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The West Means Learning to Face Death with Grace

It is Saturday morning. It finally rained yesterday after 40 days. The drought has been so severe this season that all the shrubs I planted this year in my gardens have died.

When I came back from the West training in the Four Winds School of Shamanic Healing, I discovered my Witch Hazel, Daphnedoro, Father Gila, and Crepe Myrtle were all gone. Brown leaves litter the walkways–a reminder of the fall season, but somehow speaking more to the lack of water than the seasonal cycles. The leaves have not changed to their vibrant, playful regalia due to lack of nutrients to produce the sugars needed for full coloration. Many of the trees in the neighborhood have retained their green foliage late into the season, but when approaching them closely, you realize they are actually brittle. In the Q’ero Medicine Wheel, the West is the direction of death, change, and transformation.

As if mirroring the haze of death and endings in the air, my 21-year-old cat, Griselda, was sick when I got home. She is now in the end stages of dying. I have set her up in “hospice care” in my walk-in closet with many soft beds, water, and her litter box. I am applying only palliative care and allowing her body to go as gracefully as it may. She has hardly eaten in 2 weeks and has eaten nothing for almost 7 days. The flesh on her body hangs taught and her skeleton juts out as the earth takes it in the process of leaving nothing of value for the spirit to reside in. A blood test a week ago revealed that her red blood cell count is again very low.

Griselda almost died a year ago from this severe anemia possibly secondary to kidney disease. Back then, prednisone, a common steroid, pulled her back from the edge. This time, there is nothing to do, as we cannot increase the dose in her little body. But the last time this happened, the medicine bought her a full year in which she has seen the death of her cantankerous companion, my calico kitty, Bea. She then helped me through an ensuing long illness and recovery. During that time, she had four months of bliss being the sole 4-footed companion to me, this woman whose heart has room for so many more.

That reverie of “girl time” together ended when I brought home a 2-month-old Great Pyrenees puppy whom I named Tea and Sympathy, Sym for short. My old girl dog, Lily, had died 9 months before. It was a hard blow, as Lily was my love, my soul mate, my dear one. After she went, I tried very hard to live without dog energy in my life. I ultimately admitted failure and decided to get a pup even though I knew Griselda’s days were numbered given her age and health. I embraced the truth of my soul that I cannot live without dogs and hopefully will never have to.

Never one to do things in miniature (Lily weighed 120 pounds at her peak), I decided to go with a giant breed–a boy who would grow within months to become a huge, blocky- headed monster pup weighing the same as me.

In Sym’s puppy enthusiasm, curiosity, and finally jealousy for my affections, he has harassed Grizzie unmercifully despite stern admonitions, raging, fearful panic, time-outs in his crate, and a variety of other attempts to induce him to give her space. He grew from 15 pounds at his first puppy vet check up to a still growing 80 pounds at 7 months. Grizzie has not had a chance against him at a mere 8 pounds of genteel old lady flesh. There have been days since bringing Sym home when I would be furious at him for not learning to treat Griselda with the respect such an elder deserves or furious with Griselda for not trying harder to put him in his place. After all, a neighbor friend’s three cats whom he visits regularly have had no problem baring their claws and giving him a resounding whack on his tender nose. He keeps a careful distance from them, only showing alert curiosity when they appear on the scene. Not with Griselda. He swings his big head over her as she tucks her petite face as far into her chest as she can and he pushes and sniffs and has sometimes dangerously pawed.

I have felt as monstrously guilty as he is large about how he has disturbed her life and once again placed her into a secondary position in the household. My attentions have been necessarily pulled into puppy training and play to keep this big boy well under hand and my attempts to give Griz the wherewithal to stake her claim to her space have come to nothing.

While this state of affairs has made me sad, I have not regretted the decision to bring Sym into our lives. Until he came, my life for the previous 8 years was filled with the ravages of illness in myself and others and many big deaths: In the early 90s, I developed fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder of the soft tissue and the neurological systems of the body. My mentally ill and abusive mother died of complications from too much self-mutilation from Munchausens Disorder in 2001 at the age of 69 after cutting me out of her will. Battles over wills ended my relationship with my brother. My now ex-sister-in-law died of cancer in 2001 and my husband himself was diagnosed with a slow-growing, pre-cancerous condition. He became increasingly more and more depressed, sank deeper into alcoholism and became suicidal. My marriage dissolved into separation and divorce in the chaos after 15 years, followed not long after by the death of Lily and Bea within 6 months of one another. The timing of their deaths seemed to be prescient, as their arrival in my life coincided with my honeymoon and the early years of my marriage in the early 90s. Their lives had been defined by my life with my husband.

