Demeter called out to her female child, Persephone to return home. When her child failed to appear promptly she like every parent began to panic. Running into the field where she had last seen Persephone, she was greeted with the girl's dumbstruck friends. Too shocked by the horror they had witnessed, they remained shaken, silent, and the color drained from their faces. The field where the girls had been picking wildflowers was churned up and a fresh scar where the earth had split open and resealed lay bare before them all. Picking flowers, she was, just picking flowers. They didn't expect or ask for any of this to happen.
Demeter beside herself with grief began tearing out her hair, wailing like an Irish keening woman. The disappearance of a child; the possible death of a young one shocks us all. For parents, it is like their dark inward journey of grief casts a shadow across the whole globe. In Demeter's case, it did cast a shadow, literally. Demeter wandered the planet aimlessly, lost in her grief and grieving process. How could any parent function after such a thing, the loss of a child? Demeter's months of mourning stopped the light of day from shining on the land, a prolonged eclipse of sorts. Without sunshine, food sources began to fail and without food, people started to go hungry. The other gods and goddesses within the pantheon finallytook notice and acted to stop the cause of the grief.
Demeter began to ask around to see if anyone knew who authorized such violence that left her as a parent rocked to her core and Persephone's friends reeling, questioning themselves and their survivor guilt. Violence ricochets leaving debilitating wounds that survivors are often left to deal with alone and in silence. In the end, Demeter had to beg the almighty God, Zeus to change the outcome, which he did, but only because humanity was on its knees starving to death and he would have no one left to rule if they were all to die in vain.
The Greek mythic narrative of Demeter and Persephone seems timely. Several perspectives go to make up the Demeter/ Persephone mythologies, but I will focus on Demeter's grief and how it understandably creates an eclipse phenomenon over the entire globe.
In January 2017, I taught an undergraduate-level class titled "When a Community Weeps." Over the 10-week quarter, we examined various kinds of collective tragedies such as natural disasters, war, and targeted mass murders. The class also focused on successful strategies for healing. Unfortunately, the class is essential for our times as humanity collectively suffers tragedy after tragedy with increasing frequency and diversity of its victims, including the destruction of our very home – earth. If the death of one child or one adult, can cause such incredible pain in the life of families and friends what then of a whole community when it loses its members en masse? And what happens when community tragedy happens at such speed and proximity to each other that there is no time to come together, regroup, grieve, reassign roles, and create a shared story for the healing of the community? Like the gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon, some wail with despair while others look on in silence, saying not my child, not my grief, not my problem. In reality, we don't have just one mother grieving one child, currently grieving are the mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and friends of 3,430 children killed every year in the United States by gun violence (1). This number is just the children killed, not the adults.
Personal and collective grief creates ripples outwards across the nation, which interlock with other circles of grief across the globe. Another impact of senseless and shocking violence is that it "opens up or exacerbates previously existing fault lines of racism and other forms of discrimination, social and economic inequalities, and prior historical trauma" (2). Meaning the impact of one event can trigger an emotional, psychological, physical response in all those who have experienced either directly or indirectly something similar. In the case of our story, anytime there was an event that was violent and unexpected all of Persephone's friends would have their trauma reactivated.
Demeter was a Goddess who had direct access to Zeus, as the father of Persephone. Even so, she had to beg for the madness to stop. If Demeter represents parents and family members both grieving and seeking the end of the cause of the grief then Zeus must represent our governmental leaders. Despite the mother of one of his children wandering in deep despair at the death of her child, and despite the child being his own and facilitating the child disappearance, Zeus held firm in his determination not to act. In the end, it took the actions of all leaders to say to Zeus, enough is enough; we can't sit by and watch humanity suffer under the weight of the dark skies of collective grief.
Although not in the original mythology, I imagine that each of the girls with Persephone that day, the ones dumbstruck due to shock, slowly began talking to each other about what they had both witnessed and experienced. Those brave souls who work directly with communities after collective experiences deem that "community recovery depends partly on telling the story of the community's experience and response" (2). Demeter and the friends of Persephone need to gather and talk, while the rest of us stand up and say to the Zeus's in power, enough is enough.
Take a minute to come back into your body. Reading this may have activated your trauma, your grief.
Place your hand on your heart and take a slow breath in for a count of three, breathe out for a count of seven. Feel your feet on the ground and your behind on the chair.
Without judgment, can you relate to one or several figures in the Demeter/Persephone myth? Do you instinctively relate to Demeter's story, Persephone's story or her friends' story? Or are you on the sidelines, quietly waiting to speak up?
If you had the opportunity to speak to Zeus directly, what would you say? How has this post changed the way you think about collective grief or our interconnection to tragedy?
1. "Gun Violence in America." Everytown Research. https://everytownresearch.org/gun-violence-america/
2. Saul, Jack. Collective Trauma, Collective Healing. Routledge: London. 2013.