By Prema Sheerin
Guest Writer for Wake Up World
In our modern western culture we have developed an astounding abhorrence to death, the natural and inevitable counterpart to life. With our belief in the power of technology to overcome the forces of nature, we have come to view old age and death as a kind of enemy, something that needs to be vanquished. We have bestowed increasing importance upon the power of our minds and have lost touch with the heart’s ability to embrace the void, the darkness, the great mystery. This approach brings with it a profound fear in the face of an unconquerable force that is an integral part of life itself. And so, in our fear, we skirt around the subject of death at all costs.
We have, in fact, developed so many euphemisms for death that it has become quite distasteful to simply say that we “die”. Instead, we “pass away” or “cross over”. If “it” happens in hospital it’s referred to as a “terminal episode”. Unless, of course, it occurs due to malpractice in which case it is a “therapeutic misadventure”. In any case the insurance company files it as a “negative patient outcome”. At all costs we avoid admitting to actually
By contrast, in indigenous cultures and wisdom traditions death is honored as part of life. The elderly, rather than being cast aside, are honored for their wisdom and given respect and care by the younger generations. Death itself is understood as a sacred passage, ushering the soul back to the realm of the ancestors, beginning anew the cycle of life. For those left behind, grieving is recognized as the natural and healthy response to loss, honoring the gift of the life that was and, very importantly, letting it go.
How very far we have strayed from this ancient wisdom. Instead, when faced with death we tend to be fraught with denial, fear and guilt. This sense of disconnection and alienation causes tremendous suffering for those facing death as well as for those struggling to cope with the loss of loved ones.
Janie was 66 when she was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a lung condition for which there is no allopathic cure. A widow with three grown children, she was an agnostic and held only fragile notions that there might possibly be something beyond this physical body and this life. Janie was reluctant to tell anyone of her illness. She didn’t want to be a burden or to worry her children or her friends. She didn’t want to admit to others, and therefore to herself, that she was facing the frightening specter of death. Janie’s children and her best friend watched, bewildered, as the once vital woman gradually became more and more frail over the next few years. She was often overcome by bouts of coughing that she insisted were “nothing”.
Finally, when it could no longer be denied, she confessed her condition to her eldest daughter who summoned the family. But within days Janie’s lungs collapsed and she was rushed to hospital. Only her son was with her when she died, her face set in a mask of lonely terror. Other family, rushing from far flung destinations, arrived too late. Janie’s family was horrified when they discovered that she had known of her condition for 8 years. It was a combination of shock, anguish and frustration that she had not reached out to them for help or given them the opportunity to say goodbye. She was suddenly gone, and what was left was the sadness of not having expressed to her how much they loved her and what she had meant to them.
Janie’s story is a tragic reminder of what is missing in our culture. It is a sense of relationship—with each other, with nature and with the Divine. It is relationship with all aspects of life—the darkness as well as the light, the pain as well as the joy, the mystery as well as the knowledge. In our culture we have developed an infatuation with the “light”, with the “good”, with “happiness”. But life, like nature, includes the full spectrum of experience. Nature reminds us of the inevitable cycles of darkness and light, coldness and warmth, hibernation and activity. When we come to accept the whole range of human experience and are willing to share that with each other, we no longer need to be in denial of the great mystery that is death.
We humans have increasingly come to think of ourselves as individuals, as separate entities seeking to secure our own safety and prosperity. However, our ancestors knew that a profound sense of connection to each other and to the Divine was essential for a good life as well as a good death. Death is not an individual process but a community undertaking involving a web of relationships with both the seen and the unseen.
Catherine embraced death in the same way she embraced life—through relationship and community. Unlike Janie, Catherine always shared openly her 13-year journey with cancer. She also had a strong relationship with the Divine. About 6 months before she died, Catherine made a decision not to fight anymore and to accept that she was dying. She called her community around her and asked openly for their support with finances and with caring for her physically. She moved into an apartment with a spare bedroom so that friends and family from far and wide could come and stay over. She set up a schedule so that her local community could volunteer to help her with everything she needed. There was a continual stream of visitors that flowed through Catherine’s little apartment, sitting with her for hours, cooking for her and sharing stories, experiences and laughter. They also shared her struggles and her tears, her grief, her fear and her anger. She allowed them to see it all.
As Catherine grew weaker and weaker and it became clear that it wouldn’t be much longer, she began to say goodbye. She and her friends shared how much they loved each other, how much they had meant to each other and they blessed each other to go on their separate journeys. Catherine died peacefully in the presence of close friends.
Catherine remembered what our ancestors have always known: the importance of the community in honoring the sacred passage of death and creating the conditions that allow the soul to let go of this world and pass on to its rightful ancestral place. They also understood that the rituals and funerary rites performed by the shamans or elders were an imperative that ushered the soul to its home in the unseen realms and allowed the community to grieve and let go. It is in honoring this vast web of our connection to each other, to the natural world and to the Divine forces that move us that we come to peace with both our life and our death.
It is time for our culture to return to this ancient wisdom and to honor death as the great teacher that it is. Death invites us to enter the darkness, to embrace the great mystery, to trust in forces that are beyond the comprehension of our human mind. It teaches us that ultimately we must be able to let go and trust in the great richness, fertility and transformation that lies in the darkness. Death reminds us, whenever we care to listen, about what is most important in our life.
About the Author
Prema Sheerin is an initiated shaman in the Huichol tradition of Mexico and has a shamanic healing and life coaching practice. She heads the Death and Dying Council of the Sacred Fire Community. For more information go to premasheerin.com
This article was originally published in Sacred Fire magazine
Sacred Fire magazine is an initiative of the Sacred Fire Foundation which seeks to help all people re-discover and celebrate the sacred, interconnected nature of life, a perspective held by indigenous peoples and spiritual traditions everywhere which is the source of all personal, cultural and environmental well-being.
Key initiatives include:
Sacred Fire magazine, which offers a fresh outlook on modern culture by showing the relevance of ancient ways to today’s world
Ancient Wisdom Rising, a series of gatherings with elders and wisdom keepers that offer hope, healing and renewed relationship with our sacred world
Sacred Fire Press, a book imprint that preserves and presents spiritual teachings from ancient and original sources
Wisdom Fellowships, bi-annual awards to tradition holders who are keeping the sacred fires of their people burning.