He who would bind to himself a joy
Pagans, who honor the whole of lifeís cycle, acknowledge that all things must end. Yet, in a deeper understanding, nothing ever ends. All things transform, sometimes beyond recognition, since the cycle of change is continuous. We reach points of comfort, but can never cling to them. All we can do is ride the changes as gracefully as we can.
So it is with our groups. People leave; whole groups dissolve, and we grieve our losses even as we celebrate our achievements. The Old Ways, after enduring through centuries of dormancy, are now revived through these changes. The cycle turns.
Iíd like to consider four general types of group endings. These categories are abstract and arbitrary. Real life is always more complicated than the models we create, but those models help us see through the chaos of life and change.
Types of Endings
Some endings have the bittersweet feel of completion, like a graduation ceremony bravely called ďcommencement,Ē the moment that at once ends one phase and begins another. We have accomplished our purposes here, or gotten as much as we feel we can from this experience. Now itís time to move on.
Group members who have worked through a training system, and perhaps earned degrees, sometimes leave to start new groups of their own in the same Tradition. The old group may have gotten too big for deep intimacy or even for comfort. There may be a waiting list of eager seekers. Itís time to make some room. Or it may be that one or more of the advanced students are chafing at the bit, full of new ideas and eager to strut their stuff. Growing up means leaving home.
At other times people feel that their personal path is simply leading in a different direction from that of the group. They may want to be solitary for a while, to deepen their own private spirituality. They may want to explore a different teacherís or groupís perspective.
When success itself leads to separation, this is bittersweet.
2. Resignations and dismissals
Not all resignations short of graduation are angry. Sometimes people leave a group because of changes in other parts of their lives. They may land a wonderful new job in a distant city, or their working hours may change to conflict with your meeting times. They may go back to school or have a new baby. These departures are understandable, and not hurtful or disappointing, but the people will still be missed.
As we age, some of us become ill, too sick or disabled to come to group meetings. Some die. The group may admit some new members and keep going, but it will never be quite the same. Every carrot changes the soup.
Sometimes people leave a group because of conflict. There may be substantive disagreements, or it might just be a clash of personalities and styles. The tension may build over a long period, or it may seem to explode very abruptly, and without apparent reason or warning. However they happen, angry departures are painful and can be frightening.
Saddest of all, sometimes people are asked to leave a group because they are just not doing the work, or because of actual disruptive or even unethical behavior. When their initial anger fades, group leaders who have had to dismiss a member may find underlying feelings of self-doubt and even guilt. Did I make a mistake when I first accepted that person into the group? Did I set a poor example or otherwise fail to teach them proper conduct?
Some endings are bitter and angry. Some leave hurts that last for years. Some who leave angry will try afterwards to hurt you, perhaps by malicious gossip. The pain they can cause you matches the intensity of the bond you once had. And some of these so-called "exit fights" are not necessary. It was simply time for the person to move on, but they could not face that reality. They needed the energy of anger to propel them.
3: Silent departures
Sometimes people drop out of a group without giving any notice or stating any reason. They just stop coming; stop returning your calls or your emails. They may or may not be angry, may or may not have serious issues with the group or the leaders, but theyíre just not good at good-byes.
When the person who drifts off had only just arrived, their departure may not really hurt. They were exploring their options, and found that your particular group was just not a good fit for them. Take any face-saving excuses they may make at face value and send them off with your blessings.
Because this happens fairly often, my coven doesnít do a Dedication rite until the seeker has attended a few classes, and weíve all had a chance to get to know each other better than we could in an intake interview. Those preliminary classes cover material that is good for anybody to know, whether or not they eventually commit to our Path. If Dedication is something like betrothal, then this introductory series of classes is comparable to steady dating without long-term commitment. If the answer is no, this is disappointing, certainly, but not cause for deep grief.
Dedication is, on an emotional level, much like betrothal for us. Initiation is like marriage. When a Dedicant or an Initiate leaves without farewells Ė and this does sometimes happen Ė we feel abandoned, confused, empty. A promise has been broken and a trust betrayed. If you feel the same way, one answer is to be very careful with your decisions about whom to Dedicate.
I would also suggest that you build a clear exit procedure right into your group norms from the beginning. Something like ďpeople who miss three consecutive meetings without notice or explanation are considered to have left the group,Ē so at least you know where you stand.
4. The group dissolves
Groups dissolve in many different ways. These seem to echo the different ways individual members leave groups.
However you got there, your group has reached an ending. The member leaves or the group dissolves. This is a time of strong and complicated emotions. In real life, these categories are not so neatly separated. Every separation is different because the people separating are different. Each of us approaches partings and endings in different ways, coming from different previous life experiences.
In Pagan faith, all endings are really transitions, beginnings of new experiences, part of the ongoing and eternal cycle that is life. Living from that faith, however, requires more than just affirming it. We need to learn what we can from the experience that is ending, express and resolve the feelings it brought up, and formally draw closure before we can turn to the future enriched and empowered by the recent past.
I offer another oversimplified and abstracted model of whatís involved in moving through a time of change, this time my own. As with all other such models, please do not take it too literally. Real life is always messier than our abstractions, but hereís mine:
∑ First you rage, then you cry till you are drained.
∑ Then you rest and start to heal
∑ Then you reflect on the problems and draw out the lessons
∑ Then you formally and ritually draw closure
∑ Finally, you move on.
These actions donít always happen in this order. Sometimes we spiral through them more than once, each time a little deeper or stronger for having done the other tasks, each time a little closer to resolution. The most important thing is not to rush the process, for that puts you at great risk of rebound and backlash.
In any departure, even the happiest of graduations, you will do well to find out what about your group worked for this person and what might have worked better. Understanding this will help you do better for others in the future. If thismember is leaving because of problems they had with the leader or the group, it is even more important, when you can, to find out just what those problems were. All constructive criticism gives you choices about how you might improve your own work and your groupís operations.
In all but the most hostile situations, I strongly recommend an exit interview, at least a phone conversation. If the person left silently, make some reasonable effort to contact them and find out why. If there was conflict with another member, be careful to hear out both sides.
Similarly, if you are dismissing someone from your group, you owe them an explanation. This difficult conversation at least offers them a chance to learn from their mistakes and do better in the future. Knowing that you will have to face them and explain yourself will also deter you from dismissing people without good reason.
On the other hand, if the person is leaving simply because other parts of their life became overwhelming, not because of problems with the group, understanding this will take away much of the sting.
Any such conversation must be handled with respect and tact, even though the circumstances surrounding it may be emotionally charged. If youíre still full of hurt or anger, consider asking some respected elder who is not directly involved to facilitate the conversation. Donít argue with, harangue, or browbeat the departing person. Donít cajole them to remain or return. If you do, the chances of mutual understanding rapidly diminish.
I recommend that you record any information you gather in your journal while it is fresh in your mind. For now, just make notes. Donít try to draw any conclusions; itís too soon for that.
Severing the psychic and emotional bonds that exist in a close-knit spiritual group is something very much like going through a marital breakup Ė and that is a transition so painful that it feels like a small death within this life. Before doing much else, we need to grieve such a deep loss.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1926-2004), a specialist in the issues around death, dying, and bereavement, proposed a set of stages of grief, another simplified, abstract, but still useful model, now widely adopted by professional grief counselors. Here are the Kubler-Ross stages:
You may want to compare this model with your memories of your emotional experience while a significant relationship was deteriorating, at the point of severance, and in the emotional aftermath of the loss. Record these memories in your journal. I recommend that you keep a journal through the process of future separations.
Grief work means expressing and acknowledging your sorrow. It may literally mean crying till the emotions are drained. It means dealing with each of these reactions as they arise. It means coming to terms with the bad thing that has happened, reaching through to acceptance, after which comes healing.
Reflecting on Lessons to be Learned
If the separation was angry or abrupt, start by taking some time to rest and to let the rawest emotions pass. Ground and breathe. Disengage from the recent crisis and do whatever nurtures your spirit.
When youíre feeling calmer, youíll want to think about whatever you learned in your parting conversation or by reviewing your own memories of the events that led up to the departure. This is the time to read those initial journal entries and start to think about what they might be showing you.
The focus of all of these reflections, individual or collective, should be on how we ourselves might do better in the future. Perhaps we should be more careful about the group we choose to join, or the people we admit to our group. But itís rare for one side of a conflict to be 100% right, so seriously think about your own contributions to the situation, and other options that might have worked better.
In time, you will have cried out your tears, learned all you can for now about what happened, and made some better choices for the future. Now you work with those choices, and see what changes they bring. Learn, choose, act and evaluate Ė this is the process of growth.
As you live with what youíve learned and the choices youíve made, you will encounter other experiences and situations. Some of them may lead you to re-visit your memories of this period. There may be more to grieve or more to learn than you are able to reach right now. But you will not know that until you have moved on.
For now, itís time to turn that page, but never to seal the book.
We mark turning points in our spiritual development with ritual. Ritual is a way of telling ourselves -- clearly, deeply and strongly -- that one phase is ending and another beginning. It is how we do our magic, the way we change consciousness in accordance with will.
Most Pagans learn how to create and adapt rituals to reflect our deepest values and address our current needs. The rituals that will best help us move into our future are those that are also most relevant to our recent past, to the separation we have just experienced, and to our future hopes. Here are some examples:
If a member has been dismissed for cause, the group will probably want to do a collective severance ritual before proceeding to a ritual of regrouping.
In either case, please beware lest a ritual meant to distance and protect yourself slips into some sort of curse directed at the former member. You are fully entitled to cleanse and ward your own space, but karma belongs in the hands of the Gods.
Regrouping rituals are also helpful when a group admits new members, especially when they come in as a group, for example when a beginners class graduates into full membership. If you are part of a lineage, you may want to ask your elder to conduct this rite, treating it as a renewal of the group blessing ritual that was done when your group started.
Professional group workers refer to this final stage of a groupís life cycle as mourning/morning, a play on words meant to indicate that every ending leads to a new beginning. And so it is.
Blessings on your group and on your Path!
 William Blake
 The concept of ďgrief workĒ was introduced by Dr. Bertha G. Simos, a professor of Social Work. For more information, see her book A Time to Grieve: Loss as a Universal Human Esperience