to be done–slowly in my case, because I’ve moved glacially slowly in everything I have done over this time, but still.
His advice was the Magician reversed, and his outcome was the Moon. I find these cards eerie, looking at them today, and at the time, my reaction to the Moon was disbelief. It seemed like the cards were saying that his future was unknown. And that made me think, well, what does it depend on? And what this makes me think, then (to the best of my recollection–my brain was being rather disorderly at the time) and now, is that the period of time immediately after death is not nothing. It’s significant. It’s a time when our actions matter. As a Buddhist, I was thinking about the bardo; some of you, if you are Catholic, might find yourselves thinking about purgatory. So I was concerned for JP and thought that I should be there to help him through this. At the same time, looking at these cards today, I also think that the Moon as his outcome was reflecting that we would all be reflecting on him, and that he himself was in some kind of dream state. I’m inclined to also regard the bardo as a kind of dream state, and that’s not to say that it’s not significant or even that it’s not real: dreams are real, according to their own logic even if not according to our waking daytime logic.
So where this brought me, and this is where I think there’s some advice to glean if you are also going through the grieving process, is to start thinking about actions to help the person who has just died make it through the confusion that their consciousness then begins to experience.
For me in that moment the first night, all I had the energy and resources for was prayer. When I got home, when I was able to collect myself and be more organized, that meant that I decided to read the Heart Sutra to JP every day, along with a set of prayers that I just felt in the moment that I would add to that reading: I knew I wouldn’t be up to all of this every morning, so I recorded everything I wanted him to hear and set up a morning playlist that included various prayers and readings, but most importantly, the Heart Sutra repeated three times. Something in me was just saying, he has to hear the Heart Sutra three times every morning.
I also lit a candle for him, regularly. (If you do this, pay attention to candle safety: my mother was convinced I was going to set my whole apartment on fire, which I did NOT, thanks, Mom! But one option that I have tried, when I wanted to leave a light on for JP but also knew I would fall asleep, is to use a solar task light instead–they work very well as safe candle substitutes and if you have several, it’s easy to simply rotate them in and out of a window to recharge.)
In my case, I also previously had a regular practice of lighting candles and incense and making offerings, usually water and a morning cup of coffee, to my ancestors, to the Buddha, to Ganesha, to the land spirits, to the Kachinas who live on my altar as guests because they were a gift, to the Virgin Mary on behalf of my grandmother, etc. After JP’s death I was feeling a little surly about this offering practice. I didn’t feel like talking to this vast community of spirits. I have kept making offerings, but probably not with much grace: for a long time it was more like, “here’s your coffee, leave me alone.” And that was for the Buddha and the land spirits; for my ancestors, it was more along the lines of: “No coffee right now, I’m unavailable, please let me have some time to myself, thanks.” I wanted to focus on JP, and I think my ancestors understand that. All of my grandparents have experienced the loss of a spouse either as the one who died first or the one who was left behind. They’ve started to show back up though, and I think that around the three-month point, which coincidentally is around the time of my birthday and near Halloween, it’s going to be time to add them back into my offering practice.
For JP, though, what I eventually did, after receiving his ashes, was to place him on my altar, along with the ashes of his beloved dog Kiko, and to start a practice of lighting a candle every day, keeping fresh flowers on the altar for him, putting various personal effects of his there as well (like one of his many magnifying glasses that he was always using to read documents with), and, since I had recently been given a prayer wheel, I put that there too. And I really recommend the use of a prayer wheel: you can easily make one, and it’s a lovely practice to spin the wheel on behalf of a loved one whenever you pass by or think of it. I made a second one, using a fidget spinner, to keep with me wherever I go. I have since lost the fidget spinner one, but I know it’s here somewhere! I’m attaching a gif of my cat spinning it. I’m sure she had nothing to do with its disappearance… 🙂
If you want to make a prayer wheel from a fidget spinner, here are my steps: I started with a spinner that has three prongs (not sure if prongs is the right word, but three parts, anyway). On one I wrote “may,” on another “all,” on another “be,” and in the middle I put a smiley face to represent happiness. So the idea here is that each spin of the wheel is a prayer for all beings to be happy. And then I dedicate the merit of that (this is a Buddhist thing) to all beings, and then specifically to JP (though he’s also included among all beings). If you’re not a Buddhist, I’m sure you can still adapt this concept.
Recommendation for the grieving: a remembrance/offering routine
When you’re recovering from the loss of someone very close to you, routines can be key, so I think it makes sense if those routines also help with staying connected to that person, honoring their memory, and/or helping them through the confusion of the death experience. I think having a routine that is connected to your spiritual practice is an extraordinarily good support. For me that looks like: I get up in the morning, I feed the cat, and then I pour coffee for my husband, light a candle, turn on my homemade Heart Sutra playlist.
For you those routines might be different: I think it’s very key that the routines you set up work for you and are individualized to make sense for the person you’re grieving. When my Catholic grandmother died, my parents sent me some statues from her Mary collection and I started making coffee for Mary in the mornings and saying a Hail Mary. I felt that in my grandmother’s case, that’s what she would have appreciated and it felt respectful to her and her beliefs. (She didn’t make coffee for Mary. But I think the idea of that would have made her smile. I think she would have found it very thoughtful and would have chuckled at my belief that all mothers need coffee.) If you feel drawn to this practice, something will probably rise up in you as the thing that should be included. Or perhaps something will occur to you as you go through personal effects–perhaps something will appear that wants to be part of your routines. My advice is to go with your gut feeling on this. Don’t try to force yourself into any routine that doesn’t feel supportive.
Recommendation for the Grieving: Divination
Many people may feel that divination is inappropriate when you are grieving for someone who has died. Perhaps that is the case if you think of divination as fortune-telling. However, fortune-telling is NOT why I do divination. Often information about the future does come up. But what I am looking for from divination is a conversation with the divine. I’m looking for perspective and context, the BIG PICTURE. And at a time of grief, I think we desperately need the big picture. If the cards simply say, your beloved has died and you need some time alone, then yes, that’s sad to hear, but you already knew it, and seeing it in the cards is validating even when what’s being validated is very very sad. It’s validating because reacting to death can make you feel like you are crazy: this is a weird thing that has never happened before, to you, with this person, in this time. Because you knew that everyone dies and you may have lost other people before, but still, THIS person never died on you in THIS life before. Death is always a deviation from that person’s regular habits in this life; they never died before. You can’t help but think, “but this is so not like them!” And seeing that reflected back to you in the cards is a way of affirming, oh, I’m not crazy, this is a part of the whole world, it’s RIGHT THERE in the tapestry of what has happened/is happening/is going to happen. It helps to lessen the shock. Plus, if the hard things are part of the tapestry then so are the tender things, and it reaffirms that what happened before this also still matters.
There are many ways to do divination: I’ve only covered tarot in this post. If you are working with the tarot, you can do it any way you want to, you don’t have to be an expert. If someone says you do, they are probably trying to sell you a reading. You absolutely can pick up a deck of cards and pull one and ask whatever you want. Then when you pull a card, look at it with your heart and ponder. What perspective is the gift that this card is offering you? I’m going to write about journaling next time, but if you’re new to divination, I strongly recommend that you journal the cards you pull and write about what you think they mean in that moment. When you journal, you’re not just doing recordkeeping. The journaling process will pull wisdom out of you that you didn’t know you had. The divination process will pull wisdom out of you that you didn’t know you had, wisdom that you might benefit from.
But as with any process that is for the grieving, your mileage may vary. If this is not for you, you probably already know that it is not for you. You know what supports you and what does not.
May this be of some help and support to you if you are in the midst of grieving.