At the Crossroads: Anyone Bring a Flashlight?

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When Community Fails

My friend’s mother died this past spring.

The stroke happened suddenly and her passing came a few weeks later.  Despite a lot of preparation for a worst-case scenario, the death hit the family hard.  My friend had a difficult relationship with her mother (something many of us can relate to, I’m sure) and her ambivalent thoughts and emotions have been complicating an already difficult grieving process.

My friend announced her mother’s illness to our group, but she kept the news of her mother’s passing to herself.  She had been out of town a lot to be with family, and it was only recently that I saw my friend since her family tragedy. 

(Confession time - I’m not very good at grief and grieving.  I don’t have any experience with it.  Out of my peers and social circles I’m an anomaly because I’ve never really had any friends or family members pass away.  I’ve only ever been to two funerals in my life – one of my teachers in high school who had been chronically ill and my husband’s great-great uncle who died from old age.)

The first time I saw my friend after the death of her mother, our conversation was very shallow.  It wasn’t anything more than small talk, really.  I could tell that my friend was hurting deeply.  We were having a hard time keeping the conversation going, she was more sarcastic and cynical than usual, and she avoided eye contact with me.  Finally I asked her, awkwardly, what she needed.  “What can we do for you?”  I asked.

Her face darkened, and she retreated even further into herself.  “Who?” she asked defensively.

“Me,” I said, fumbling.  I was startled by her reaction.  “The group.  All of us.  You know…”

She shook her head.  “Who in the group?  It’s not even a group.” 

Not even a group?  What did she mean by that?  I began to list some names, people who we have been gathering in circle with for years.

“No,” she said.  “It’s not even a group,” she emphasized again.  “I don’t care about those people and they don’t care about me.”  And then she broke down crying.  “Literally the only people to reach out to me through this were my coworkers.  That’s it.  No one else.”

I was stunned to silence.  I had no idea, at all, what to say.  I saw my friend hurting, trying to hold back tears and anger and frustration and disappointment.  I had no idea how to reach out to her in that moment, to comfort her.  Clearly she felt like we had all let her down.  I was shocked, torn between defensiveness over my group and our mutual friends, and reeling at the possibility that I had really, really hurt her.  My mind raced for something to say, something to do.  But it was too late.

She quickly changed the subject, but the topic somehow returned to the elephant in the room, the thing I wanted to talk about but the pain that she was unwilling or unable to share.  I asked her about an event coming up this October, and she just sighed in exhaustion.  “I’m tired of reaching out to people,” she said.  “I’ve been going to that event for years and I’ve not made any connections, no matter how hard I try.”  She began to cry again.  “I’m just tired of looking and looking and not finding what I need.”

Many, many years ago, back when our little ritual circle was brand-new, she confessed to me her feelings of isolation and sadness at being a single mom and being unable to find a spiritual community for herself and her child.  “It’s just hard, you know?” she told me then.  “We just don’t fit in with the other families.  There are just no spiritual communities out there for us.”

This conversation was one I never forgot, and it’s been a driving force in the back of my mind as I work in my various religious and spiritual groups.  How do we give each other what we need, even when we ourselves don’t know what we need?  How do we support one another, care for one another, love one another, when there are so few of us, so few resources, such a general lack of cohesion and true community for so many of us?

I’ve been thinking hard about this encounter with my friend.  It’s been on my mind for months.  It keeps me up at night sometimes.  I love my friend.  It breaks my heart to see her hurting so much.  I hate to see her isolated and in so much pain.  I’m so sorry about the ways I have failed her as a friend.  And as a clergy person, a high priestess and minister and ritual facilitator and group leader, I am ashamed that we have failed her as a community.

What could we have done better?  Should I have read more books on death, dying, and grief?  Spent less time promoting events on Facebook and Meetup and more time meeting friends for coffee or lunch?  Maybe we should have been more concerned with our grieving friend than worrying so much about finding a venue for our next ritual, planning our fundraising party for next fall, gossiping about who said what ridiculous thing at our last gathering.  Maybe we should have reached out to her, and maybe we should be more vigilant about one another. 

We should send gift baskets and flowers when we have deaths in the family.  We should do meal trains when we are sick.  We should provide safe space when someone has to leave home in the middle of the night.  We should sit with one another at the hospital when a loved one is in surgery.  We should gather for births and graduations and birthdays and anniversaries.  We should make sure that none of us go hungry or homeless or without basic needs and necessities, and this list of needs includes our spiritual and religious needs, too.

I thought that by writing this article that a solution would become more clear to me.  I thought I’d wait a bit before publishing it, and that eventually I’d find wise closing words and a solution for how to do better next time.  But the fact of the matter is that those things didn’t happen.  I don’t know what the group will do next time something like this happens, and I don’t know what I, as an individual, will do next time.