When Bea died suddenly of complications from thyroid disease last December, 7 months after the divorce was finalized, I became quite ill from all of the chronic stress, my body screaming to me that if I did not truly rest and change my job and my perceptions of how to make a living, it would get increasingly more sick and perhaps even die, too. Bea spoke to me from “the other side” and told me it was time to “step up” as she had when her body began to shut down. After all of the previous losses and the changes that had ensued in me, I had to face the fact that my job was dying and that I was dying in the job.

In the months that followed as I struggled to recover from what felt like a massive blow catapulting me willy nilly out of my nervous system on the day after Bea’s death and after 8 years of insomnia, I told my therapist that I felt as if everything in my life that I had known was dying–falling away. I would be allowed to have nothing that had been familiar. I could not stop crying. In that time, I finally admitted that I had become severely depressed.

I knew even as I went through all of this that I was meeting Death and becoming familiar with His ways. It has been a hero’s journey through the shadow lands of darkness. Like Dante in his Purgatorio, I have met every manner of hungry ghost, lost soul, monster, and demon. Nor did this familiarity with death simply begin 8 years ago as I have said so many times before: I have always had an affinity for the darkness of the human soul. As a professor, I have long studied its manifestations in autocratic regimes like the former Soviet Union, the horrors of various holocausts in past and more recent human history, and the inner and outer workings of violence.

I am like the sin eater in the stories of old Anglo Appalachian homesteader communities: he lives alone and feared in the caves and underworld of the mountains and only emerges into fellow human company to eat the food left by the living as an offering on the graves of those who have recently died. As I have navigated these shoals of Death in my life, I have eaten the shadows of my ancestors even as my own body and mind have manifested ancestral imbalances and diseases. In doing so, I have faced my own shadows with grit and determination. When you are faced with so much darkness within and without, there are only two choices: you either become a living ghost and eat the souls of others or you eat the fodder given to your own soul through karma and experience and transform it into light.

As I lay on my sofa this past winter nursing my battered body and mind back to health, I faced the profound fear that had stalked me all my life. It was Death. While I had walked through His territory in part with my eyes open, there had been another part of me that had continued to cover my face and cower. I chose not to see it in favor of plowing forward with a giant stride, acting impervious. Bravado can get you a long way, but ultimately, you must fully feel fear down to your core in order to be truly brave and at ease in a world where there will always be pain. As the Buddha said in the First Noble Truth: “Life is pain.” We cannot avoid it, but we can choose to not suffer.

My life had been driven by a profound fear of life itself. Fear of failure, fear of weakness, fear of loneliness. This fear had left me existentially all alone and had rendered everything in my life into struggle and conflict, whether within or without. When all was said and done, with my marriage ended, Lily and Bea gone, the health of my body and mind hanging in the balance, all that was left was this gentle spirit, Griselda, and a gaping emptiness in the air about me. It was my own emptiness. It was also the existential loneliness when our Ego realizes it is no longer primary.

Emptiness is part and parcel of the passage of death. Death burns away illusions of permanence and whatever we have clung to for the appearance of safety. The only way to no longer be stalked by death is to invite Him to tea and allow Him to extract anything you no longer need just as the Buddha invited Tara, the archetype of chaos and darkness, in to sup which led to his Enlightenment. You can do this fighting all the way or you can surrender gracefully, lie down on the damp Earth, the Mother of All, and quake and shake into what eventually will no longer be empty, but a greater vessel filled with light.

Death is the Sin Eater. Death is the harbinger of our innate Divinity and Oneness with God. Death is Love. When I finally surrendered to Death this past winter–allowing fear to flow through every cell of my body, allowing myself to shiver, sob, and shake–allowing myself to love fear, to love fear as I would love my most beloved–I finally turned the corner. I began to see myself through the eyes of God as so loved, so held that nothing I did, no matter how stupid, thoughtless or weak, was irredeemable or even bad. I looked at myself through Her eyes and saw only a sweet child making her way in life with much grace and beauty.

