A Meeting with Death in the West

Jonah and the Whale | SpiritMAMA Blog

I’m wrapping up a year-long traverse deep down into the medicine spiral. Like a medicine wheel but with Celtic leanings, the spiral takes us into ourselves and back out again, shiny and new.

So much has come out of these retreat weekends, five in all. At the dawn of each season and corresponding direction, and one more for the heart-centre, we meet, we meditate, we cook food together, we immerse in the teachings.

This past weekend was the West, the Fall and Samhain. No matter the lineage, the theme of the West is always the same: death, dying, letting go, receding, resting and digesting. Just think of what’s happening in nature to steer your course (after all we humans are actually a part of it all, even though we vehemently deny it). The trees are bedding down, losing leaves, the plants in the garden receding, dropping into that heavy slumber that protects them through the winter – or perhaps they have been harvested for their gold and then composted, to be digested by the soil. Everything around us is dying, returning to the earth or moving onto the next energetic state, eventual rebirth, but for now the in-between. Samhain is the Celtic fire festival, the last of three harvest festivals and beginning of the coldest part of the year, the feminine half. Also celebrated as the Witches new year and Halloween, this is a liminal time, perhaps the most powerful, when the veil between the world of the living and the dead becomes thin.

Our group is quite big, about 25 of us, so my sharing hasn’t been really up to snuff. I must admit even though I’ve been the DJ countless times, in front of hundreds of people until dawn, and even though I’ve known these people in my group for close to a year now, I still have stage fright.

I want to share with you about one shamanic journey we did, to meet with Whale. Whale is the ancient and timeless record-keeper, recording migration routes and ancestral histories. Here’s what they had to tell me:

Question: Can you please tell me about death, dying and rebirth?
I swim with the whales: Grey Whale, Orca, giant Blue, Whale-Shark – fear-eater.
The ocean is primordial – warm and black.
We swim and swim, like a parade, a pride, like one.
This is cosmic soup.
The in-between.
We merge but we are still individuals. We swim like one but we are separate.

Then we swim into a volcano underground, through fire and oranges and reds – then breach the surface back where we began, on Earth.

Then I’m on a bridge. A train bridge like the one the boys grew up on
in Stand By Me.
On the other side is Death, the harvester – black cowl, skeletal hand, scythe.
I walk across towards him and he lets me pass, but I rise up towards the stratosphere and into space. My body explodes into stars, star-stuff. So I ask:

We become stars?
We merge with the cosmos?
So we end. We are no longer ourselves? A true end to Sky?
But what about ghosts? Ghosts come back. Ancestors.
Ghosts are/live in the Akashic records. All that is, always is, recorded forever. The soul goes on but is always also a part of each life it lives.

I come to the understanding, that when Sky dies there is no more movement through the soul as Sky – no more learning, growth, progression. Sky becomes static. The soul will continue to grow as it carries on its journey through other lives, and there will still be Sky in the records. She is a part of me – as are all the other lives I have lived.

My best friend who died in a car crash when we were 17, she will never be older than 17 years old. I also saw her in my journey, when she died, I saw her fear.

Fear is the first thing that Whale showed me when I asked about death.
Fear. Terror. Unbelievable terror.

When my friend died, or was dying, she called out for her mom.
She must have realized that she was injured, that she couldn’t move. That her brain, her head was damaged. She must have realized that she was dying and she was so afraid. So terrified.
That realization of death is absolute.
There’s no bargaining.
There’s no way around it.
It’s an inescapable fact.
That’s how I felt when she died but – I never thought about her. I always thought she was already on her way, or having a life review with her mom in it. I never realized that she could have been conscious and fully realizing what was happening to her.
She must have faced this exact realization.
The brick wall.
And she called for her mom.

The terror comes from: fear of the unknown yes, but more fear of ending, of annihilation, being extinguished. Then of loss and losing loved ones and the life that was lived.
Will we ever meet again?

I have recently run across Stephen Jenkinson. Have you heard of him?

