Awakening to the Spirit World: The Shamanic Path of Direct Revelation - Sandra Ingerman MA, Hank Wesselman Ph.D. 2010
Experiential Work with Death and Dying
As we bring more consciousness to the dying process, there are different issues that are important for us to look at and work with. There are ways for us to speak truthfully with others as they are dying to help them transition gracefully. There are ways for us to share our feelings with loved ones who are dying so that we feel complete in our relationships. In this chapter we will share with you ways to communicate with people who are facing death.
After more than one near-death experience, Sandra Ingerman has been able to clarify what we, as modern-day visionaries, can offer others in terms of the death experience:
In my own life I have had three near-death experiences. The experience of losing my ego and sense of self and the peace and beauty of being once again with the source of life, has allowed me to feel very comfortable with death. There was no fear or suffering once I left my body. During these experiences, I had the direct revelation of being held in complete and unconditional love.
My experience with dying has made it very easy for me to talk to people about death. The best gift we can give someone in this end-stage of life is to listen to what this person’s feelings are and offer support and comfort.
I teach an experiential workshop on death and dying in which I offer spiritual practices to help participants understand death for themselves. Part of this involves engaging in shamanic journeywork in order to be shown, through direct revelation, the cosmology of where we go when we die. I also teach simple spiritual practices that can help people facing death establish their own spiritual connections through which they may receive spiritual guidance to help with their process. I have also found that for some, the next step in their healing process is actually their transition into and through the death experience, and usually that person is given assistance and support by the helping spirits in letting go of their body. For others, spiritual help sometimes comes through to actually cure the person of illness, and life is the next step in their healing process.
No one, not even a shaman, knows when it is someone’s destiny to die physically.
In 1990, I was teaching a workshop in which one of the participants was dying of leukemia. She was getting ready for a bone marrow transplant, so she had not given up on life, but she was preparing herself for her eventual death.
This woman shared in our group that she had phoned all of her friends and family. To each person she announced that her death was imminent; she told them, “Let’s say everything we need to say to each other now so that you are not left with unfinished conversations and feelings. And then we need to say goodbye.”
What a gift to give her loved ones. I have found in my own counseling practice that the grieving is often extended because of all the unfinished conversations and feelings that were not shared. There was no closure. To be able to truly share what is in one’s heart and to have closure is such a gift for all concerned. It helps everyone move on after someone dies. Without that closure, the soul might have trouble in its transition as it is still tied emotionally to people here.
Those who walk the path of direct revelation know with absolute certainty that even if a person is in a coma or unconscious, the person can still hear you, so you can sit by a dying person’s bed and speak the words that are in your heart. These words can bring great peace to a loved one who is making a transition. This is also true once someone has actually died. For a period of several days after their release, this person can still hear words that are said in the presence of his or her physical body.
From a shamanic point of view, there might be a loved one already on the other side who shows up to help with the transition of the one dying. Often people who are very close to death speak about seeing a loved one who has already made the transition by their bedside. This person is there to offer comfort. We can validate such a person’s experience by knowing and accepting that this is a possibility, although we may not perceive this ourselves. As Sandra points out, we must remain patient and open-minded with someone who is dying. We might not be able to see or feel what he or she is experiencing, but we can validate it through our witnessing:
I had a student who shared that before his grandmother died, she spoke about seeing her mother by her bed whispering words of comfort. The family became frightened by this and called for the doctor. The doctor ordered medicine for her to stop the hallucinations. What a tragedy! A very beautiful scenario would have been created if the family members understood enough to say, “Yes, your mother has appeared to help you.”
Another example of this comes from a brilliant retired hospice worker named John who studied with me. John once shared a touching story of working with a dying priest. On a visit one day, the priest said to John, “Tell me what is going to happen to me when I die.” He responded, “Father, you know what is going to happen to you.” The priest said, “That’s just in the books; tell me what is going to happen to me.” John replied, “At the point of your death, someone who you once loved dearly will be there to meet you and help you. Can you think of someone you would like to see again?” The priest found peace in thinking about someone he would want to see again.
John was not with the priest the night he died, but another hospice nurse was. The last words out of the priest’s mouth were, “Tell John he was right.”
As we age, we might find ourselves called upon to help friends and loved ones who are dying. Offering comfort without pushing any spiritual dogma on someone can be just a few simple words. Creating a space that contains love will transmute fear to even more love.
