THE CONUNDRUM: ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE THROUGH DEATH
Birth, for us, is an arrival on this plane, at this time. Birth, for our parents, albeit accompanied by our “blessed” arrival, represents a death of “one-on-oneness,” the death of things as they were and the knowledge that things will never be exactly the same again. Thus, the conundrum begins…
The fires of death forged me. My only two recurring dreams as a child were both about death, death by drowning and death by knife. What strange childhood dreams to experience and remember, but the die (pun intended) had been cast, the pattern was already in place.
When I was fifteen years old, my 43-year-old father died unexpectedly of a heart attack at home, in bed (where you are supposed to be safe), without warning. My mother brought me to his side. I checked his pulse and found none. I woke my grandmother and sister and told them. I waited for the ambulance, praying he was alive, knowing that he wasn’t. When I was fifteen, I discovered much too early that no one was safe from death.
While growing up, I had always been my father’s understudy, always more interested in what he did than what my mom did. When he “died on me” (as only a fifteen year old can believe), I knew that I had not finished learning from him. What was I supposed to do now?
That answer came very quickly. From my 15th to my 19th birthday, I
· buried my father
· raised my sister
· took over family financial affairs
· learned to drive and transported everyone in the family everywhere
· cared for my mother who descended into the living death of depression and ultimately experienced a nervous breakdown
· buried three grandparents
· buried my dog
· buried my best friend
· buried the first man I ever loved.
Upon accepting my first corporate job following graduate school, I was identified as a “high potential” and asked to take some psychological tests in order to identify my strengths and weaknesses. I remember the psychologist showing me pictures and asking me to tell a story about each. In everyone, I saw death –
· a family selecting a casket for a dead loved one
· a man lying in a hospital bed, dying
· a women weeping over her dead child.
When this gentle woman asked me what I saw as my role in life, I told her I had been placed here to bury everyone that I loved. How could I NOT see everything through the eyes of death when it had been my constant companion for the last 8 years? “Knowledge is awareness of the parts” and knowledge, for me, came slowly. Even after all these deaths, I was only “aware of the parts…” I had no understanding of how the parts worked together.
There was an external respite from death while I waged the internal battle:
· refusal to acknowledge the death of my marriage to an alcoholic (had there ever been life in it?). This lead to my husband moving out on me while I was traveling on business and emptying the house of all our possessions; and
· giving up more and more of my soul for the “good of the company.” I almost lost that battle several times but ultimately left corporate life. This represented another death, this time of a dream that showed me at the “top of the ladder.” For a long time, I had been unwilling and frankly unable to acknowledge the prevailing sexism that would halt my progress.
I wanted to run away from death (“…we have a hard time trusting the sources of truth”). I wanted the fairy tale ending that had been denied me (“…we are unwilling to give up those things we wish were true”). I wanted out. I would not actively seek death but the vision of an oncoming Mack Truck was oddly comforting.
I spent many years with my eyes shrouded, afraid to look left or right for fear of the approach of death. I wore a “figurative” burka, shielding onlookers from any vision of me, my true self. Imagine the black veil and dress and you see me, the me who could not look death in the eye.
Additionally, I met and married a man of like mind. He was an attorney who couldn’t stand the smell of lilies because it reminded him of funerals. He refused to execute a will or any healthcare directives because he “didn’t want to think about it” – the “it” being death. And, he lived with the belief that if he worked out 3 times a week, he could avoid death. He described himself as “bullet proof.” I laugh in retrospect when I think of this match made out of “death aversion.” By running away from it, we became a powerful magnet for death and it found us, hiding in the dark of my burka and his denial.
In September of 2000, my husband, Bill, called me to the back door of our home in a hushed voice. Staring back at us from our fence railing was a Barred Owl. In many Native American traditions, owls represent death. Although I was not yet a shamanic practitioner, this appearance frightened me. And the owl had presented itself to my husband…
One month later, Bill fell over at work and was admitted to the hospital for what was expected to be a standard run of acute pancreatitis, about 7 days. Ultimately, he spent 8-1/2 months in the hospital, 6-1/2 of which were on full life support. And, he coded (died) 4 times. Talk about a wake-up call from death! And I had to deal with it alone because Bill was in a medically induced coma (death by healthcare) for most of this time.