Stephen teaches internationally and is the creator and principal instructor of the Orphan Wisdom School, founded in 2010. With Master’s degrees from Harvard University (Theology) and the University of Toronto (Social Work), he is revolutionizing grief and dying in North America. Stephen is redefining what it means to live, and die well. Apprenticed to a master storyteller, he has worked extensively with dying people and their families, is former programme director in a major Canadian hospital, former assistant professor in a prominent Canadian medical school, consultant to palliative care and hospice organizations and educator and advocate in the helping professions. www.orphanwisdom.com

Every time I hear this guy talk I cry. He talks in poetry. He talks about death and dying. He talks quite a bit, about the fear of death our culture has, and how it manifests in each one of us when we face the inevitable.

“People are dying, and their pain is well-managed and their symptoms are under control, and what is it you see in their eyes when they’re dying?
Well I’ll tell you what I see. I see a wretched anxiety.
A completely overwhelming, almost toxic fearfulness.

And then, we ask them, what are you most afraid of happening? You know, 8 out of 10 is gonna be what?
I don’t want it to hurt.
And so we say, no problem! We can get you there. You can still be sort of present, that’s the promise.
And you know what? That’s the hell.”

And so of course my question is, does it have to be this way?

Our culture is death denying. We hate looking old because it reminds us that we will die. We are obsessed with the fountain of youth because somewhere along the line of history, we forgot that middle age and old age is just as important, just as much a part of us as being young. And, you know these phases of life are lovely in their own way. So much is learned when we let the fetters of youth fall away and emerge as something new, rather than having a death grip on the passage of time. This is what growing old gracefully means. Now, how about dying gracefully? Now that’s inspiring.

What if our culture celebrated death for what it is, an integral part of our lives? What of we were taught that we are not alone when we die, just as Whale showed me in this journey? The truth is, we swim in the cosmic soup together, our soul tribe gathering beside us to ferry us on through to the next life. The truth is, our ancestors greet us at the door. The truth is, we are all actually fragments of the One, come to this Earth-school to learn, and then to return.

So, a bit of news, I’m studying to be a Death Midwife. My shamanic practice will support me, supporting others to die gracefully. In the West, the home of death, it has all fallen in to place. Aho!
xo SM

Here’s some interesting related links:

Festivals of the Dead Around the World
Celebrating Samhain

Die Wise by Stephen Jenkinson
by Stephen Jenkinson – Click me

featured image, Jonah and the Whale in the Jami’ al-tawarikh (c. 1400), Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

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SpiritMAMA is the blogspace of Sky Bray, wellness blogger, student of yoga, shamanism, proud Mama.

2 thoughts on “A Meeting with Death in the West

  1. A death doula….very cool. I believe we are so afraid of death because of the brainwashing by the Christian churches that teach us we are sinners, that we are wretched and unlovable, that we are worthless unless we repent mightily and accept Jesus as our savior. And even then, these folks are still afraid of dying because what if Jesus denies them?? Utter craziness.

    Some of us know that death is a transition from one state of being to another. My father was an atheist and believed in nothing. I am sure he thought that once he died, he would go into nothingness, a big void of non-existence. But at the moment of his passing, his energy came immediately to me and hit me right in the 6th chakra. I was watching a movie with a friend and didn’t realize it was him, just a feeling of wooziness and unsteadiness sitting there on the sofa. When I got home there were messages on my answering machine from my sister and the county sheriff where he lived. He is still present in my life from time to time.


    1. Thanks Colleen,
      I agree that the fear of death has something to do with our various religions, possibly Christianity being the worst offender. European cultures are rich in death rituals, like the Irish wake for example, that are not sad and grief ridden, but rather a celebration of the life that has now passed on.
      But the grief is there of course, there are healthy ways we used to deal with it. I’m fascinated by the old custom of ‘keening’, which would help the grieving move through the pain.
      I think there used to be rituals, celebrations and community support around death, where now in the Western world anyway, it has been reduced to a funeral and maybe a reception afterwards. That’s it. How can we make a death a part of us if the expectation that we just move on the next day?

      Glad to hear your dad is still with you!


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