Grief and Loss in a Heathen Context
Grief is one of the most complex emotions that you will ever experience. It never announces its presence, challenging you to a fair fight when you’re ready to defend yourself. Instead, it comes at you sideways, striking you unexpectedly when you’re already down. Like the wolf of children’s nightmares, it finds you when you’re all alone and have nothing left to fight it with. The wolf of grief is relentless, and from within your own mind, it will bite at every vulnerability, taunting you for your weaknesses even while exploiting them.
Now imagine that your friends and loved ones hear the struggle and run to your side, but when they arrive they begin shouting at you instead of helping. Some urge you to be strong, some try to tell you how to fight the wolf with tools you don’t have, some may even tell you to stop wasting time and put the beast down. All the while the wolf is laughing, because the people you thought would help are only confirming what the wolf has been saying the entire time.
I’ve written before about how our community puts such a powerful emphasis on the value of self-reliance, emphasizing “Strength” and “Willpower”. As inspirational as this can be at times, to one who is coping with such a profound loss these platitudes about strength do nothing but belittle their struggle. They make the griever feel weak when they are already so fragile. They force us to devote energy to the compounded guilt of seeming unappreciative for our friend’s ‘help’, which was obviously offered with the best of intentions. The energy we don’t have, the energy that should have been devoted to fending off the wolf.
Grief is so difficult to express or comprehend, in part, because it’s such a complicated mixture of emotions. It’s sadness, yes, but also rage, frustration, guilt, and depression. Grief is not just the loss of something we loved, but also the destruction of a part of ourselves. Most of all, grief is a loss of control. When you’re fighting just to remember who you are, the world can easily spiral away from you and leave nothing but you and the wolf. In that way, grief is our last foothold. When everything else has been taken from us, the last thing left for us to control is our grief; and it’s not going without a fight.
In the Lore grief is an all too common theme, yet it’s often taken for granted. In the dramatic tales of the Icelanders, we see countless tales of Vengeance and justice. These narratives tend to grab our attention with their fierce imagery, yet the Lore goes so much deeper than this. In a society obsessed with strength and masculinity, Ingi Harroldsson was said to have ‘cried like a child’ at the loss of his foster father. In a culture that emphasized the importance of hard work, where young and old alike had household duties to perform, Hávarður took to his bed for 3 years after the loss of his son. Egil likewise was laid low by his loss, and Kveld-Ulf before him. In each case, the protagonist’s greatest allies share a common behavior. They supported the one who was grieving in whatever way they required.
Often when we see a loved one struggling with grief, our first instinct is to try and fix the problem. Sadly, some things simply cannot be fixed. People want to fix the problem, but nothing they do can return a lost child to a grieving parent. So they try to fix the grief itself, but nothing they say can put down that wolf. So some then try to fix the person, encouraging them to improve themselves or recover more quickly. Anyone who has ever dealt with profound loss can tell you that this is DEVASTATING.
When you’re already giving everything you have just to survive, having your loved ones try to push you towards resolution can be so intimidating that it actually does more harm than good. Grief is a natural process and moves at its own pace. To try to push someone through it is like trying to help them heal by forcing them to start jogging on a barely mended leg. All it will do is damage an already frail part of themselves and cause them pain. Possibly enough pain that they will push away anyone else that comes near them out of a fear that it will happen again.
In the Sagas, those closest to the grievers didn’t try to ‘fix’ them. They didn’t try to make things better, because no action, regardless of intent, can bring back a lost loved one. Instead, they stayed with the griever, supported them through their mere presence. Those who were grieving were allowed to process all of those emotions in their own time and in their own way. Their friends were there when they needed to ask for help, but they didn’t try to lead the griever to resolution. Instead of telling the person to fight off the wolf with a sword they didn’t have, they stood ready to help when the person fighting the wolf asked for it. However they asked for it.
Only the person who is grieving can find the resolution. Just as the wolf alone knows all your weaknesses, so too are you the only one who can see the beast for what it is. All anyone can do to help is be there. When your loved ones are grieving, listen to them, be at their side. Be willing to suffer with them, just so that they don’t have to suffer alone. Don’t try to offer sage advice, there’s no way you can know the beast they’re grappling with. Don’t try to ‘tough love’ them into being stronger, all you’ll do is feed the wolf. Let them take it at their own pace, and when they tell you what they need from you, listen. It’s not easy, but it’s the only way to help with the healing process.
In the end, the people who make the greatest difference in our hour of need are not those who want to try to heroically lead us out of the darkness, it’s the ones that are willing to follow us into that darkness to whatever end.