Dealing with Death

I was expecting my first post after my return from New Jersey to be either tonight or tomorrow, detailing my adventures at the convention and any spiritual (or geeky) insights I’d attained from being around my own kind for three days. However, life had other plans as it often does and I’ve found myself dealing with more urgent and distressing matters.

Five years ago I was part of a large roleplaying (RP) community on LiveJournal where I met several people who would become some of my closest friends to this day. One of my acquaintances was a girl who went by the AIM screen name willownightbird, with whom I fell out of contact once I left the RP community. We only spoke a few times after I left, but I knew from secondhand sources that she was struggling in many areas of her life. The last time I spoke with her in 2009, she was going to school for massage therapy and seemed to be getting her life back on track. Yesterday a mutual friend – Willow’s best friend in real life and my best friend online – called me in tears to report that Willow had stopped breathing the day before and could not be resuscitated. She was only a few years my senior.

I wasn’t close at all to Willow, but several of my friends are. I spent several hours yesterday playing impromptu grief counselor, delivering the bad news to those not in the know and trying to come to terms with how someone that young, so eager to turn her life around, could just slip away. As I tried to talk my friend through the beginning stages of her grief, everything I said sounded hollow. What could I possible say to give any comfort, to help her make sense of this tragedy? Willow was Pagan – one of the first I met, actually – and I tried to explain her death in terms of natural cycles. As much as it pains humanity to contend with, nature does not and will never abide by our concepts of fairness and justice. Death does not come early to the evil and corrupt, and nor does it skirt around the good and pure. I personally do not believe there is “reason” behind death, or that people go “when it’s their time”; the future isn’t marked out in stone for me. Death is as spontaneous and unstoppable a force as life. They dance in eternal balance, and that dance is far beyond the scope of human understanding. A certain metaphor regarding ants and chessboards comes to mind, here.

Ever since I heard about Willow’s passing, there’s been one quote from the movie Avatar circling around in my mind. There’s one beautiful montage where protagonist Jake Sully is learning the ways of the Na’vi people from love interest Neytiri. In this montage, there’s a shot of the Na’vi gathered in prayer as Neytiri drops a single seed into a hole. The camera pans down and reveals the curled up form of a dead Na’vi, and Jake’s voiceover says, “She said all energy is only borrowed, and one day you have to give it back.” While I don’t believe in an omnipotent, cosmic deity responsible for birth and death, I do believe in a certain ebb and flow of non-sentient universal energy. Reincarnation is not a literal fact for me, but I find it a useful metaphor when discussing the “where” of deceased individuals. When we give up our energy – the bonds holding together the atoms and molecules of our body – that energy is now free to transfer to other parts of the universe. It may take a long, long time, but a body eventually breaks down and re-enters the ecosystem as fuel for other living creatures. A long time ago, all matter on this planet came from the heart of a star. We return to stardust after our deaths, and that dust in turn becomes living matter once again. This happens regardless of beliefs held or morality points scored during one’s lifetime; it’s a fact of life like gravity, and it’s the most magical thing I can firmly say I believe in.

All that sounds pretty and makes me feel better when I contemplate this in the abstract, but I’ve been struggling on how to translate this into something that’s helpful for those truly mourning Willow’s death. There’s a particularly relevant quote from the Ranting Waiter that says, “Angels dancing on the head of a pin dissolve into nothingness at the bedside of a dying child.” Even if I didn’t want to be a minister when I got older, I know this won’t be the last untimely death I’ll confront or the last grieving friends and family I’ll take to. And even though I only knew Willow in passing, if it weren’t for her presence there’s a good chance I and some of my friends would never have met each other. I’m chilled when I think of the ramifications of my life had Willow’s not been lived to the extent it had been, and I can’t help but wonder whose life will stay untouched without Willow as a catalyst. A million things were touched by that one life, and now a million-million things will not be.

I now know why some describe death as an awesome force: not awesome in the colloquial sense of neat or cool, but as a force that brings an overwhelming feeling of awe and fear. I get the same feeling when out in a thunderstorm or when contemplating the size of the universe. At a certain point, it’s something my rational mind just refuses to compute. What could it say, what could I say, about the awesome and awful mystery of death?

Willow’s best friend asked if I could help her perform a ritual to mark Willow’s passing. Neither of us knew the exact details of Willow’s Paganism besides it being of the “nature-revering” sort, so I incorporated a few inclusive bits of imagery as well as a prayer to Papa Legba, whom my friend has a casual relationship with. As the loa who guards the crossroads and is responsible for all prayers, energies, and communications sent between the worlds, I thought he was a perfect figure to work with during a final rite of passage ritual. I’ve included the text at the end of this post, and will let those words speak for themselves. I find myself at a loss of anything else to say. Willow’s passing touches upon a great fear of mine, which is suddenly dying and having my internet friends be completely ignorant of what happened (or vice versa). I’ve had several dreams where I or a friend passed away and the other party was left alone and confused. If there’s anyone you haven’t talked with in years, it never hurts to catch up. You never know when “some day” is going to be too late.