No more burka for this gal! Death had come calling in a very loud voice and invited or not, I HAD to listen, lest I be asked to bury another. And then, I began to “get it.”
The doctors who treated my husband were all specialists, trained to look at and work on specific body parts. As an untrained medical consumer, that seemed OK until my husband suffered Multi-System Organ Failure during which every part of his body failed, virtually at the same time. Each drug that was administered to help one part of his body had an adverse impact on other parts of his body. Had I lost him at that point, his autopsy results could easily have read, “death by specialty” because no one was watching the “whole” patient (Knowledge is awareness of the parts, wisdom is understanding how those parts work together.)
To say that I now understood the reason for my prior, repeated dances with death would not be true. What I can say is that I was no longer an impotent teenager and I was sick and tired of losing everyone to this specter of death that seemed to hover over me. A journey to death’s door did not guarantee “a crossing” and I had a role to play. I had to become the one who possessed an “understanding [about] how those parts work[ed] together.”
It took months to define that role but in retrospect, I can now identify some of the healing techniques I intuitively used. I position those techniques within the parameters of “Soul Retrieval” because I believe that soul loss was the real cause of Bill’s illness. Sandra Ingerman, who has taught so many of us how to do this work, makes the following statements in her Soul Retrieval Workshop.
· “All healing is done by creating space from the heart. Spirits can only work through the heart. They are the healers.” I only knew how to help my husband through my heart, through my love. I used that love to take notes and ask questions, to challenge and push back. I forced the care providers to accept me as a partner in my husband’s survival;
· “Preparation is getting the ego out of the way. This is the most important part. If, during ceremony, you start getting into ego, stop the ceremony and go back into preparation… Anxiety occurs when you are in a state separate from spirit. If you can’t get emotionally detached, you can’t let spirit through.” For me, this had to do with fear. When I was acting from fear, I was acting from my ego or what I was afraid would happen. While in one of these states of frenzy, a friend told me to go outside (it was November and freezing and there was snow and ice on the ground), remove my shoes and socks and stand on the grass. I was to take three deep breaths and upon exhalation, send my fear down into the Earth. I did this repeatedly (miraculously without acquiring frostbite) and it always helped. I know now that she coached me to “ground myself” as Mother Earth can always handle more than we mere humans…
· “Have the client bring their favorite things to the ceremony.” Since Bill was unconscious and therefore could not bring his favorite things to the hospital, I did it for him. This included pictures of our dogs, magazines and train models that he enjoyed. I also brought pictures of him, happy and healthy, and posted them on the walls and door of his room. This served an additional purpose – the pictures showed his care providers what my husband looked like vertical!
Although it was a joke, those pictures represented a defining moment -- this unconscious patient became a real human being to these people.
· “Symptoms of soul loss include coma where more of the soul is outside the body than inside the body. When working with a client in a coma, ask the spirits if they are trying to get out or come back in. Also ask about what the ethical action is in this situation.” During 2 of the 13 episodes of sepsis when my husband’s blood pressure hovered at 60/30 for 4+ hours, he was administered a paralyzing drug and placed in a medically induced coma. I sat with his hand in mine and kept telling him, “If you have to go, I will try to understand. I will support your choice. However, I don’t want you to go. I need you. Please stay with me.” I actually felt him come back…
· Shamanic art does not represent power, it IS power. A very good friend of mine draws pictures of angels. During one of her visits, she described an angel that she saw sitting at the head of Bill’s bed. She described this being as protective, the image of which was captured in a picture she brought with her during her next visit. That angel was posted on the wall facing Bill’s bed and followed him around for almost 9 months. Upon release from the hospital, we hung that angel in our bedroom. Bill named her his “healing angel.” God comes in many forms…
· “When calling in the spirits, set your intention. If you call in the spirits and don’t say anything, it’s like placing a phone call and not saying anything when it is answered. Eventually, the other party hangs up!” I am a deeply spiritual person although I would not say that I am religious. I prayed to whatever higher power would listen. I asked for “healing for Bill’s highest good,” a phrase taught to me by a dear friend who performed Reiki on Bill daily for 3 months. I asked others to pray. The church across the street from our house put Bill into their prayer circle. One of Bill’s coworkers who attended this church asked the congregation to pray on Bill’s behalf. Every week, Mildred, who headed up the prayer circle, would call for an update on Bill’s condition. Both she and other friends would ask, “What body part should we pray for this week?” There was a direct correlation between the body part offered up in prayer and the sequence of body part recoveries Bill experienced.
