Grieving through the Holidays: Painting Holy Women Icons of Grief

by Rev . Dr. Angela Yarber

The holidays can be the toughest time of the year. We expect warm nostalgia, celebrations—both sacred and secular—overflowing with family warmth and bonding. For queer people estranged from their families of origin, this can be doubly difficult. Grief, too, can be one of hardest things to deal with around the holidays. Whether it’s grieving a loved one who has died this year and trying to grapple with your first holiday season without them, or grieving a family member still living, but who refuses to be a part of your life because of your queerness, the holidays often manage to heighten our grief. Since this is my first holiday season without my little brother, who died in March, I planned ahead with coping strategies for making it through the holidays. I’d like to share a balm with you in case grief is bubbling to the surface during your holiday celebrations.

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. Without intercessors to aid us in our grief, we are left floundering, particularly during the holidays. 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 heal, to feel, and to grieve again. So, allow me to introduce you to the intercessors of the Holy Women Icons of Grief Project.

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 author and mortician, 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. And 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 resembling 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 deep love is a vital part of grief.

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 the 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 strategies for coping with grief throughout the holiday season and always. Wherever you are in your grief this season, know that you are not alone in your grief, but there are a great cloud of witnesses who grieve alongside you.

Artwork by Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber