I didn’t mean to become a death witch. Grief worker was not on my to-do list, though oddly, a high school career aptitude test suggested the clergy. The second time a tough brown femme read tarot cards for me, they gave me a hard look over the frames of their purple glasses. “Babe” they said “not everyone is the High Priestess, okay? But you are.”

On Carrying Heavy Things: Exploring Grief and Tarot Cards

high priestess grief

The High Priestess is a badass; in touch with the sacred, able to hold multiple truths, and to hear what people aren’t saying. In my favorite deck, she’s a sweet-faced abuela holding a mortar and pestle; she knows something about what’s good for you.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying not to draw attention to myself, or more precisely, to have control over the amount and type of attention I attract. I have dimmed my light and feared my power. And in so doing, I abdicated some of my responsibility to do the work that is the best use of me. Over and over, I am invited into being a spiritual pallbearer, holding a corner of the heaviest things people have to bear.


I learned on myself first, when one of my best friends was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and then died two years later. We were in our mid-twenties, the height of foolish invincibility. A group of loosely connected Montreal queers who sometimes did burlesque and drag together, and had raucous Passover Seders, were now convening a makeshift funeral, since the one her family held was in Ohio and most of us couldn’t make the trip. We dressed to impress our lost friend, and passed around a can of beans like a talking stick to tell stories about her, dirty jokes she would have liked, to read poems, or just sit in the quiet for a little while. Afterwards, I hosted a boozy wake where we laughed at least as much as we cried.

I didn’t know how to grieve for my friend, but I knew how to book the non-denominational chapel on campus. I knew how to stand at the front of a room and ask if anyone had anything to say. I knew how to open my home to friends with big feelings. So I did those things. I also made inadvisable dating decisions, drank a lot of whisky before the sun went down, and skipped work.

 She didn’t have to soothe my grief, so I could witness hers with a different kind of clarity than her parents, dear friends, and longtime lovers. We could just have a nice time together, and we did.  

That was 13 years ago now, and I’m still grieving, but it no longer feels like a forest fire. On her birthday each year, I wear something I think she would like, eat a cheeseburger in her honor, and text emoji strings to our close mutuals. I spell them out for our most anarchistic pal who still has a flip phone. Bathtub, yarn ball, eggplant, broken heart.


Having a role in a death process felt (a little) less chaotic in 2016, when a dear friend’s partner and artistic collaborator was dying, and wanted to do one more show on her way out, a parting gift. Laid out in gold and white on a chaise-lounge in a gallery in Winnipeg, she took confessions from attendees, and I tattooed her skin with small symbols representing the stories they told. Around us, people danced to Rihanna under a shower of giant glitter, and then swept the fragmented mylar into a neat pile for the next song.

She died shortly after the last show, fulfilling her promise to literally take their secrets to her grave. I am not a tattooist by trade, and I wasn’t close friends with the dying star. I was chosen for the role because I wasn’t afraid of her.  She was already dying when we met, so she wasn’t leaving a gaping vibrant hole in my life. She didn’t have to soothe my grief, so I could witness hers with a different kind of clarity than her parents, dear friends, and longtime lovers. We could just have a nice time together, and we did.

A few years back, a group of friends who lost someone they loved to suicide asked me to hold a circle for them. We sat in a grassy backyard and they took turns talking about how they were coping, what they knew of the days leading up to their friend’s death, and what they needed from each other. I felt like I wasn’t doing anything useful, just sitting there with a little notebook, keeping time. I didn’t feel prepared, was so scared I would mess it up. They just needed someone there to say “okay, let’s have this talk” and “okay, this talk is over for now.”


A little quilt I made became the favored object of an old cat, and so when she died, her people buried her with it. A shawl I knitted for a friend in chemo ended up wrapped around her in her casket. I did not know I was making burial shrouds.

When the pandemic hit, my coven-mate and I decided to hold a fortnightly space where we showed up on Instagram live, dressed fabulously, and tattooed one another while answering questions people had sent us about grief; like an old-time radio call in show, with more leopard print and permanent body modification. An adornment ritual, a practice of learning out loud, a dedicated space for mourning.  We thought it would go on for a couple of months; we did 28 episodes. Our intention was to offer a service to our community, but I didn’t realize until we stopped how useful it had been for me to have a steady space to practice grieving. I learned that stepping into this role didn’t mean I had to know how to do it, or to pretend to know. I just had to show up and be willing to figure it out, to be transformed by it.


Last spring I visited my 90 year old bubbie, my mother’s mother, while she was dying. My bubbie was a force, glamorous, adventurous, and bossy as hell til the end, and in my family, she’s a legend. Some people, certainly her daughters, my mother and aunt, were somewhat convinced she was immortal. When the news came that her health was turning, it took a few days to convince my mom to get on a plane. She had the idea that going would make it real. As gently as I could, I reminded her that it was real no matter what she did. This time, I knew I was priestessing. I got to rub my bubbie’s feet, brush her hair, make challah under her expert supervision, bring her ice cream and Chinese food takeout. Losing her was deeply sad, but this time, I wasn’t afraid.

Concluding Thoughts

image3High Priestess is not who I am, it’s something I can do. When I am asked to play that role, I know better how to put on her outfit, and then take it off again. I also know that I can have a broader repertoire, and I do. Most of the time, I choose the Hermit, whose magic is in turning fear into curiosity, making friends with the monster under the bed, and being gleefully weird.

Sometimes I choose the Fool, and I get to be a beginner, to fuck around and find out, where the stakes are low and the moment is now. Sometimes I choose the Sun, and know that I can call it a day, sink down low, and let the sky turn pink around me while I rest. So much happens to us, out of our control. But we always get to choose, just a little, how we use our magic.

Carly Boyce
Carly is a fat femme, a genderqueer leatherdyke, an old millenial, a politicized healing worker, and an anti-fascist Ashkenazi Jewish witch, and knits these lineages together in their work, which hangs out in the overlapping part of the venn diagram of personal healing and collective liberation. Their writing has appeared in Shameless Magazine, GUTS, Broken Pencil, and the edited collection The Care We Dream Of: Liberatory and Transformative Approaches to LGBTQ+ Health. Their zine "helping your friends who sometimes want to die maybe not die" (and more about their work) can be found at tinylantern.net and you can follow them on instagram @tiny.lantern. Carly is based in Tkaronto/Toronto, but maintains a long distance romance with the Pacific.


  1. I F$&@?ing LOVE this article and this badass Grief Walker, Carly Bryce. Thank you for publishing this and thank you for sharing your story Carly!

  2. This is beautiful. I could keep reading and reading.

  3. Tremendous! I needed to read this today. Thank you Carly.

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