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The Unexpected Spiritual Practice That Saved Me From My Grief

Nneka M. Okona
November 4, 2018
Nneka M. Okona
By Nneka M. Okona
mbg Contributor
Nneka M. Okona is an Atlanta-based writer, traveler, and intuitive soul. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Mercer University, and a master's degree in professional writing from Kennesaw State University.
Photo by iStock / iStock
November 4, 2018

Loss is not new to me. I've known it groveling at the feet of a relationship or friendship disintegrating before my eyes, leaving only emotional shrapnel in its wake. And I've known grief, too. I've known trying to make sense of having someone in your life one minute and the ghosts of them, all their memories, as sole remnants after the fact.

But this? This loss, this grief I've been cradling for the past year, was certainly different. It was more visceral and left me more vulnerable, encumbered with all the rawness that processing the death of one of your closest friends is assumed to be.

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The hardest part about grieving the loss of my dear friend, aside from how sobering it was that her life ended at only 30 years old, was how I grieved in solitude and without community. My grief and her loss was mine to contemplate and hold. I had no one to exchange memories with or quip about things she used to do that made me laugh. I chose not to attend the funeral because I knew it'd be too much for me. Often I'm filled with regret that I didn't go. Grief is worse when you feel lonely in your pain. Losing a close friend versus a parent or family member is isolating in a particular way.

You see, Western culture and society already has finite limits on supporting those who are grieving the loss of loved ones. But the language lessens even more and fails to equip most of us with what to say when in your early 30s you lose a friend who is your age. What can be said of something that seems inconceivable, unbelievable, and disordered? Mostly nothing at all.

That's why I turned to tarot during those excruciating days that turned into weeks and months of early grief. I was desperate for a relief to the heaviness and needed the courage to listen within instead of shouldering all the external angst I'd met with while grieving.

I knew very little about tarot before purchasing my first deck in early December of last year. Prior to that I'd had a few tarot readings that seemed to be resonant, but how tarot worked mystified me. One afternoon weeks before Christmas, I strolled into a bookstore hoping to find a good book to get lost in. Instead I found a beginner's tarot kit complete with what would become my first tarot deck and a slim book detailing the meaning of each card. I immediately grabbed it, heeding it as a sign from the universe, and once I was home I felt like something special was beginning. The mystifying sense that had long categorized my understanding of tarot lifted and was replaced with a sense of wonder as I held my first tarot deck in my hand, shuffled the cards, and was acquainted with parts of my heart and soul I couldn't ignore.

Tarot isn't intended to be fortune telling or forecasting your future, contrary to what popular media in movies and television have portrayed it to be. It is, instead, one way of meeting your intuitive nature and greeting intuitive guidance with an open heart and mind. When I hold my deck in my hands and shuffle the cards, I'm not looking to be granted the answers. I am looking to bow to my personal truths. It can be easy to hide from our inner truths because often they don't feel warm or cuddly. Sometimes our intuitive guidance can lead us down paths of confronting uncomfortable emotions needed for growth. Tarot has become a way of illuminating those truths I'd rather crouch away from and emboldens me with a little courage to face my life. And my heart.

While grieving and wading through the myriad of emotions I was feeling—anger, regret, guilt, sadness, disbelief, anxiety, a lack of focus due to insomnia—shuffling my tarot deck was one of the few things that nurtured me. Doing most things took a lot of energy: keeping up with friends, continuing my workload as a freelance writer, eating, showering. Tarot felt effortless. Grab the deck, shuffle the cards while listening to the rattle of them brushing against one another, turn the cards face-side up. And then a pause. A quiet moment to take it all in and feel my way through what intuitive message the card might be giving me, what it's telling me to take heed of.

