“Is it true there is a cure for all illness?
Only if you are wise enough to see death as a cure.”
As a spiritual counselor, hospice volunteer and mother of a child who died at age 16 after a long illness, I am fiercely committed to a belief in the importance of conscious dying and conscious grieving. By understanding that death is neither an enemy nor an ending, the process of grieving the death of a loved one becomes a journey of awakening for the person who has died and for those who remain on earth.
I’ve spent a lifetime studying metaphysics and spirituality, and I believe unequivocally that there are no "good" or "bad" experiences; only the soul’s constant craving for growth and expansion. In this view, illness and death are not experiences to be avoided, but to be embraced with gratitude for the shifting of perceptions and the gifts of growth they provide. In a state of gratitude at this level, you accept every experience with love, because you recognize it as one of your soul’s creations. Even something as painful as the death of a child can be seen as part of a of flawless pattern of perfection, designed to move the family — and the entire soul group connected to that family — forward in unexpected ways.
When my son was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness at age 10, friends and family asked, “Does this change your unconventional spiritual views? Does it make you want to go back to traditional notions of God, afterlife and religion?”
This might have been a good question for someone who’d taken only a few tentative steps outside the religious box during his lifetime, but for me the question was preposterous. The stunning news that my son would only live a few more years actually confirmed what I’d intuitively known since I was a teenager: There are soul contracts. Reincarnation is real. There’s a reason for everything. And we create our own experiences on earth with the assistance of non-physical guides and helpers.
In the early 1960s, when I was 14 years old, a Krishna Consciousness congregation moved into an old church in my neighborhood, and I attended their Sunday feasts and listened to lectures by Swami Bhaktivedanta. At 16, my liberal, free-thinking high school English teacher taught the Bible as literature, and from there, fueled by intense curiosity, I went on to read the rest of it (my family was not religious at all, and this was my first exposure to anything biblical).By the time I finished high school I’d read the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Ruth Montgomery and Edgar Cayce. These teachings resonated with me as absolute truth back then, and over the years, supported by further study and practice, they have been confirmed again and again. So when my son was diagnosed, I knew instantly that his soul had a plan of its own. And it was my intention to honor his intention.
Let’s go back for a moment to those traditional notions of God, afterlife and religion. Had I perceived this situation through that lens, I would have been gripped with fear and helplessness, too puny and unworthy to comprehend the mysterious workings of an all-powerful god who randomly dispenses good or bad luck, sorrow or joy, wealth or poverty, and in death, reward or punishmentfor his children.
By contrast, my particular flavor of self-empowered spirituality says that we are not separate from God, but are equal parts of the collective energy that IS God, an energy with which we work as co-creators. This work is done “on earth as it is in heaven,” as our souls continue to seek growth and expansion, in and out of the body. The growth work we do during our earthly incarnations carries over to the other side, where we evaluate and create new and effective situations to bring forth the very experiences we seek for our continued exploration. In this way there can be no tragedies, no here and there, no them and us, and no death.
HOSPICE AND ANAMCARA
Over the years, my passion for examining death from the perspectives of both the dying and the grieving led me to an interesting mix of studies and practices drawn from all the usual sources and many of the non-usual ones. One of those sources is the “Anamcara Project,” a unique spiritual education program created by founding directors Richard and Mary Groves. Their “Sacred Art of Living and Dying” seminars have attracted more than 10,000 students from a wide range of healing professions and the general public, including educators, clergy, hospice workers, physicians and metaphysicians. I was attracted to the program when I first heard the term, “spiritual midwife,” referring to someone who helps the dying make their transitions from this world to the next. Because the word “midwife” so perfectly described the role I played in my son’s death, I sought out the Anamcara Project, and it is now an important part of not only my work as a hospice volunteer, but my personal growth path as well.
Anamcara (pronounced ahn-im-KAHR-uh) is a Gaelic word meaning “soul friend.” In ancient times the Celts created the role of Anamcara as a life counselor and spiritual guide. By the 6th century AD, Christian women and men continued to develop the Anamcara tradition inherited from their Druid (ancestors). By the year 1000, Irish Anamcara extended their influence throughout the mainland of Europe, especially among the newly established hospices. The earliest Western hospice tradition, the Ars Moriendi or The Art of Dying, owes much to the spiritual legacy of the Anamcara.
