Coming face to face with death

This is the time of year when they say the veil between the world is thinnest. The time of year when we honour our ancestors and loved ones that have passed over to the other side.

A good time, too, to reflect on the way in which our society tends to deal with death.

This essay is based on my own personal encounter with death. My father died at the beginning of this year, after finally losing a 10-year battle with cancer. From the very first, we knew that there would be no healing for this. The cancer had already spread too far when it was first discovered, so all that could be done was to halt its progress for a while. How long, was something nobody was able to tell us at the time. ‘Until we run out of options.’ For cancer is devious: no matter how great a cure may seem for the first few months, after a while the cancer will find a way around it. One weapon down, on to the next one.

Until finally you know you are down to the last treatment, the final thing that can buy you some more time. After which, death is inevitable.

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It is that final journey I want to speak about, and about the lessons I learned from it. How it changed me, and how, paradoxical as it may seem, it took away most of my own fears regarding death. And how it showed me just how toxic the ways in which we deal with death in our society are.

It is a humbling and confronting journey, to see the man you once looked up to as a protector gradually become weaker. See the person, who, before, had been there to keep you safe from the world and who you could always lean on for assistance, now more and more begin to lean on you. Beginning with simply leaning on your arm when going up the stairs, until, towards the end, needing assistance with eating, and help to change the diapers he needed to wear now.

Coincidentally, at around the same time when the final decision was made to cease all treatments, my sister got her first child. And there was a curious inverse parallel between both journeys. One new life, completely helpless at first, then gradually beginning to explore and gain more and more control over her body. At the same time, an increasingly broken body, slowly falling apart, loosing control and abilities at about the same rate. One person being born into this world, one person being born out of this world, preparing for his journey towards the otherworlds.

The very last month, a decision was made to move him into hospice care, so that all care would be taken over by professionals, thereby giving us time to focus on what was truly important: saying our goodbyes, and preparing for the journeys to come. For all of us would have to make a journey after this death finally happened. Also those of us who stayed behind: a journey back to the world of the living.

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For that last month was spent somewhere in-between. In a place that was still here, but where death was a constant companion. A companion that was not hushed away, but that could be freely talked about. For we understood each other. Family members, soon-to-be-departed, hospice staff. There was no taboo. Here, death was simply part of everyday life.

And that made that this was a period that made it possible to focus on essentials. By not running from the truth, by not denying this reality, openings were created that would make the mourning process considerably lighter later on. This may sound weird, but I have almost exclusively positive memories of that final month.

How different things were afterwards. The return to the normal world. Going back to work for the first time. Seeing a hint of fear in people’s eyes when you speak to them for the first time. Having no idea how to confront this immensity, wishing it will simply go away if they keep silent. Then, immense relief when I choose to talk about something else. With the assumption that now, everything is back to normal and will now never have to be talked about again.

Can we stop doing that to each other, please? Can we, as a society, learn to start talking about death? Break the taboo? Be not afraid to talk about the fact that sometimes, we hurt? That one day we, too, will no longer be there? That missing someone does not finish after the funeral?

Let’s make it so that the most difficult part is missing someone, not having to fight for the right to feel sad. Where it does not feel as if you, as the person mourning, are responsible for shielding the people around you. Let us learn to carry each other, rather than building walls around death and sadness, stop pretending that it doesn’t exist as long as it isn’t our turn.

I am writing this on a Druid blog, because I strongly feel that we, Pagans and Druids, members of newly developing traditions, have a responsibility here. In our rituals, let us make space for this. In our sharing circles, let us not shy away from these difficult topics. When you know someone is hurting, let them know that you will hold space for them. That you are ready to listen to how much or how little they wish to share. Let death become a natural companion of the living once again, like it used to be for our ancestors.

Musings on the other: living in the forest

Who are we? What does it mean to be that person? Questions which probably just about everyone asks themselves at some point in our lives. And the inevitable conclusion is that we are uniquely ourselves, not any of the other beings on this planet.

And yet at the same time, we share this planet with all these other beings. And it is already an enigma to get to understand ourselves. So how do we cope with the rest of the world then? We do the only thing we reasonably can do: we start from our own experiences of life, and project these out onto others, assuming that they are probably similar enough to us for this to make some sense at least.

But what if we are wrong? What if the life experience of someone else is so radically different from ours that their reaction to a situation, their hopes and dreams, their fears and dislikes, are completely incompatible with our own? What if we completely misunderstand the world around us because we assume everyone thinks and feels like us?

How far-fetched is this fear? Everyone needs to eat, and look after their wellbeing, and so they must be similar in their reactions, right? But the first problem already becomes evident here. Everyone needs to eat, but every body has different nutritional needs and hence will naturally experience different cravings (tv commercials try to all have us want the same things, but…). That is the most innocent example of all. Wellbeing already is a veritable minefield. What is required for us to feel well?

