This time of year is recognized by various cultures for the deep shifts taking place. Not only do we see the landscape undergoing the dramatic change from summer into autumn, but energetically, the veil thins and we begin the turn inward. It is a time when our ancestors creep closer to walk with us into winter.
For years, I really only went through the motions of the ancestor reverence that is so prominent during this season. My intentions were good, but I have been lucky enough to experience few losses in my more than 40 years. The most recent dead on my Samhain altar had been my grandfather, who passed in 2004. I honored the festival, but never really felt it.
As I’ve written previously, the past two years brought a creeping sense of death into my life. That energy intensified last autumn and marked a year of loss. Death welcomed a friend, family, and a beloved pet. Long dead ancestors reached out and set me on a journey to connect with family and a history I barely knew. Finally, my sweet, loving grandmother passed away. She died two weeks before Samhain, as I somehow knew she would.
For many of us on the path of the goddess, we often hear of the feminine spirit of life and death. She is the mother, birthing us into the world. But she is also the crone who ushers us to the other side. We honor goddesses of creation and destruction, like the Hindu Kali. These are two sides of the same coin, life and death. But it was only in assisting the crone in her sacred work that I truly came to understand the common feminine texture of life’s beginning and end.
Over the days it took my gram to pass, I was struck by how much the experience echoed the birthing process – even the hospice nurse made this comparison. I had a palpable sense of helping midwife her into a new life, a new world. In both experiences, birthing and dying, the body does what it needs to do, on its own timeline (apart from medical necessity). Thankfully, my grandmother was able to die at home, surrounded by her human and animal family. But it was a very long four days.
It can’t be sped up. Like childbirth, I felt like there was only so much I could do to help her and comfort her. In both cases, the person is utterly alone. It’s their journey. No one can do it for them. We can support them and love them, but only to a point. Birthing a child and helping a loved one across the river of death are among the deepest of lived experiences – exhausting, heartbreaking, intimate, tender, and intensely loving.
I barely knew my grandmother’s mother, Minnie, as a child. She died when I was young. But I felt very connected to Minnie through this process. I knew she was doing supportive work on her side of the veil, while I mothered her child from this side. I imagined her watching, maybe feeling sadness for her child’s fear and gratitude for the earthly work done to assuage that fear. I looked at Minnie’s old, faded picture and suddenly recognized her as a woman, as a mother awaiting the return of her child. That’s what it felt like – sadly, lovingly, sending an old woman back to her mother.
Tending to the dying has always been the work of women. Now I know why. And I understand why childbirth is often compared to death. It’s not just because the birthing process brings so many women and babies to the brink of death and beyond, but because, spiritually, those souls hover on the line between here and there. That line, like a tightrope, is tenuous. The birthing mother and her baby sit at the starting point of a new earthly journey, miraculously squeezing life through the physical and energetic portal between worlds. What I have come to realize from my grandmother’s passing is that death is not only the end of that journey, but it is the other side of that starting point, the moment turned inside out. No wonder death, like the more obvious face of birth, is a divinely feminine spirit.
Now my grandmother is part of a newly abundant Samhain altar, and I go forward, missing her, loving her, honoring her, and all the other mothers who have come before.
This post originally appeared at The Wild Hunt.