As ordained clergy, I’ve officiated a lot of funerals. For fourteen years, I shaped burnt ash across congregant’s foreheads on Ash Wednesday and reminded them that we all come from dust. To dust we shall return. Yet these words and rituals rang hollow when my brother died over a year ago from a drug overdose. As I officiated my little brother’s funeral, I held the ashes of his body in my bare hands. I’ve never done this with anyone else’s remains, but I wanted to somehow touch him one last time, to feel his pain and let his torment fall through my fingers, as fragments of his bones stuck to my hands.
Even as the dust of his body filtered through my fingers, as I kissed his cold face in the funeral home before he was incinerated, even as I wept with my mother, knowing that my pain pales in comparison to hers, I feel as though I am living someone else’s reality. That his death is not real. As I face this new reality, I am reminded that addiction is a savage, relentless beast that rips families apart without remorse, and is nearly impossible to overcome.
As an artist and writer, I had to find something constructive to do with my grief, a creative way of coping. I also felt that much of the Christian tradition and virtually all of traditional Western grief practices did not offer wholistic ways of coping. I’ve thought of the myriad Holy Women Icons I’ve painted as mediators, guides who accompany us, women who have shown us the way. These holy women have taught me to rage, praise, hope, endure, persist, love, and laugh. Upon my brother’s death, though, I discovered that none of the Holy Women Icons I’d researched, written about, or painted helped me to grieve. Surely, many have experienced grief, or give us tools for coping with the grieving process, but no Goddesses of Grief filled my heart when I needed it most. So, I began researching women saints and grief goddesses, along with the death and grief practices associated with them. Now, over a year later, I’ve painted about half of them as icons, while the rest beckon me to pick up my paintbrush again, canonizing their likeness as a continued way of coping.
Upon the death of a loved one, most people in the West are offered commodified grief, costly funerals, and stifled feelings pre-packaged as dignified tradition. When deathcare became a commercial enterprise at the turn of the twentieth century, there was what mortician and author Caitlin Doughty calls a seismic shift in who was responsible for the dead. “Caring for the corpse went from visceral, primeval work performed by women to a ‘profession,’ an ‘art,’ and even a ‘science,’ performed by well-paid men. The corpse, with all its physical and emotional messiness, was taken from women. It was made neat and clean, and placed in its casket on a pedestal, always just out of our grasp (Caitlin Doughty, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, 136).”
The Holy Women Icons Project endeavors to ask, “Where are all the women?” when confronted with practical and philosophical dilemmas. When discerning how Westerners cope with grief, we cannot help but notice the correlation between the industrialization of deathcare and the erasure of women’s leadership roles in the grieving process. Stepping back to take a long view, one discovers myriad empowering women, goddesses, and saints associated with grief across wisdom and cultural traditions. Uncovering the histories, legends, and myths linked to these grief goddesses just may be what the West needs to cope, to feel, and to grieve again. So, in a creative effort to cope, allow me to introduce you to some of the intercessors who aid us in our grief around the world.
In Mexico, La Llorona—the weeping woman often associated with horror stories following the drowning of her children—has been reclaimed by some Chicana feminists to wail so that our voices may be heard. Santa Muerte, or Holy Death, is a folk goddess who heals, protects, and delivers the dead to the afterlife; according to Caitlin Daughty, Santa Muerte’s subversive power is associated with outlaws, the poor, and LGBTQ folks. Mictecacihuah is the Aztec Queen of the Underworld who watches over the bones of the dead and presides over funeral rites. These women remind us to feel our emotions fully as we grieve.
In Haitian traditions, Oya is the Orisha of violent storms, death, and rebirth, residing in cemeteries and aiding in all transitions, whether living or dying. Mama Brigitte is a death loa who protects gravestones marked with a cross. These women remind us that death is one of life’s many transitions.
Hailing from the United States, Saint Elizabeth Anne is the Catholic patron saint of grief. Weetamoo was a Pocasset Wampanoag Chief whose legacy is present throughout the National Day of Mourning, an annual protest organized by the Native Americans of New England. With a nod to “Funeral Rites” by Catullus, The Goddess of Grief was created, painted, and written as a response to my brother’s death in Atlanta, Georgia. Weetamoo in particular reminds us of the power of corporate grief.
Frigga, the Norse goddess who dedicated her life to protecting her son, Baldur, weeps tears that become mistletoe berries after these same berries kill her beloved child. Borghild, a Norse goddess who, in seeking to avenge her brother’s death, poisons and kills his murderer. These women remind us that the loved ones you have lost always remain with you.
Nephthys and Isis are the Egyptian goddesses of funeral rites, their wings and wails resemble a phoenix as they carry departed souls into the afterlife. These women remind us that it’s alright to weep.
The tangled Greek myth of Demeter, Persephone, and Hecate evoke grief, as Demeter is so overcome by her daughter, Persephone’s, descent into the Underworld, that she dares to rescue her, aided by Hecate. These women remind us that grief is deep love reflected.
In Turkey, Rumi’s daughter-in-law, Fatima, becomes the first woman to lead the Mevlevi Order of Whirling Dervishes; donning her death shroud as a whirling cloak and placing a hat symbolic of a tombstone on her head, she whirls, each turn evoking bodily surrender to the Beloved. Fatima reminds us that death is always with us.
In Japan, the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion, Kannon, has webbed fingers so that no sentient being can slip through the cracks in her hands as she places each departed soul—and perhaps those grieving their deaths—into the center of the lotus flower. In Japanese mythology, Izanami-no-Mikoto is a goddess of creation and death, her name literally translating as “she who invites” life and death. These women remind us that we are held in our grief.
The Hindu goddess Kali is known as a destroyer, dancing atop her consort, Shiva, the creator and destroyer of life. With severed heads forming a ghastly garland around her neck, she does not kill for violence, but to destroy the ego. Kali reminds us that destruction is an imperative part of life.
The Igbo goddess Ala rules the underworld as goddess of morality, fertility, and creativity, holding deceased ancestors in her womb; her name translates literally as “ground” because she has powers over the earth—above and below—and is the ground itself. Ala reminds us that our ancestors are a part of who we are.
Hine-nui-te-pō is the Maori goddess of night and death, and ruler of the underworld; her love and passion create the red colors in each sunset. Hine-nui-te-pō reminds us that passion can create beauty amidst grief.
Finally, Our Lady of Sorrows is Jesus’ mother in the Roman Catholic tradition. With seven swords piercing her heart, representing the seven sorrows associated with her child’s death, she weeps in processional each year during Holy Week. Also in Italy, Lady Jacopa dei Settesoli was a lay women whom Francis of Assisi requested to be at his deathbed. These women remind us that we do not grieve alone.
These are merely glimpses into the rich lives, legends, and legacies of these grief goddesses who offer us creative strategies for coping with grief. In so doing, they become a great cloud of witnesses of sorts, ones who know what it means to mourn, to grieve, to wail, and to creatively cope amidst it all. It is my hope, as I continue to cope via research, painting, and writing about these grief icons, that the Holy Women Icons of Grief Project might offer you a balm, too. Know that you do not brave the roads of grief alone, but there are countless coping women who have trod before you, comforting you as you grieve.