In the early hospices it was understood that death is not the opposite of life, but the opposite of birth. In many of these hospices, such as L’Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune in France, it has been said that it was common to see women giving birth on one side of the room while people were dying on the other side, all guided by midwives, while minstrels strolled around playing soothing music. Death may not be the opposite of life, but it is certainly a part of life, and there are many social and religious traditions that recognize and honor death as the sacred, intimate journey that it is. But sadly, our Judeo-Christian view has created a culture of denial around death, and hospice care is still not generally understood or accepted.
“People think of hospice as an agency,” says Roy Green, chaplain and spiritual care coordinator for the Hospice Center in Bend, Oregon. “The idea caught on in the U.S. in 1975, but in ancient times it literally meant ‘hospitality,’ a process of assisting travelers with their journeys, including the journeys of birth and death. In those times, we lived closer to the land, we saw people and animals die all the time, and there was nothing terrible or frightening about it. The terror came along withreligious doctrine, with the concept of evil and punishment, and hence we now have a fear of deathimbedded in our culture.”
The denial and fear of death is clearly a western phenomenon, and it is especially pronounced in the United States.
“We have so many drugs and so much medical technology that we constantly perpetrate the idea that death can be forestalled,” Green says. “Yet at the same time, Americans are fascinated with death.We want to see it in movies, but only if the images are bloody and dramatic, and only if it’s the ‘bad guys’ who die. These images express our fear of death and feed our denial.”
One of the great losses to our society over the last few generations is the sacred process of caring for our dead at home. Before the industrial revolution, when grandma was dying, she was surrounded by her family, including young children, and after death her body was cleaned, dressed and laid out on a table for viewing by friends and family. The body was then buried in a family graveyard on the family acreage. It was a natural and expected passage, and there is now a growing movement in the U.S. to return to these practices in the hope of bringing death back into light and out of the dark place where it’s been relegated by fear, repression and religious dogma. My son had a beautiful death at home, with his beloved dog and his family by his side. I’d learned from the home death movement that a body can stay at home much longer than modern practices dictate, and we kept my son’s body with us for five hours before calling the mortuary. It gave us a chance to gently and consciously release his physical presence, and to honor the sacred vessel that had done such a worthy job of housing his soul.
“Dying at home creates a more honest space for grieving,” Green says. “Death should be as fearless and accompanied as possible, and grief should be as honest as possible. If we sidestep any of the process, something will be destroyed in us. In end-of-life care we strive for two things with patients and their families… removal of physical pain and removal of spiritual pain. The physical pain is managed by medication. The spiritual pain is a bit more challenging. We work to heal obstacles that may be keeping someone from having a peaceful death, such as forgiveness issues, a belief in divine punishment, or fears about death in general. And we work to honor innate knowledge, inner gifts and the positive experiences in the person’s life as affirmations throughout the dying process.
An honest approach to death and grieving is the key to tapping in to those gifts. Embracing death with boundless leaps of faith can shift the experience of life-threatening illness or trauma from terrifying to transcendent. An understanding of our own divinity and the perfect journey of our souls, supported by guides, angels and loved ones who have passed before us, helps us understand death as simply a journey to another room, where life continues in a different form. Prayers and meditations for opening the heart to gratitude and inner guidance can help us ultimately see all deaths as pathways to healing.
THE HEALING POWER OF RITUAL
The Anamcara Project taught me that in order to fully process grief, trauma or transition of any kind, ritual is a mandatory step in the journey to healing. There are other valuable resources of course, including counseling, meditation, support groups, books and spiritual practice, but without ritual, these other tools only get the job partially done.
In my work as an author, teacher and grief counselor, I’ve been asked many times to suggest simple rituals that can help with the process of facing and walking through painful changes, particularly the death of a loved one. Some of the rituals described here involve the participation of the person who is dying, and some are exclusively for those who remain on earth. These rituals presume that an honest dialog about death has already begun.
