Even when it is anticipated at the moment the great ‘huntress’, as death is sometimes spoken of, touches us on the shoulder to claim us, she comes as an unannounced visitor. Can we really imagine a world without us? From the moment we are born we step into the world and our life unfolds breath by breath, as a result with each breath we naturally come closer towards death – both are inevitable. Our Death is a natural part of life and one we are destined to meet as the circle of our life completes. Our own physical death is one of the very few certainties that we carry around this circle.
I have always had a curiosity and wonder of death ever since I was a small child. Around the age of two I had an encounter with death through an illness. Although I have no conscious memory of it, I have explored this time in shamanic journeying and among a number of lessons that I learnt was an opportunity to hold in life a strong awareness of my own destiny of death, which has proved to be both a challenge and a blessing.
I had another encounter in my late twenties where death was close by once more. It was a time that I was very lost in life and I was being helped by an art therapist whose name was Megan. At this time very little was consistent in my life such was my unmanageability. However, each week I would attend sessions with Megan at the hospital I was under. One week I attended as usual and Megan was not there, the sessions were for a number of us and the group went ahead with the other therapists. I sat wondering where she was and at some point they announced that Megan had died during the week. I later found out that over the year she had been supporting me she had been living with cancer. I too, for very different reasons, was close to death and on some level was very aware of this although handling it in a quite different way to Megan. Her death touched me deeply. She had shown such dedication and kindness to me and somehow her death and way in life inspired me to live; it offered a gateway for me to step through. It was soon after this experience in November 1999, in that same hospital room, that my own spiritual awakening occurred and I turned away from a meeting with death towards life.
Death is a very powerful force and the ripples of its presence will touch and weave around us in so many ways. We each may have un-processed grief sitting within us which will awaken as new grief comes. And how we respond to our grief will affect our life in the years to come. Family dynamics and unresolved issues will rise up as each of us deals with death in the way we can. It can be a time of coming together and of breaking apart.
In my own Irish heritage we have the practice of keening, where professional keeners were paid to lead the wail of death to express the pain and grief as a way of paying respect which was also thought to help the deceased cross over. This raw and chaotic expression I feel captures the sound of grief and is a beneficial and healing way of expressing this emotion.
As a shamanic practitioner my experiences with psychopomp inform my own understanding and beliefs. When my father died, I very soon realised that the way I view death was very different to my family and others who were touched by his life and grieving, as we each dealt with this in the way we could and were able and willing to.
On the day I found out that he had died I made a conscious choice that I wanted to experience all of this and as a result my process through grief was deeply raw and painful, yet also filled with moments of great beauty and joy; a deeply rich and honest experience. Ongoing ceremony and a final pilgrimage home to Ireland served as a way to honour and celebrate his life as well as being a container and healer for my own grief process.
I took responsibility and the role of organiser in my family during the immediate weeks after my father’s death and arranged and put all in place. The process was rich and illuminating and yet the funeral rite, while beautifully offered by the celebrant, was lacking in real meaning for me. Once this time was done, I let go of my role and retreated back into my own personal path of honouring this man that gave me life.
How we come to our beliefs around death and what happens afterwards will be shaped by our personal and cultural experience as well as our willingness to face this subject. The media is full of stories of death but in some way I think we have become de-sensitized and disengaged from this natural force. In my own learning to be a Celebrant I seek to offer a meaningful and personal space after the death of a loved one for the living to say farewell. And as with a birth and the provision of maternity leave, I would welcome a significant period of ‘death leave’ to work through the process of our grief. I once worked with a colleague who was “strongly encouraged” to return back to work, giving them no space to grieve their father’s death. A year to the day of his death they broke apart leading to months off work – what would have happened instead if a supportive space had been given to work through their grief?
Within my father’s death I claimed this space and over four or so months moved through the process until after my pilgrimage and retreat to return his ashes to Ireland. The intensity of the initial phase was complete and I could return to life, changed but able to fully engage once again in a more significant way as a result of having had the space to grieve.
I have my own understanding of what happens once we die. Which I am willing to suspend as I know clearly that, as in life, there is a great mystery and beyond the veil of our death cannot fully be known until we cross the threshold. I have brought questions to the spirits in my journeys and the resulting guidance has led me to understand that what occurs at death is a change of form; death does not actually exist beyond the physical absence that is left when another dies. Having seen a number of dead bodies it seems clear to me that the animating force of spirit has left, leaving only the physical matter.
What I do know of death is that walking hand-in-hand with an awareness of Her brings a great power that can support us – this knowledge of the inevitable can deeply feed life. In my daily practice every morning I take a moment to honour the ancestors by way of prayer and acknowledgement to the altar I have for them in blood, tradition and of the land. On this is a bone I gathered from a beach in Shetland; I hold this to acknowledge this may well be my last day alive on Earth and then I too will be an ancestor with them. And, of course, if I continue with this practice one day I will be correct in this statement. This practice helps me in some way appreciate life in a deeper way and helps loosen the grip of day-to-day life.