Much had been burned away in these dying years. Taking my own Death into my arms, my body could begin to rebuild and the mind stabilize. There was no more struggle, only a gradual, delicate tuning into the peace that infuses every movement of Creation, even the appearance of violence.

When I arrived at the West training in the Four Winds, a part of me felt weary: more shadow work. More death. At the same time, I knew that the work was to surrender to the process and be at peace with it. To take it lightly. Lily and Bea’s passage out of their bodies had been so different: Lily left suddenly and peacefully, exploding into an aureole of light into the Universe. Bea’s death was also sudden, but in contrast filled with physical pain and struggle. She coughed and choked for each breath until the doctor released her with drugs. Nevertheless, when I put my hands on her and we both calmed down, she was at peace with the body’s need to go and she stepped over with grace and ease. Both continue to speak to me from wherever they are, which they insist is “No-where.” It is all here, now. They taught me not to fear death even if the body, mind and heart grieve the loss of the incredibly rich, juicy, sweet, and dear way embodiment allows us to connect. Bea taught me to “step up.” She was a fighter to the end, but when she did go, she went in peace.

My sweet Griselda has never been a fighter. Bea bullied her from the time she arrived on the scene so many years ago until her death at the age of 16. Griselda would not fight back. She holds the peace. She is gentle and kind even when she is angry or irritated. Her gift is that of subtlety, sensing the tiniest movements in the environment: breezes, bugs, emotions, and spirits. She listens deeply. She would rather retreat to do her job of tracking and being a portal between the worlds than to engage in the gross levels of the physical. I knew that she would die in this slow, quiet way rather than going out with a bang like her mates Bea and Lily. It is her way.

So, I drink my tea and write this as she lies nearby and wait for her to fall gently into that long sleep. After making peace with my feelings of guilt, remorse and the inevitable relief that comes when a loved one long ill finally lets go, I wait. I have chosen to not help her leave the body with euthanasia. She is not in pain. The only suffering present is the occasional tension I feel when I look at her face, gradually becoming more like a skull than a living body. Or when she staggers from weakness. I gasp and grasp in panic. Then I recognize the tightness of mind, that old fear of Death and I consciously let go. Like Lily, Bea, and Griselda, I have stepped up to meet Death this time with a small smile and an outstretched hand. When fear arises, I acknowledge and release it into the light.

This is what it means to no longer be stalked by death which is spoken about in the Q’ero shamanic tradition taught at the Four Winds School. We all will die of something. There is no doubt. And we are always dying in each and every moment, from our cells to our experiences. The key is to embrace this dynamic process of change and transformation and to work with it, instead of fighting it. The jaguar of the West of the Andean medicine wheel is lithe, light on her feet, graceful, and easily camouflaged by the jungle foliage. If we are not attuned to the subtle movements of the world around us as to our inner world, we will not hear her coming. Then when she leaps, we are more likely to be catapulted out of the body into fear. Yet if we are listening carefully, we will hear her approach long before she arrives and will be able to decide if it is time to meet her. Then, we can choose whether we will do so in a rush of joyful energy or in a soft, gentle approach as to a dear friend. When the single bullet hit Mahatma Ghandi in the breast, he was listening so deeply to the sound of God that he uttered only two words as he fell: “My God.” May we all die so awake to our own divinity just as Griselda is dying.

As for the life to be lived with Sym, my Great Pyrenees pup, and Rachel, I am filled with a sweet joy. I chose to not have children. Now at the age of 46 after stepping fully into my healed Self after so many years on the path, I know I might have considered having a child at this time if I were younger and had a partner. Even so, I am glad to be free and on my own, without the encumbrances of childrearing. It is good to travel so lightly! Yet getting a puppy was an act of stepping through the gates of Death into new hope for the future. Sym allows me to be a mother in some small part as I nurture and guide his great life in this white body. After all, I coincidentally arrived at his place of birth on the first day of his life and held his tiny, sausage-shaped body in my hands. Life and death are inextricably intertwined. It is a beautiful thing that we can allow our hearts to both expand and break over and over again!

Postscript: It is now 6 months since I wrote this journal and since then, Sym has grown up to be a 90-pound, 1-year-old puppy. I also rescued a Pug from the local SPCA named Wee right before Christmas. Wee has ongoing health issues. He is a character through and through and he and Sym are best buds! I feel Griselda smiling indulgently at our joy together!

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