Create a Journey Blanket
If you have a loved one who is dying, consider creating a memorial quilt or “journey blanket” for him or her. 18 months before my son died, I gathered a group of friends in my living room for a potluck dinner and a quilting bee. Each person brought a piece of fabric that had special meaning to them, and these — along with pieces of fabric from my son’s own life — were cobbled into a beautiful patchwork quilt, filled with love, prayers and blessings. It was far from technically perfect, with sloppy stitching and uneven squares, but the energy it held was magical. The quilt was very warm and my son slept with it for the next two winters. The following summer he died lying on top of that quilt, and now I sleep and meditate with it, and it has become my journey blanket also.
Get a Tattoo
Many of the firefighters who battled the blaze at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 felt unbearable grief and guilt about the partners who’d fought beside them and perished. Some of them processed and ritualized their grief by having images of their fallen friends tattooed on their backs. The firefighters said, “This way I will have my partner’s spirit with me every day of my life.” When I heard about this, I asked my son (11 years old at the time) what animal he would be if he could choose to be one. He chose a swan, and the following week I had a tattoo of a swan on my left shoulder.
Locks of Love
In the days leading up to my son’s death, while he was in and out of consciousness, I often sat beside him stroking his beautiful, thick hair. One day I realized that locks of his hair would make extraordinary gifts for the people who loved him, so with his permission, I snipped small pieces and tied each with a delicate red ribbon. I’ve given them all away except for the one I kept for myself.
Put it in a Locket
I keep a tiny snippet of that hair in a heart-shaped locket that I wear almost every day.
Open the Treasure Chest and Give the Riches Away
When you’re ready to start going through your departed loved one’s possessions, think of it as a sacred rite of passage. Invite friends to help, and light candles, say prayers, open a bottle of champagne and share memories, stories, laughter and tears as you look through the precious objects. Set aside selected items to give to friends as remembrance tokens, or make something wonderful and creative out of them. One of my friends had a quilt made from her husband’s favorite shirts, and another made pillowcases from her mother’s antique tablecloths.
If the dying person is open to it and is physically capable, he can choose which belongings and special objects he’d like to give to friends and family members. When my friend Betty was dying, she asked her sons to display her special possessions around the house. She was a collector of healing crystals, and the dining room table was covered with magnificent geodes, quartz obelisks, rare stones and other sacred objects. Her friends were invited to take whatever pieces called out to them, with Betty’s full participation and blessing. She even chose to have her memorial service while she was still alive. Friends gathered at her house to tell heartwarming stories about their experiences with Betty, light candles, sing songs and recite beautiful prayers and readings while Betty sat in her wheelchair, beaming with happiness.
Plant a Tree or a Memorial Garden
If you can’t plant a tree or shrub in a public place in honor of your loved one, create a special corner of your yard as a memorial garden. Plant special trees and flowers there, and decorate the space with pictures, sacred objects, religious icons or anything that inspires you. If your loved one was cremated, this is an excellent place to sprinkle some of the ashes. The students at my son’s high school raised money to purchase a magnolia tree, which was planted in his honor in front of the special education building where he’d spent the last year of his academic life.
Send your Loved One on a World Tour
There are many creative and meaningful ways to use cremation ashes (also known as “cremains”) in ceremony, and the ceremonies do not have to be formal or somber. Because my son loved to travel, I divided some of his ashes into tiny, decorated bottles and gave one to each of our closest friends to carry with them on their vacations and business trips. His ashes have now been sprinkled in at least a dozen countries. We’re aiming for all seven continents eventually.
Keep Your Loved One’s Name Alive
Four months after my son died I had my last name legally changed to his first name… Daniel. You may not want to go so far as to legally change your name, but you can find dozens of imaginative ways to keep your loved one’s name alive. Use her nickname as one of your computer passwords, or start a business, charitable group or website using a variation of it. Engrave his name on a paving stone for your memorial garden, or hire a graphic artist to design a logo or icon for the name.
Adopt Your Loved One’s Birthday as Your Own
My friend Dave lost his 19 year-old son Peter to a motorcycle accident 40 years ago. That year Dave adopted Peter’s birthday as his own, and has celebrated it on that day every since. Dave was a community leader in his city, and knew hundreds of people. Each year he threw a huge party on his adopted birthday, and through the years most people had no idea that it wasn’t his original date of birth. He’s in his 90s now, and facing his own death with eagerness, dignity and grace.