· “In traditional shamanic communities, shamans were the psycho-logical consultants. They used healing stories. The story you tell can curse a client or help heal, depending upon the words because words are like seeds. If you plant seeds of fear, you get fear. People in our culture need hope, inspiration and love.” When Bill was at his most critical, I had a well-meaning friend tell me that I had to face the likelihood that Bill would not make it and that I would be alone. Pardon any resemblance to Scarlett O’Hara but I would have none of this kind of talk! I told my friend that my job today was to do everything I could to help Bill stay alive (as long as he wanted to remain here) and that I would face that problem if and when it happened.
· “Remember, if you ever go to the future and get bad news, the spirits are showing you this because it can be changed. Quantum physics tells us that the observer changes the observed.” I spent virtually every night in the hospital with Bill, and slept in a bed chair adjacent to his bed, as close as I was allowed to get. Following Bill’s fourth code and resulting brain damage, he became frightened of the “skinny little man under my bed who blew on an empty pop bottle during the night.” This vision of the future was terrifying for both of us and I was determined that this would not be accepted by Bill as real. I lifted up my chair bed (not an insignificant task, I might add) and showed him the underside of my sleeping pallet. He calmed and returned to sleep without drugs and his mind began to heal.
· “Bring friends or family because soul loss comes from isolation. Allow community to …welcome them back.” In the early days of Bill’s illness, I actually had to stop the migration of visitors. I thought it was because explaining what was going on with him over and over simply wore me out. That was true but today, I believe that the friendly visitations were inappropriate at that point in his illness. He had not yet decided if he was going to remain on this plane and the visits upset him. Even in his unconscious state, his blood pressure would shoot up and would become agitated, requiring an injection to calm him. Immediately prior to his release from the hospital, we threw him a “Welcome Home” party and literally hundreds of people from 3 hospitals + his family and friends affirmed their love for him. And don’t forget the four-leggeds! Our four dogs visited him at the hospital through the grace, tolerance and risk taking of his nurses. The four-leggeds also “told me” to get a big banner and hang it from our house. It said, “Welcome home, Bill!”
One of the causes of illness is partial soul loss. To experience total soul loss results in death. Louise Hay identifies the cause of pancreatitis as a “loss of the sweetness of life.” This certainly fit Bill. Prior to his illness, he had become increasingly despondent about his work as it became clear that he would not receive the recognition he both craved and deserved. Today, Bill’s work is to rediscover that sweetness. This is his version of Soul Remembering. We all need to know our adventures, gifts and talents. I know that is why he is still here – his work is not done.
Nor is mine. Sandra Ingerman believes that “in shamanism, the spirits pick you to do the work. We get initiated into this work. Through initiation, you lose everything in life in order to keep your heart open. Seeing in shamanism is seeing with your heart.” To finally go into death for me has been a rebirth. To redefine death not as a termination point but rather, a transition to the next plane, has given me a wonderful vision of my future, whether near or far away. Death is no longer the conundrum for me. I have arrived at my life’s work through death’s door. And undoubtedly, I will depart the same way…
© 2006 Jari Holland Buck. Used with permission.
A note from Jari: This story is offered as a tribute to the work of the spirits in the upper middle and lower realms and of one earthly spirit, my teacher, Sandra Ingerman, who showed me how to “die the little death” of journeying. That little death gives me the comfort of knowing that I can visit those who have gone before and those that will follow.