Ritual for Willow

I come here today to honor the passing of my close friend and soul-sister Willow. Death is the final rite of passage for us all, and as with all young deaths, Willow’s came too soon. Like the tides, our lives swell onto the beach before retreating back into the embrace of the ocean, only to be gathered up and returned to land. For a brief, shining moment in the history of the universe, Willow’s life was a beacon of laughter, kindness, and friendship. Though all waves must return to the sea, the shoreline is altered by every cycle of their passing. The wave may be gone, but its effects on the landscape are still there to be seen.

[Take a bottle of water and pour it into a large glass.]

This represents the life of Willow. The waters of life flowed through her veins, giving her the compassion and humanity to be the caring individual she was.

[Place the stone on the altar.]

This represents her body made from the good earth, giving her the strength and balance needed to live her life to the fullest.

[Place the feather on the altar.]

This represents her mind, quick-witted, intelligent, and funny, always willing to lend an ear and share the fruits of her imagination.

[Light the candle on the altar.]

This represents her creative, inspiring spark which shone not just in her own life, but in the lives of her friends and family, those in real life and those she would never meet face to face.

[Take the other candles and light them from the main one.]

While she may never know the effect she had on others, I know the effect she had on me. Though the vessel carrying Willow’s spark is no longer with us, I carry part of that spark within me the rest of my days.

[After a few moments of contemplation, take the glass of water and pour it into a larger pitcher or bowl.]

I will always love Willow. As this water returns to its source, so too does her life return to the loving arms of the Goddess. Like all cycles within nature, that of life, death, and rebirth has no beginning and no end. All energy flows between incarnations and helps illuminate the great web of all existence. Though I cannot see the full patterns of the web, I know that Willow has returned to its center.

[Take a few minutes to pray or talk, silently or aloud – let your heart give you the words to say. Then pull out your Papa Legba pouch, holding it in your hands or placing it on the altar.]

Papa Legba, you are the Gatekeeper, the Watcher at the Crossroads. No prayers, rituals, or passings between the worlds can occur without your permission. The stories say that you are kind and cunning, compassionate and clever; if she had known you in her life, you and Willow would have gotten along well. I ask that you walk with Willow now that she has passed from this life and is heading to her next. Keep her safe on her journey and allow her exit from this world to be clean and without bonds.

Papa, I also ask that you help me make the transition at this time. I am grieving and lost without my friend. Walk beside me even as you walk with her and help my heart to mend.

[If there is anything else you wish to say or do, this is the time to do it.]

Papa Legba, elemental spirits, and the Goddess of life, thank you for listening to my words. I open my heart to you and wish to find peace as I know Willow has found peace with you. So mote it be.

[You can allow the candles to burn out if you’d like. Take the pitcher out later and pour it onto a tree, knowing that the water will sustain a living being.]


4 thoughts on “Dealing with Death

  1. I lost my mom suddenly in ’06 so I can understand the strange helplessnes most of us feel when presented with it, particularly regarding an unexpected death.

    Regarding your concern as touches upon your online friends, I have several friends that are largely online as well. The idea of getting sick etc and leaving them in the dark really bothered me. So one day I sat down and listed every site where the people I interact with might be interested if I suddenly vanished and the PW/Logins for each, printed it and put it with my life insurance paperwork with instructions to log on and report/explain what happened so they would have some kind of answer/closure. IDK if that would be feasible for you but it sure put my mind at rest. 🙂

  2. The major deaths in my life – my two grandfathers and my dog of fourteen years – were the result of long, debilitating sickness and old age. It was terrible to see the family I loved waste away in front of my eyes. However, there was a sense of things being natural and, at the heart, “right” – not in the moral sense, but in the “this is the way the world works” sense. It is right for older creatures to pass away, just as it’s right for newer ones to be born in their place. But when young people are suddenly taken from us, especially if they suffer cruel or unexpected passings, I think most of us definitely do struggle with a feeling of powerlessness. I know that in times of tragedy (the Virginia Tech shootings come to mind, since Blacksburg is next door and half my family is heavily involved with the VT community) I better feel a sense of the sacred. Not of the good or happy, necessarily, but I can feel an odd sort of detachment and understand that even though I /don’t/ understand, there’s been some sort of energetic exchange I can only somewhat sense.

    That’s a good idea about adding that to your life insurance. At the moment I just have a small Last Will and Testament document on my computer and a few people who know the password to my Mac. I think I might sit down and write something more helpful for getting in touch with online friends, though.

  3. I am one of willow’s online friends……can you send me an email of what happened. I am heartbroken to learn of this.

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