When speaking to someone who is dying, engage the person with your heart. Death is not an experience that we can intellectualize. Although there is a lot of spiritual information on what happens to us after we die, we really will not know until we die. Yet we can die and help others die knowing that we, and they, are held in love. Love and a sense of calmness are the only things you need to bring to the experience of death, teaches Sandra:
People who are close to death are hypersensitive to the energy around them. If I am in a place of fear or discomfort about being in the room, the person I am with will pick this up. It is important when sitting with someone to get into a centered state. Taking long, deep breaths through the nose into the diaphragm and then breathing out slowly can help you attain this way of being. If you breathe deeply, you will find that your own energy shifts the energy in the room and you will find yourself and the person you are with in a more relaxed state. This will move both of you out of your head and into your heart. Just in this act, a tremendous amount of healing will take place.
When I speak with someone who is dying, I stay away from dogma and theory. If I don’t know the person well, I try to create a conversation that will give me an idea of his or her philosophical and religious beliefs. From there I use vocabulary that will fit into my client’s own belief systems. For example, I will speak to them of guardian angels if they hold strong Christian beliefs. By listening closely, we can find words that will match anyone’s belief system. In this way we can use words that heal instead of creating conflict, confusion, or fear.
I might begin by asking a person how he or she is feeling emotionally and physically. If a person says that he is afraid, I don’t want to invalidate his feelings by saying there is nothing to fear. This is not a healing action. Just allowing a person to speak what is in his or her heart will allow the nature of those feelings to change. Sometimes the most healing action to take is to be fully present and witness whatever comes up. This act creates a space where change and healing can take place.
If a person complains of being in pain, again I want to acknowledge and validate what is being expressed. I might not have a solution to the problem, as a solution might not exist. But being a listening ear always creates healing energy.
From the shamanic/visionary perspective, there are spiritual forces around us at all times that hear our call for help and have compassion for our suffering. These forces might take the form of guardian angels or spirits; they may also take on the form of God; individual gods or goddesses; our own personal god-self or oversoul; or even of deceased loved ones and ancestors who may appear to us as angels, light beings, or ordinary people.
Another way to support people who are about to make transition, teaches Sandra, is to teach them how to journey:
Depending on a person’s spiritual or religious beliefs, I might encourage a dying person to call on a spiritual force that she or he believes can offer assistance. Through the use of prayer and asking divine forces for help, a variety of effects can be achieved. A person might feel peace of mind, or divine intervention might come through to alleviate the pain and suffering experienced in the body.
One of my students taught his father, who was dying of cancer, how to practice shamanic journeying. He gave his father a cassette player with a drumming tape. He educated his father about the shamanic belief that we all have power animals that love and protect us. His father took to shamanic journeying very easily and found a power animal with which he developed a strong relationship. Over time the power animal removed all the father’s pain so that he could stop taking pain medication and live the rest of his life pain-free. This, of course, happened through regular journeying, and his father did keep up the practice until he passed on.
When I have presented the idea of teaching people who are facing death how to journey, the typical response in workshops is, “The people I know who are dying would never agree to learn such a practice.” Yet I have found that when people are in fear, it is often surprising what they are open to.
Hank Wesselman, who also believes that it can be very helpful to teach someone who is dying how to journey, sees particular value in helping the dying access their Sacred Garden:
When a person who is dying revisits the memory of his or her Sacred Garden—the dreaming of a place in Nature in the Middle World that they have loved in life—they often discover spontaneously that the spirits of power animals or deceased loved ones or even ancestors will come to visit with them there. Then, one day or one night, they journey into their garden for the last time and they don’t return.
In such cases, their inner garden becomes their bardo, their personal afterlife transition place, to which they may withdraw and resettle, a place in which their soul in transition may restore itself energetically and adjust to its new state. This is a place in which they may accomplish the past life review and where they may await their Guide to escort them back to their source.
Connecting to the other side before the actual death of the physical body can help a dying person move more peacefully toward death, teaches Sandra:
After I have spent a significant amount of time with a dying person, I ask if they would like to learn a method that will help them connect with spiritual or divine forces to which they can speak their thoughts and feelings.
If a person seems interested, I will introduce him or her to shamanic journeying using vocabulary that fits with their philosophical and religious beliefs, leaving out all theory and background information on shamanism. Most people I have worked with are not interested in learning about shamanism; they are interested in accessing spiritual help. If a person is not interested in this way of accessing help, I move on. I can still provide a tremendous amount of support by saying there are deceased loved ones around who can offer help, or by encouraging a person to pray for help.
