Grieving the ghosts of you

A meditation for Samhain.

Our past is full of ghosts - our older selves. Here's a meditation for Samhain.

Samhain is the mid-point holy day between the autumn equinox, the entrance to the colder season in the northern hemisphere, and the winter solstice, the day with the smallest amount of light. For some, it also marks the beginning of the new year. Astrologically, it falls in the season of Scoprio, a water sign connected to depths and secrets.

But mostly, Samhain is known as the night of the dead.

Each day we see the light fading sooner into night. Trees release their leaves to hold the water within during the winter. Many creatures hibernate or store the last bits of food in their nests. The energy of these seasons is inward-looking, and so our gaze too turns inward. To our inner landscape, and the footprints we’ve left so far. To our depths, and the history buried underneath it all. To our roots, and our personal ancestry.

Perhaps because in autumn we see everything “dying,” the ancient thought that the dead would find openings to communicate with their living relatives once again. And the community celebrated this gathering. Candles were lit to show the path to home. Food and drinks were placed on tables to welcome back the dead from their long journey, and to feast all together once more.

In the act of remembering the lost, families were re-membering a community broken by the physical death of loved ones. In feasting with the dead, the living confronted their relationship with death itself. And not just the physical one, but the thousand deaths we go through every day of our life.

In Women Who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes about the descansos, little crosses on the sides of the road, marking the place where someone died. (In Italy, you can sometimes see a bunch of wild flowers tied to a tree or a lamp post, sometimes with a tiny black-and-white photo stuck in it.) The writer adds that womyn die thousand of times along their lives – when they make a choice or not, are betrayed by others, take the wrong road. When this happens, they lose a piece of self – dreams, intuition, strengths. Our history, she writes, is littered with a thousand little ghosts of ourselves, hiding in the shadow and waiting to be grieved and re-membered.

Shadow work, then – the process of uncovering these parts of ourselves – has a lot in common with the celebration of Samhain. Much like we light candles and place food on the table to welcome back our ancestors, so doing shadow work lights a path and creates a sacred space for these old ghosts of us to come back. And in this sacred space, we are free – free to grieve for the death of our past selves, but also free to heal their wounds and make them members of ourselves once more.

Consider this: in a workshop of the Explore More Summit, Megane Devine, psychotherapist and grief advocate, said that grief takes away not only the person, but also those things you loved and which nourished you before. With death, your universe shift. The process of grieving, therefore, is vital because it allows time and space to relearn your own universe. While her words were about grieving for the loss of a loved one, they ring true for our old selves as well. And, as Devine wrote, this holds especially true for ordinary days. “While those can be painful, it’s the ordinary days, the domestic and intimate every-day days that really hurt. The one you love is missing in the every day, the normal moments; they’re missing in all those days that blow in on the wind and stay forever. […] Grief lives in the every-day.”

To grieve is to gravare, “make heavy.” Grieving makes the loss tangible, allowing the sorrow to be processed and complete its cycle, so that we can begin a new one. But it makes the lost ones tangible as well, giving them the possibility of being part of our life once again, instead of being kept at a distance.

In grieving the ghosts of us, we re-member them and thus ourselves.

A meditation for Samhain

What follows is a ritual to honor and reconnect with a ghost of you. This is not a guide on how to grieve. Each person grieves their own way, with their own time and their own space. I do not propose ways to make death more tolerable or positive or “a gift” for the future.

What I do propose, though, is a way to acknowledge your past and all the times some part of you died. As always, this is the first step for any kind of work you want to do with yourself – to know, so to accept, so to master, so to transform.

  • Using a pen or a pencil, draw a wavy line across a sheet of paper. This is the line of your life, from your birth to the present day.
  • Now, think of events where you feel you lost a part of yourself. This may be the ending of an important relationship, a critique that killed your confidence, a lost dream. It may also be the realization that one of your expectations would have never been met – that a specific person would have never treated you the way you deserved, or that the world was an unjust place. It may also be the realization that you would have never been able to meet someone’s expectations, and thus you had to renounce or change the relationship with that someone (or society as a whole). Place a dot, a cross or another symbol on the line for each of these events, in chronological order.

It’s okay if you can remember just one. Shadow work is quite heavy on an emotional level. It’s actually best to devote this ritual for just one of these ghosts, and just take note of others for future work.

  • When you feel okay with it, choose one of these descansos and think of what you lost there. The key word here is loss. If you need it, journal about the event, draw a picture of it, draw a card, or meditate. Re-enter into that event as your present self and notice what you feel. If you feel pain in a specific part of your body, focus on it and come up with an image that could describe it. (For example a knot, a cage, an animal moving around…) Visualize this sensation and give it a name, if you want, then write it down near the descanso.

There’s magick in giving a name to an aspect of you. To give a name is to recognize and give dignity to the existence of something. It makes them tangible – no more an undefined ghost, but someone you can create a relationship with.

  • After you’ve visualized this ghost of you, give it a place in your home for the night. Every culture has its own rituals for this. You can choose some food this ghost would have liked and leave it on a plate in your room. (Provided it doesn’t perish out of the fridge.) Or you can look for an object dear to that ghost and keep it on the night stand or on an altar, if you have one. What’s important is to give space – space for this ghost to exist, space for you to reconnect with them. Do what feels truer to you.

In creating a sacred space for ghosts of you to exist, you also create a space for yourself to process those emotions you could not deal with when that older self died. But grieving is fundamental – because unprocessed emotions do not complete their cycle and keep on haunting our present life from their corner of our unconscious.

In welcoming back our ghosts, we also welcome back their – our – pain, sadness, loneliness. This can be deeply emotional and nerve-wracking, but it is a work that can be done in such a safe space, one you created for yourself, on your own terms.

Psychic material in the shadow often originated from hurtful experiences. And yet, by lighting candles and leaving food on the table, we tell them it’s safe to come back now. In remembering our old selves, we re-member ourselves. And this is when the healing starts.

Wishing you a heartfelt Samhain,

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{Original picture: Nanda Green via Unsplash, TanteTati, Markus Grossalber and Freestocks via VisualHunt}

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