My little groups and our greater community are doing great, in general.  I’m really proud of us, and it seems like we are doing better every day.  We are making more friends, building more connections, hosting more events, and making some great, long-term plans.  But what do we do when someone falls through the cracks?  What do we do to keep it from happening again?  When someone who has been with the group for nearly ten years, who attends rituals, donates money and supplies, comes early to set up and stays late to clean up, confesses that the group has failed her, what do you do?  If I can’t take care of my friend, and if we as a Pagans can’t take care of those who are in our intimate magical circles, how can we have hope to grow and evolve as legitimate religious and spiritual communities? 


What do we do when community fails?

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Trivia is a social worker, freelance writer, minister, and priestess. She loves to have a good adventure. Follow her exploits on Twitter ( and on Tumblr (!
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  • Ann Edwards
    Ann Edwards Thursday, 04 August 2016

    I'm sorry but this story struck me as almost a description of modern paganism. Events, celebrations, connections... but no true community. I know I sound like an old fart but I grew up in a place and time where you sat with the dying and the dead. You walked them to their new life, you sat with the bereaved, cooked, cleaned and listened until there was no more to be said, then you listened some more. It was a time when there was time or you made time and this is fundamentally our modern problem. My Nain made clear that the greatest gift you can give anyone is your time. We have no time for our neighbours or community because our time is taken up with things. As I am doing now. Writing something on a computer rather than going to visit your friend, sitting with her, cooking, sewing or knitting with her, gardening with her. Equally community accepts the help and the well wishes shown through action. It is acceptable and even laudable nowadays to say "I need no help" when, in a earlier age, rejection of help offered openly and honestly would have been unacceptably rude. How do we go back to that age? I don't think we can. But I do believe that community means spending time with people, making time for people and accepting time from people - no matter how irritated, stressed or short of time you are.....

  • Anna Helvie
    Anna Helvie Wednesday, 10 August 2016

    My impression is that greater Pagandom has a substantial number of people who don't do well with these types of things, and that our focus on classes involving the externals -- ritual, herbs, stones, Gods -- does not develop the skills in us to be compassionate presences in each others'' lives. Also, things like parents dying, etc., feel very external to the world we create within Pagandom. When my mother died, two people from my teaching group showed up at her funeral. I was very honored and touched. But I think about all the times that I, as a priestess, did not show up at funerals, did not send cards, did not reach out...not through lack of caring but through some vague sense that it was not appropriate for me to intrude upon their non-Pagan reality.

    |But of course we should be doing this, because it's the right thing. We should think about the person who is going through the hard time, and do something: send a card, make a donation in their loved one's name to a charity. Cook some meals. Buy them a massage gift certificate. Handwrite letters expressing our grief and giving our phone number and saying -- and really meaning it -- "call me."

    What can you do differently? Prepare! Prepare now. Have a class at Samhain about grief and sitting with people who are going through the grieving process. Bring in a social worker who understands this and can speak about do's and don't's. Dedicate a fundraiser to a card-and-donation fund. Dedicate a meeting where members talk about what they would want if they experienced a bereavement. You can't send a card from "the group" to a member who is in the closet, and probably not show up at their loved one's funeral. You can do those things with members who are more "out." Knowing what people need is important.

    If your group can't do these things, then you are not really friends with each other. I'm sorry, I know that sounds harsh and judge-y, but I can't think of any definition of friendship that doesn't include these things. Best wishes to you and your group, and to your bereaved friend.

  • Anna Helvie
    Anna Helvie Wednesday, 10 August 2016

    I meant "bring in a social worker who understands the nuances of bereavement and has specialty skills in this topic."

  • Ann Edwards
    Ann Edwards Thursday, 11 August 2016

    I was interested in your comment "I as a priestess, did not show up at funerals..." Did you as a friend show up?

  • Anna Helvie
    Anna Helvie Thursday, 11 August 2016

    From 2002 to 2012, it was mixed. A coven member's father died and we did not go to the funeral. At that time it was because we were not sure of the "closet" issues, which had been pretty restrictive at one point. A friend's mother died in another state. I didn't send a card or such. I did do energy work later on with the person. Luckily, during the first ten years, there were not that many incidents of coven members' or friends' loved ones dying. However, we did lose some of our own members, and I served as priestess and co-officiant to those services.

    It was never through lack of caring, but a vague sense that somehow the normal etiquette of life didn't apply in the pagan arena, and perhaps would even be intrusive, annoying, or inappropriate. I really do believe some of these issues come from the days when one's Pagan life was kept very separate from work, relatives, etc.

    One of the things I learned is that love is a verb. The Feelz are great but if you don't send a card, make a phone call, *do* something, then it's pretty useless.

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