Today, many people with cancer are given high dosages of painkillers. If the person is on something like a morphine drip, it is not possible to have them do such spiritual work because she or he will not have significant periods of lucidity. If this is the case, I can play soothing music and talk to them, knowing that some part of them is hearing me and taking in what I am saying.
Some people don’t want to talk about or process their feelings—yet they also don’t want to lie in bed alone. Sitting and maintaining a state of love, appreciation, and compassion can provide a tremendous amount of help. Sitting in silence and continuing to breathe in a normal but deep way will create a healing energy in the room. Often, the most powerful healing is in the silence.
THERE ARE NO UNFINISHED CONVERSATIONS
It is important to complete unfinished business that we have with people before they die. For example, if you feel you have been betrayed by someone who has transitioned, the energy you carry around this issue keeps you connected to that deceased person. You do not become automatically free from them when they pass, and you may feel continually burdened by this connection or issue throughout the rest of your life. In such cases, you might find that the same issue arises in another relationship. It’s as if the issue was never completed for you, and so it keeps coming back, over and over again.
The best way to achieve completion with someone who is dying is to give yourself permission to speak what has been in your heart for years. You might want to communicate the positive feelings as well as what you have appreciated about this person and your relationship. But you might also want to mention the struggles or problems that still need resolution between you—and this can be done in a mindful and gentle way.
If a person is unconscious or in a coma, you can still speak the truth that lives in your heart. Sometimes it feels easier to speak to someone who is unconscious since they can’t respond in words. Later you might find completion of the conversation in a dream or meditation.
Although the two of you might have some level of discomfort if the person is conscious when you mention difficulties between you, it is best to speak what is in your heart. A person who is close to death will want to unburden him or herself before leaving just as much as you want to have closure.
Sometimes a person close to transition will bring up deeply personal issues. If this happens, practice healthy communication. The key here is to start with what you have appreciated and loved about each other. When moving on to talk about problematic feelings, do not move into a place of blame and judgment. As long as you stick to your feelings, you are in a good place. No one can invalidate your feelings.
For example, communication expressed as, “You hurt me when . . .” can be changed to “Your behavior or your actions hurt me when . . .” Another way of saying this would be “I felt hurt when . . .” Saying “You hurt me” is an attack and can create a reaction that could set up a situation where you feel invalidated. If you say, “Your actions or behavior hurt me,” you are not attacking the person, just the behavior. And if you stick to how the actions or behavior made you feel, no one can react to this with rejection or judgment.
If you can do this in a healthy manner, you both will achieve closure. If the intensity of the conversation is too high and you can only communicate in a way that throws you both into a place of blame and judgment, a call to a helping professional who can mediate a healthy conversation might be useful.
It is vital to acknowledge and honor your feelings without feeling guilty about them. We often feel guilty about the feelings we have—especially when we are around someone who is dying or very sick. We can get into blaming ourselves for not having more compassion. But the truth is that these feelings are real and they live inside of us. Either we express the energy or we repress the energy. Repressed feelings, if held for too long, can cause an energy blockage within us that can make us sick. The key is to express our feelings honestly and with integrity, and then with intention we transmute or transform the energy around the feelings so that the energy may become one of love. When we do this, all involved are liberated.
It is always best to communicate what is in your heart and mind with people before they die. However, you can do this with a person who has already died through the use of a shamanic journey. How to journey to meet someone who has died is described later in this chapter.
From the shamanic perspective, when we can’t forgive someone, we are “stealing part of his or her soul.” It is as though we hold on to a part of their essence. The tricky part about this is that we cannot force ourselves to forgive someone. Forgiveness is something that happens; it is not something we do. But we can set our intention to finding a way for forgiveness to happen so that both parties are set free from each other. As we put our attention to this task, we create an energy where forgiveness can slowly begin to happen.
One way to invite forgiveness into your heart, teaches Sandra, is to create a ritual:
EXERCISE: CREATING CLOSURE
Performing a ritual to break the connection and ask for forgiveness can be very helpful. This can create closure with a person who is still alive or who is deceased. You can do something as simple as walking out into Nature and finding a stick that can symbolize your relationship. Breaking the stick and asking from a place of love that the ties between you be broken sets an intention that will now have its own momentum. It is best not to perform rituals while you are angry as this energy will prevent closure from happening.
