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.

img_0527

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.

img_0531

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.

Elder: Preparing for the Dark Times

I am elder. Tree-gift. Medicine.

Yet, beware, you who seek my lessons. Do not come to me unprepared. Have you come for learning? Then remember that learning requires the ability to hear. Have you come for healing? Then ask yourself whether you are prepared to become whole.

True wisdom, true healing will change you. It will force you to remember who you are, to reforge the net that connects you to the world around you. What is heard cannot be unheard. What is seen cannot be unseen. It is the story of Cerridwen’s cauldron, and it is my lesson as well.

So, come closer if you dare, and accept my healing.

IMG_0420

Are you ready for initiation? For that is my mystery. Those who are called to work with me are those who consciously step into the darkness to explore the inner mysteries. This is not a letting go like yew, but rather a deepening. My darkness is not one that needs to be healed and transcended, but one that calls to be embraced.

I call you to yourself. I call you to the otherworld. I cal you to the quest for understanding.

I am the tree that protects those that choose to put themselves in service to these mysteries. This is my gift to you. I will not make the path easier, but I promise you my medicine. In going deep, you are forced to let go of your defenses. And so I offer you mine instead.

Take my hand. I will help you step forward and honour your calling.

elderberries

The first step: gathering resources

Nobody should try to enter the deeper forest unprepared. Before you go, take time to gather ingredients and tools for the quest.

You may already have done that, and reached this point after years of preparation. Or it may be that you were only called to this quest a short time ago, and had little time to prepare. And even if you took a long time getting here, it may not be clear to you whether you managed to gather the right things.

So, let us start there now.

Ritual of gathering

  • Open ritual space (in your own way, or by using the suggestions given in the introductory section of this book)
  • Visualize yourself walking through the forest. The sun is shining, it is a beautiful late-summer day. However, you are very much aware that the first signs of autumn will be around soon, and you need to be prepared when that time comes. So, you call out for guidance.
  • As you look out in front of you, you notice how a particular pathway suddenly looks very appealing. Walk in that direction.
  • Follow the narrow trail. A very non-assuming tree on your left-hand side catches your attention. You notice a little old lady standing right next to you. She introduces herself to you as elder-woman.
  • She asks who you are, and what brings you to this place. So, you explain: what does the coming (metaphorical) winter mean to you? How have you prepared so far, and in what ways do you feel underprepared? What scares you?
  • She points to the berries on the elder-tree, explains their purpose to you, and invites you  to pick some. She adds a warning that, while a potion made from these berries will protect you against some of the hardships of winter, you should not eat them raw.
  • She offers you her help in brewing that potion. She gives you a list of further ingredients for you to gather, and asks you to return when you have found them.
  • You thank her, gather some of the berries, then walk back home, promising to return when ready.
  • finish the ritual in you usual way.

In the days that follow, take time to think more about the instructions you received. Do you understand the meaning of the extra ingredients you have been told to gather? Do some further meditation/questing on this if necessary.

These may be practical acts to perform, like talking to certain people, going places, learning about specific things. Let your intuition guide you. Be aware that the purpose behind an action may only become clear to you after you have performed it.

Another thing to keep in mind is the need for self-care.  Especially when a situation is difficult, it is important that you take good care of your own mental and physical health. There is no point in seeking healing while neglecting the needs of your body at the same time. Think about this, and how this also is a necessary ingredient for a potion intended to help you survive through difficult times. In what ways are you currently ignoring your own needs, and what could be added to the potion to help with that?