Death is very much part of life and we all experience ‘little deaths’ each day as we move through life. While on my shamanic practitioner training the intensity of each of the five days was a process of death in many ways; the transition back into my everyday life as I integrated these worlds of spirit and remembering these ancient ways led me into a new relationship with life. Grief is a very powerful emotion; whether it is addressed or not it will have an effect. As life is a fluid force and is constantly moving, both out on the land and within us also, how are we to navigate and move through our grief in a way that honours both the living and the dead? We live largely in an uninitiated society and as such have limited maps for life transitions; death being only one of these that is no longer supported by tradition and the elders beyond the modern funeral.
Seeking the creative impulse and guidance of spirit can bring me back to this wisdom. As a result of this, I have been able to create meaningful ceremony that leads me through the death process in a fluid way thus moving into and beyond my grief. It has been a great support in this for me to remember and work with the ceremonies that acknowledge the seasons as we move through the births and deaths in the wheel of each year – death is ever present.
When my father died and I made that promise to myself to experience all of this deeply, I could not imagine what an amazing journey I was about to undertake and in this any remaining fear around death seems to have loosened even more of its grip on me. Over a period of the last 20 years I became very close to my father while alive and the things that we needed to talk about were spoken and resolved as such that when he died we were at peace with each other. I know from my work with others that there are many ways in which this peace and healing can be found through creativity, ritual, ceremony, honesty and courage even after death.
My father was the first person that ever brought me to the land and on hearing of his death that is where I went. That time was just beautiful – I had a real sense of peace and a number of interactions with wildlife in my local wood as if the land knew of his death. There is an ancient practice of telling the bees that someone has died; maybe it is understood that each one of us is affected upon death and the whole universe has changed with the absence of another.
In the evening I drummed with the fire to honour his life, I felt the ancestors close by – a circle sat behind me that my father was now part of. The next day I woke sobbing and was held in an embrace by my wife. Then I took the journey to our family home some 10 hours away. On this journey and for about six weeks afterwards I would tell people – even strangers – that my father had died. In some way it made it real for me but also I was sharing my grief with others, strangers became companions in this. It’s in my nature to be open with people. Of course, people responded in their own way but this openness allowed for many beautiful synchronicities and powerful sharing with others, as we are all touched by death in some way and at some time. When a space is given to talk of death people seem to jump in and open up. In my openness I was supported, challenged and became witness to other’s sharing.
Everything changes once someone dies. As I entered our family’s house someone I’d never met before immediately said: “Oh you are just like your father”. No-one had ever said this to me before and yet in the weeks to come it was said a number of times. Although I was the youngest child, in many ways I took on the role my father would have played and somehow this could be seen. People respond to grief in their own way and the dynamics in our family were very difficult. It was then I became grateful and recognised the strength I found from my spiritual life, both in the spirit world and in the human world. This gave me something that I could lean into and receive support from because I really needed it as, once again, I became the object of my family’s unresolved issues. I trusted the spiritual world and my own trusted spirits gave me love and support. I was also really touched by the love and support from my human community in often unexpected ways. When death arrives and we meet our grief the support seems to come close to us if we can reach out and accept it.
My wife is Italian and when my father-in-law died, I spent three days sitting with his body in the hills of Calabria. People came and told stories and paid their respects; this experience was beautiful. I learnt things about him I would never have known. It was a very healing process for me and my wife and I am sure for others as well – the respect for life and death was beautifully tangible. Death is a shared community experience and we can offer space for the grief and memories to be shared.
As our spiritual and physical worlds weave in and out so too does this dance with life and death. From my curiosity, experience and research I have developed a three-day course to explore this, which I offer each Samhain, ‘Contemplating our Death’. Its aim is to clear a path in a safe, supportive and creative way, towards a deeper and richer life. The more we are accepting of death the more we can become willing to engage with life. I know as I enter the autumn of my own life, I am grateful to have had this relationship with death as a companion in the complexities that each day and year brings.
Having crossed the threshold that my father’s death offered to me, now, three years on, I am aware of the knowledge of his death in that physically I can not see him on the earth, yet I feel his presence around me and while I feel sad at times I also feel deeply connected to him. In many ways he has been able to give to me in death something he was unable to in life.
Death is a powerful force and if we meet it fully, a powerful threshold opens for us to step through to where life and death, the living and the dead, are served in power, healing, grief and beauty with integrity and honour. Thank you, death, for walking and being a companion with me in life.
Brian sees shamanism offering a new hope and vision for individuals as well as our society as a whole. He offers shamanic healing for individuals and regular workshops as well as free sacred activism events. Brian has over 30 years’ experience in the helping professions and since 2004 has been working with individuals and groups with shamanic methods. He trained with the Sacred Trust, Foundation for Shamanic Studies and Sandra Ingermann as well as indigenous shamans from the Americas and his heart’s home Ireland. He lives and practices in Perth, Scotland and is currently researching and learning about traditional healing practices of this land.
This article featured in Issue 46 of Indie Shaman magazine, published in October 2020.