You might also build a small fire or burn some incense with the intention of releasing the connection between the two of you. This helps send the essence of this person on to a good place. In addition, you might write a letter expressing your feelings and then burn it. Allow the fire to transform all the energy of your feelings to love. This can help break the connection with another where closure is needed.
It is best to attain closure while a person is alive, but sometimes this is not always possible. You can always journey to the person with whom you need resolution. Use deep breathing to center and change your awareness. Play the journeying audio. Ask your power animal or teacher to take you to the friend, relative, or loved one with whom you would like to visit.
When journeying to the person with whom you need resolution, it is helpful to meet them in your Sacred Garden, says Hank. The Sacred Garden is a perfect place to accomplish this meeting with spiritual allies or loved ones who have already passed over because it is in the same level in which the discarnate soul finds itself immediately after the death of the physical body.
If you are not successful in finding the person you are looking for in your journey, you can still find ways of making a connection to them. According to Sandra, you just need to remain firm with your intention:
If it is not time for them to have human contact, they will not show up. This has nothing to do with you. It might be a time out for spiritual healing or their soul might have transitioned to a place where they don’t want any human contact.
If they are capable of contact, your intention, as well as the connection that you had with them in life, will establish a line of communication. Tell your loved one what is in your heart. Share what is unfinished for you. Although you might miss them greatly, when you are done with the ritual, wish them well and release them energetically from you so that you are both free to follow your own destiny. Then, you are no longer holding them here and they can return to source.
In many native cultures, a shaman performs ceremonies to help people on their way at the time of their death. Among the Pomo Indians of Northern California, a “pushing-through” ceremony might be performed in which loved ones gather around a dying person and actually push their arms up into the air while visualizing the person making a smooth journey back to their original source.
This ceremony adds power to the shaman’s guidance at the time of death, but, as Sandra teaches, having a community of loved ones around someone at the time of death is a wonderful gift:
A friend of mine who practiced and taught shamanism called in her community to help her with her own passing. She was at the end of a long battle with cancer. She was very lucky in that she had a loving and supportive community of friends, clients, and students who had helped her with her physical needs as she became too debilitated to care for herself. My friend taught her community a song that she wanted to hear at the time of her death. The song was about a river flowing back to the source.
It was clear to those people who helped with her care that the time had come to call on the rest of her community. Everyone showed up and drummed, rattled, and sang my friend into her transition. Being able to be present in community, or with family, creates closure for all concerned. What a great way to start on the journey back to our spiritual home. And by bringing consciousness and mindfulness to the dying process, the more consciously the rest of us can live.
Alberto Villoldo points out that when a person struggles in their journey to cross over, even with the help of community, it may be that he or she has worldly issues that need to be resolved:
An extraordinary phenomenon occurs at the moment of death. Shamans believe that when neural activity ceases and the brain shuts down, a portal opens between dimensions. The veils between the worlds part, enabling the dying person to enter into the world of Spirit. When a person has unfinished business in this world, she is unable to step easily through this portal, for we cannot carry our worldly identity into the beyond.
A person who is weighed down by heavy emotional baggage remains bound to the Earth. This soul has to go through a very intensive life review as soon as he or she arrives on the other side. Some people who have had a near—death experience recall a panoramic life review— a very detailed and comprehensive judgment day—even though the experience occurred in only minutes of Earth time. When the person does not return to the physical body, the life review can seem to take years. The toxic energies and relationships accumulated over the course of a lifetime have to be cleared and released, until there is forgiveness.
The vast majority of reports in the literature on near-death experiences recount positive experiences. Yet when cardiologist Maurice Rollins interviewed patients who had died and been resuscitated on the operating table, he found many people had ghastly experiences. They reported encounters that were frightening, fearful, and painful. And then, within a short period of time, the patients forgot about the painful parts of the encounter. Many of their descriptions were similar to the bardo plains or “hell realms” written about in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. This leads us to believe that these patients still had some unresolved business.
Raymond Moody, one of the foremost investigators of near-death experiences, states: “The judgment in the cases I studied came not from the beings of light, who seemed to love and accept these people anyway, but rather from within the individual being judged.” This means that our own self-judgment is what causes us a tremendous amount of suffering. Each and every person is the accused, the defendant, the judge, and the jury all at once. How ready are we to forgive ourselves? Forgiveness and closure while we are still living is the focus of recapitulation, a method to heal emotional issues you have with another person so that you can disconnect from them in a healthy way.