You may want a certain type of relationship that someone else would find abhorrent. You may need your freedom and will seek solitude even within a relation, while another person craves to be with their beloved every second of every day. Wanting the same things? Really?

And right now we are only on the level of genetics. Aspects of who we are that are already mostly determined at birth.

Who are you? What is your life experience? What are your aspirations? Realize then, that this is who you are and that that shape was given to you mostly by your dreams. By those around you that inspired you, gave you chances, left you free to walk the path that life intended for you.

Do you give the people around you that same freedom? Do you dream with them, even when you do not understand their vision? Do you allow them space to grow? Think about this. The forest teaches us that the amount of sunlight available is limited, and yet we all deserve our moment in the sun. And that is why none of us were created alike.

Some of us prefer to live our life close to ground, basking in the sun of early spring, accepting that the day will come when the faster growing brambles will surpass us. But that is ok, as long as they do not forget to leave the delights of early spring to us.

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And then there are the trees. They grow large. They compete with each other in who gets to occupy which part of the sky. They are the kings of the forest. And yet they will never forget that they are part of a greater whole. Through their roots, they share with the soil, and bring some of the sunlight down for the benefit of others.

They are the mighty ones now. But immer aware that one day they will leave this world forever. And on that day, their treasures will be shared out. All the sunlight consumed in a lifetime, solidified, will turn back to soil. To feed and nourish the next generation of forest dwellers.

None of us are the same. Some of us are not even remotely similar to us, their life experience almost unrelateably far away from ours. Yet, remember that we share a forest, and how interconnected we all are.

Of Birch and elder, and the magic of beginnings.

And then came the challenge to write my first blogpost. 

For this first post, I would like to share some musings about what Birch and Elder have to teach us about new beginnings and the quest for inspiration.

Imagine walking through the forest. You aren’t really paying all that much attention, it’s been a long day at work, and while this is supposed to be your break from all that, you find it hard to relax. Tomorrow there’s again so much to do, and there’s this dinner party you are organizing, and you urgently need to go to the supermarket because you ran out of milk, and, and…

Thump. Hitting a stone on the path with your foot almost makes you fall. As you regain your balance, finally you take a moment to look around you, to actually SEE the forest around you. 

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And your eyes are drawn towards a little clearing in the forest ahead of you, and in particular to the birch trees standing there. There’s just ‘something’ about the quality of the light that draws you in, that makes you want to be there…

And so you approach.

And as you get closer, you start to hear a faint music… And just as you reach the edge of the clearing, magic happens. It is as if a portal to another world opens in between the birches, and then a group of fairies come out, and start dancing. You watch them, mesmerized by their beauty and their joy. After a while, they notice you and invite you to join them.

And you dance, you dance…. Completely blissed out and losing all sense of time and space.

…Until the fairy queen announces that it is time for them to return back home. She asks you what you intend to do. Will you go with them to fairyland, or will you return home?

What will you answer?

Starting something new requires you to catch a glimpse of a dream first, it means having that yearning, that foolish idea that maybe, just maybe, it is possible to step out of your ordinary world and create beauty where now there exists none.

That first moment of intoxicating insight can be likened to stumbling onto a fairy dance and stepping out of this world just for a moment. And yet, tales like this usually come with a warning at the end: those who succumb to the temptation of the fairy queen are usually never seen again, or risk losing their grip on reality.

So what to do then? Let’s not leave the forest just quite yet, but go in a little deeper, to the older and darker parts of the forest.

And there you see a little tree that looks ancient, with a very gnarly bark.  She has a bit of a witchy vibe around her. But between the leaves, you notice how she’s loaded with black berries. This is elder. 

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You want to pick some to taste them, but at that moment the tree magically transforms, and you see an old wild woman standing before you, holding a basket of berries.

She warns you. I have much to offer you, my child, yet my gifts are not free. Eat these berries raw, and they will only make you sick. But take the time to transform them into wine or syrup, and they can become a powerful elixir that can heal many of your ills.

She hands you the basket of berries, and explains you what to do. You take the berries home and get to work, and discover that it is indeed hard work. For some of the recipes, you even need years of patience before the brew is finally ready!

…. And what is going to get you through that period of hard work? The realization that to start the magic, all you need to do is close your eyes to hear the fairies sing again.

Remember the lessons from these trees. Truly creating something new and worthwhile will always be hard work, and it can be very tempting to just stick with dreaming and trying to escape this world. So, let the knowledge that fairies do exist inspire you, and give you the stamina to create something really amazing and long-lasting!

And so I’ll pray to Birch and Elder that they may bless this blog-project, and that I may always remember this first lesson…