Oracle Of Ybor: Grief And The Day Of The Dead

Nov 8, 2023 at 2:34 pm
Welcome to the Oracle of Ybor.
Welcome to the Oracle of Ybor. Photo via Adobe Stock.

It might surprise some that, as a professional witch, I used to hate October, especially Halloween. I grew up in New Orleans, a city where even atheists believe in ghosts, and October always felt thick with fright. I’d spend the whole month filled with dread about dying and scared shitless of spirits.

It didn’t help that my first real brush with death (my dog, Bootsy) happened the October I was 8, or that my first witch ritual at age 10 was on Friday, Oct. 13, and involved trying to raise a dead man buried beneath my friend’s banana tree under the full moon’s light. (I didn’t ask why she thought a body was there. It was her sleepover, her suggested activity.)

Occultists talk about October as a time when “the veil things,” meaning things from The Other, can cross into our world, with the door swung open completely on Halloween and the two days that follow.

This death association makes sense when looking at the natural world. In places that experience winter, October is a time of dying, when nature curls up, while November is the darkest time of the year, with sunlight slipping away each day until the Winter Solstice.

But it is interesting that these days, October 31st, November 1st, and 2nd, are kept as a time for ghosts and grief across cultures. In Catholicism, the dates are for the solemn holidays of All Hallows' Eve, All Saints' Day, and All Souls' Day. In Mexico, it’s Dia de los Muertos, a far more celebratory holiday where favorite dishes are left out for departed family members, and graves are cleaned and dressed with flowers. Slavic countries have the autumn Dziady, where extra plates are laid for ancestors to dine, and to the north, the Norse begin to see The Wild Hunt, with ghosts and gods riding in on storms.

And, of course, there is the Celtic holiday of Samhain.

Most American Halloween is cribbed from Samhain, which traditionally runs from sundown on Oct. 31 to sundown on Nov. 1. It was a marker for the dark half of the year, a time to honor the dead, disguise yourself from malicious spirits by donning costumes, carving frightful faces into turnips and gourds, and play pranks and tell fortunes.

For many witches today, Samhain is the highest of holy days. It’s the Witches’ New Year, and with the cosmic portal open, a potent time to do all sorts of workings. In Wicca, it’s when The God dies and goes into the underworld to return with the sun on Solstice. Some Wiccans won’t practice any magick during November, considering it a “dead time.”

But some of us, myself included, feel that November is when magic is most afoot, precisely because it’s a time of the dead and the liminal.

While I’ve made passing comments about being a witch, I’ve never actually said in this column what I believe and how Tarot fits in. So, for the record: I follow The Dark Mother, Hekate, a primordial goddess of many things, including crossroads, ghosts, and liminal spaces, as well as being the bringer of light. She’s an enigmatic figure, equally a dread-goddess and savior, who aids in baneful magick but also guides souls through the underworld with her two torches.

As Queen of the Liminal, many modern witches invoke her on Samhain and honor her throughout November. It’s a month not only of death but the journey to rebirth, a Bardo-state for the world, and liminal times are when The Other is most active.

Divination is an act that tries to bridge the liminal, and the practice is a large part of my faith. This is how I use Tarot—not as a tool of self-reflection (which it can be) but more as a cosmic game of telephone. While Tarot can be read any day of the year, I pay close attention in November, when more nuanced messages can come through.

It’s a powerful month to read for others—an act that’s important to how I practice my faith. I’m not just supposed to hoard scraps of secret, celestial knowledge for myself; I’m supposed to work as a Pythia, an oracle, and interpret for others.

I know that might sound silly, especially with how often I use “fuck” in this column, but I do take your questions very seriously. I genuinely want to help and hope to provide some relief, especially since so many questions deal with grief.

Grief is a complex emotion, one that crops up when we not only mourn literal death but metaphorical losses, too. We may mourn the loss of a partner, the loss of a road not taken, the past we didn’t have, or the feeling of a door slamming on a future we so desperately wanted but could not have.

It’s not a benign emotion. Grief can kill you, spiritually or bodily. At some point, grief will send each of us to the underworld. I know that this column or even Tarot in general cannot be the torch that guides people out. Grief is too massive. 

But I try to be a match. I might fail—and often worry that I do—but I’ll still try, with the tools I have, to bring some light. 

I’m not afraid of ghosts anymore. Working with a chthonic goddess helps, as does having friends who’ve died, who are now welcomed guests when they visit in dreams. All of this leads me to believe in an afterlife, though I’m not sure about semantics. Why do some souls stick around their earthly homes while others get reborn and others still go to a place beyond? Is there a choice in the matter? A determination by heavenly hosts? Are eternal paradises separated by the faiths of the living or is it all one all-inclusive resort? I don’t know. But I hope whenever I go out into the black, that inky swim, there is a light on the shore to guide me through.

Dear Oracle,

My father passed away almost ten years ago, and I’m still struggling so hard to make a new, normal, fulfilling life for myself. I feel like I’ve been hollowed out, and no amount of new friends, good experiences, or hobbies have helped me to feel like more of a whole person since. I just feel like a shadow of myself. Will this ever get better? 

Sincerely,  Grief-Stricken Gemini

Cards: King of Cups, Queen of Cups, Nine of Wands (rev.), Knight of Swords, Ten of Wands

My Dearest Gemini, 

Your father loved you so much. I’m so sorry he’s gone. As King of Cups, he was giving and nurturing, probably a wonderful playmate when you were younger, and someone you could trust and talk to as you grew. He was someone who matched your emotional depth and influenced who you’ve become today.

As the Queen of Cups, you are undoubtedly your father’s daughter. But you probably had to become that Queen—the emotionally giving parent—to yourself before you were ready. While you have certainly been the diplomat, forging new friendships and “getting out there,” you may have been too young to tend to the deeper wound. 

The Nine of Wands is a wind-worn boundary, a wobbly fence of a card. You probably had to erect something around your heart and mind after your father died to get through the initial mourning: the initial shock followed by the funeral planning and bureaucratic bullshit of settling an estate. You probably also formed a shell around everything you associated with your dad as a way to keep his memory fresh. All of that was a protective act, one that let you survive. But after ten years, that wall may need to come down—and with it, a deeper processing of your grief. 

You asked if this could ever get better, and the answer, honestly, is “it depends.”

The Ten of Wands is a burden of a card, one that exhausts and stretches the carrier thin. But it’s a burden that can, shared or halved, be tackled in a variety of ways. You can’t white-knuckle this alone. 

With the Knight of Swords, honesty and determination are the driving force. You need to be honest about the depth of your grief and if you’ve worked through areas of it. I highly, highly, highly suggest speaking with a grief counselor/therapist (someone your dad would have liked) about this. Even if you’ve tried therapy before, other types might help. Maybe you need a Jungian or a Buddhist. Intellectualizing it might help—with all this emotional-water, the airy-heady perspective might appeal to your old Gemini self and give a new perspective. 

With that help, you might also find yourself able to be the emotional parent to yourself that you needed a decade ago. It’ll be hard work, at times overwhelming and lengthy. But you can be guided out of the underworld, back to the land of the sun, where a King of Cups would want his daughter to be.