Time and time again, the cards pointed me toward internal sources of insight and strength. In January, when I was considering leaving home to embrace a nomadic lifestyle, my grief felt like a suffocating weight over me, making me less courageous. But when I drew the Eight of Wands, which means to step forward and take action, it reminded me why I needed to act in courage even if I was afraid. In May, when I had a difficult decision to make as I decided on a literary agent, the cards told me to trust my instincts on who would be the best fit for me. And just last week when I pulled the Page of Wands, I was reminded to see my own magic and relish in all that makes me wondrous.

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Grief comes in waves, of course. It would perhaps be more manageable and less like a chaotic maelstrom if it were linear, if it followed a predictable path and you could guess when the highs and lows would reach you. But it has been a perpetual guessing game for me this past year. Beyond the first three months, most days I was OK. My mood was even, the cerebral fog had lifted, and I was slowly starting to adjust to the new normal.

But then some days I would be submerged again in a melancholy I couldn't shake. Those were the moments when I reread our iMessage thread that I still haven't gotten the gumption to delete. Or scanned the handful of emails we exchanged years ago when I lived in Madrid and she was providing me with sagacious emotional support only she could give me. In those moments, I would close my eyes and will the tears to stay away while hoping that I could do anything, one thing, to bring her back, for only a moment more so I'd have no lingering regrets.

Those moments were also when tarot became the most profound. I would fight back tears or let myself feel the rushing flood of them falling from my eyes. And I'd grab my deck, shuffle the deck, choose a couple, and breathe. I'd know then what I needed to give myself. What God, the Universe, or whatever higher power exists wanted me to have. And in those moments, that glimmer of something tarot had given me was something. It was something small and the magnificent difference I sorely needed.

Life now, a year after my best friend's death, is comprised of new beginnings born of a massive void and hole in my heart. No matter who I meet and connect with, no matter what friendships I start or those I deepen, there will never be another her. That's another loss to contemplate other than the loss of her in my life and our friendship: the loss of what will never be. There are memories we'll never make, things she'll never get to experience alongside me. Victories filled with happy tears I'll have to celebrate in her absence.

Saying I miss her feels inadequate. She is etched in a special slice of my soul. I can't miss her because she is already there within me. I am simply forever not all of me, lacking her physical presence. I am now incomplete.

But tarot. Tarot reminds me it's OK to mourn the loss of someone and remain there for however long you need. In its very essence, it encourages holding space for what I feel. It also reminds me that it's equally OK to prioritize self-care, which is also what tarot gifted me. I've incorporated tarot into my morning routine. After I put my tea kettle on the stove in the morning, I pull a few cards and journal about how they speak to me. Most times the words and inspiration flow from my heart to my pen. It is as much a time for quieted writing and reflection as it is a space to let the divine flow into me.

For those who've never tried tarot before, one way to understand this ritual's soothing allure is by considering why our culture has so wholeheartedly embraced yoga. During my days of early grief, I turned to yoga to help me wade through grief as well. I contorted my body into the asanas of yin and restorative yoga, often beginning each practice crying, my tears making my mat slick as I transitioned from pose to pose. Tarot is like yoga in that it is quiet, slower moving, more intentional. It also can have a solitary, internalized energy about it. Because of that, the meaning each person derives from tarot is specialized and personal.

I'm still learning all the meanings of the cards, a process I know will take time as I continue to become familiar, but I recognize that's less important than the intention behind it all. And my intentions are pure. If you're tussling with grief, loss, and death and want another way to gently touch the tenderness of your heart, give tarot a try. Purchase a tarot deck that resonates with you. Start slow with one or two card pulls on a regular basis to get in the habit of utilizing it as a method of tuning in to your intuitive nature. And watch what happens. Watch how you feel and how groundedness can enter you. 

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Nneka M. Okona
Nneka M. Okona

Nneka M. Okona is an Atlanta-based writer, traveler, and intuitive soul. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Mercer University, and a master's degree in professional writing from Kennesaw State University. She is most interested in using her personal experiences to tackle discourse travel, women’s empowerment and spiritual awareness and growth.