Pagans believe a wide variety of things when it comes to death. Some believe in the Summerland, a place to go to rest after this life. Some believe we die and our soul energy becomes part of the Universe from which we came. Some believe we just die, plain and simple. But what do we do when we are faced with the death of a loved one who believes in something different?
Every faith has a slightly different theology on death. Working within the context of that faith can be hard for someone who doesn’t believe, but ultimately, it is the choice of the dying as to what faith they want to be surrounded by. It’s our responsibility to make sure that happens for them, despite our own faith or sometimes lack thereof.
Recently, I reconnected with my uncle. We had been apart for many years. He was my Godfather, my Confirmation Sponsor, my mentor, and my friend. He helped raise me in the Roman Catholic faith and he never said anything negative to me when I slid easily into the Pagan faith. “You do what you gotta do. Believe what you believe and don’t let anyone tell you something different.” We picked on each other mercilessly, but he was like a dad to me. But at Thanksgiving, I realized that he no longer embraced the faith that he was once so strong in. I don’t know what brought him to that point, but it was clear when he was asked to participate in the Thanksgiving blessing and he refused, that something had changed. All the while, he was dying of cancer.
In situations like that, how do Pagan ministers fit in? How do we minister to the dying? Do we minister at all?
Being Pagan in a Christian Family
I was there as family. But I was holding space for him. I was holding space for everyone that visited. But what does that mean? “Holding space”? It means providing support for the dying. Being nonjudgmental. Being present and not thinking about the bill you need to pay or the grocery list. It’s being able to take care of the needs of the dying. Or maybe you hold space for the people taking care of the dying and give them the support they need. Make sure they nourish themselves, stay with the dying and let the support people take a day off.
Holding space has no religion. It has no faith other than the faith in humankind, that we live and we die. By holding space, with no faith attached, only love, we ease the passing of our loved ones and allow them to die in the way they choose. It’s not easy. Watching someone you care about die is probably one of the hardest things to do. Holding space for them is a gift for everyone involved.
What Does it Take to Hold Space?
Anyone can hold space. You don’t need specific training or a fancy title to hold space for someone. You don’t even have to hold space for someone that’s dying. You can hold space for a woman giving birth. Or a couple getting married. Or even for someone who’s had a really bad day that needs some support.
- Patience: being patient in a situation that can be frustrating or scary is a necessity. You can be the quiet voice that provides a grounding point.
- Calm: keeping calm when someone’s world seems to be falling apart isn’t easy. But helping them take a breath and meet everything head on, with a calm head and an open heart can be a very rewarding experience. Let them make the decisions that need to be made, sometimes with a gentle nudge if it’s an imperative subject. All the while, maintain your calm.
- Knowledge: knowing the process the person is going through, whether it is death, birth, or anything in between, is helpful to know what is coming and how to help the person if they need assistance. The internet is full of great, reliable resources for research.
- Be ready for anything: When you are holding space, be ready for anything that can happen. Have healthy snacks available, tissues, basic medications such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, and music of all sorts.
Holding Space in Any Faith
When holding space, sometimes that means reading to the dying or playing and singing music for them, especially when they transition. You don’t have to be Christian to read the Bible aloud, or be Muslim to read the Quran. The purpose of reading is known to the dying, and you can provide them the comfort they need, without judgment. Playing or singing music can help calm the nerves of the dying and the people attending to them.
Listening to what the dying needs is paramount, as is having a plan, should they become unable to speak, which often happens near the end.
Don’t forget to take time for yourself as well. Treat yourself well, do something nice for yourself every once in a while, and remember it is ok to cry out your emotions. You need the release so you can take care of others.
Holding space for people is a gift given from a place of love. Spread the love and help where you can. Hold space when needed, and know that someone will hold space for you one day.