This past week several people have mentioned that they are scared of death. My reaction is, reasonably, whaaaaaaatt????? Of course I am utterly biased and unfazed by death. That’s what happens when you walk with something this long, it loses its power to scare. Okay maybe not, I’m still terrified of needles, even after being in the military and receiving 8 tattoos. But I’m not scared of death and it got me thinking.
So what is it that makes some of us fear death and some of us giggle as we run into its arms? It cant be as simple as “Me Shaman, Me stare death in the face”. Nor is it that those who are afraid are wimps and should be scorned. There is no black and white when it comes to fears, but only the hazy shades of gray.
When I was a small child, my mother changed. If you read this blog long enough I am sure I will give you more details, but for now all I will say is she changed. And as life with her got more and more painful and confusing, my own life started to lose it colors. At 6 I was depressed. At 7 I was suicidal and planning my own demise. At 9 I was a spit-fire demon with rage in her heart and a sure knowledge that there was no God in the universe, no omniscient being would let a mother abuse her child the way my own chose to abuse me and my sisters. I faced death at 7 for the first time with no fear in my heart, not because I understood death at all, but because it was simple to me then. There was life as I knew it with my mother and then there was life without her as dead. At the time, the thin thread that kept me tethered to life was the rock-solid knowledge that if I died, she won and could play the martyr on my grave for the rest of her existence.
I faced death again at 20, convinced that the depression would pull me under and drown me, convinced there was no point to living, not even when I held my niece in my arms and cried. Looking back, I can appreciate how close I came to giving in to that dark abyss. It seems so inviting when you are staring at it from the bottom of the well.
Fast forward to 28 and it wasn’t a question of me wanting to die, but being absolutely convinced I was going to bleed to death, slowly. Three weeks of fevers so strong they made me hallucinate, four months of bleeding and feeling like my body was falling apart. Oh, its easy to put labels to things with 20-20 vision: shamanic death. Sounds so simple from this end of the table.
So having walked with my own mortality for my entire life, it was no surprise when Lady Death herself showed up and beckoned. It was no surprise when bones and furs and feathers found their way to my altar. It didn’t even surprise me when She started asking me for sacrifices (not THOSE kinds of sacrifices), to kneel willingly and offer up my own fear and pain and blood in Her honor.
Short sidestep with the best, most appropriate quote ever.
“…those which demonize death or pain or sickness are thus less able to deal with the bitter side of nature, with intoxications; and make themselves doubly sick.” Gary Snyder in the forward to Pharmako/Poeia by Dale Pendell
Ok back to the topic at hand. I guess long story short is I am not afraid of death. In journey work I have walked the land of the dead, I have witnessed the rebirth of souls who chose to move on to living again. I have spoken to my ancestors and seen past lives. And I wish I could pass on to everyone else that feeling of peace, of the pure knowing that death is not an end, nor a beginning, just another step we must take.
What does it take to become comfortable with death? In other cultures, they prepare their loved ones bodies at home. In certain parts of Asia and South America it is an insult if the family does not come back after so many years and move away the clean white bones. In Tibet they do a sky burial, chopping up a corpse and leaving it for the carrion birds. In India they burn the bodies and float them down the Ganges. The common theme here is this: the family prepares the bodies.
Here in the western world we chose antiseptic preparation. We call someone else to entomb our loved ones. We even preserve them with harsh chemicals and paint their faces so they look “life like” even after having been buried for awhile. Our children never learn how to face death, we even have euphemisms for when our beloved animal companions die. Hate to be the bearer of bad news but there is no “farm” for Fluffy. Death is what it is, good bad or ugly it comes for us all.
So how do we begin to get over our discomfort with death? As much as I know people wont want to hear it, we can start by interacting with the dying. Instead of shipping people off to hospitals or homes and letting them slowly decay while we go about our lives, we can reach out and maintain that connection. I am not saying we must allow all of our loved ones to languish in our homes while we put our lives on hold. But these are our elders, the ones who hold our familial memories and stories, the ones who took care of us when we were young and sick. The least we can do is set aside a few hours to spend with them before they are gone. Giving up that TV show or video game wont kill you.
Death is the great equalizer. It sweeps the table clean of politics and differences and allows us to face our own core mortality. It is the best excuse to throw away our arguments and differences and reconnect on a very very basic human level.
After all, that connection is what makes us human.