In The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the life review occurs in the bardo planes or what Westerners call purgatory. We go through a dark tunnel and are met by beings to face our judgment day. It is in these domains where we cleanse; if we don’t have a physical body, this is a very slow process— a time of suffering. It is important for the family to give voice to the forgiveness they wish to extend to the dying person and the words of love that have not been expressed during the course of a lifetime. You would be surprised at the healing power of a simple “I love you.” This is not always easy, of course, yet a lifetime of mistakes can be undone through forgiveness even at the end of a life.
Thus, the recapitulation journey at the time of death is about saying “I love you” and “I forgive you.” It is a form of life-review process that we can do while the person is crossing over to the spirit world, and it saves everyone involved from great pain and effort. According to a lot of near-death literature, for some people who are going through their review, time seems to stand still, but it actually happens in just a few minutes. In our panoramic life review, every action, word, and deed we have performed appears before us and must be accounted for. We observe it, feel it, and relive it.
The sooner you commence the recapitulation, and the more extensive the life review you accomplish, the easier your transition will be. Sometimes it is difficult to begin this conversation, especially if you have not had an intimate dialogue with your loved one in years. Find an entry point for dialogue. A way to initiate or frame this sharing may be to imagine you are both sitting next to a river and that the memories between you are floating by.
Always assist a person who is telling his or her “story.” Be a sacred witness without judgment or comment; just listen to their sharing. When were the times this person felt self-disappointment, when was this person of service, loved, or regretful? What does he or she remember? Look at the ways he or she could have honored others and didn’t, or ways he or she hurt others. Help them to forgive themselves. Again, it’s not about your forgiveness, but that this person forgives him-or herself. Help your loved one recognize that they are the hardest judges.
Recapitulation offers your loved one the opportunity to tell you his or her story, which has cathartic and healing power. It is the equivalent of doing your life review before you have actually died. Recapitulation is not a time for recriminations about past events; it is a time to listen to your loved one’s life. Whom does she need to forgive? Remind her that she can forgive through a prayer or a blessing. Ultimately, the dying person needs to forgive herself and know that she is fully forgiven by life. Lastly, ask her how she would like to be remembered. What are the stories she would like her grandchildren to remember her by? Recapitulation brings closure through forgiveness. Assist your loved one in letting go of any feelings of having been wronged or having wronged anyone else.
Tremendous forgiveness can occur in the recapitulation process. But do not expect to be a miracle worker or think that you can heal a lifetime of pain in just a few minutes. People tend to die in the same way that they have lived, which is why it is important to bring mindfulness and communication to the dying process. Dying is a profoundly emotional experience for everyone involved, and it tends to bring back memories and feelings about the entire life of the person. If he was an angry person throughout life, there may well be unresolved anger when people gather. Family dynamics of the past tend to be magnified in such stressful circumstances. Be careful not to react to it or to take it personally.
Powerful realizations often come uninvited as one approaches death. It is possible that the dying person will wish he or she had lived differently, loved more fully, and forgiven more readily. Make it okay for your loved one to voice his feelings, and respond to his anger with physical comfort and support. Hold your loved one’s hand as he cries or expresses his ire. Be an unshakable source of love and unconditional support even in a storm of rage. The more willing your loved one is to forgive himself, the more quickly his rage will turn into compassion.
If your loved one’s condition is critical and he has not been informed of this, by all means let him know. Most people know anyway. They can feel the change among the family members present—the new quietness in the room, the hushed voices, the forced smiles. It is best to be direct, yet gentle and compassionate. Your straightforwardness will give your loved one permission to be open and disclosing with you. He will know that he can count on you to speak the truth.
GRANTING PERMISSION TO DIE
Some people have a hard time dying if they feel a responsibility to stay and help loved ones. According to Alberto Villoldo, giving someone the permission to die is necessary, and it can also be a tender, loving gift:
An important step in the dying process is that the dying need to feel that they have permission to die. We need to let the person who is dying know that there is no reason to worry about those who are staying behind. Without your permission to die, your loved one might cling to life for months, enduring unnecessary suffering and causing great anguish for the family. Permission must come from the immediate family, and ideally there should be a consensus. If there is a dissenting family member who won’t let go, encourage that person to express love and forgiveness nonetheless. Many times the family members who have the hardest time letting go are the ones who have the most unfinished business with the dying person or who are the most frightened of their own death.
Make sure that all immediate relatives voice their feelings to the dying person. Permission from those closest to the person carries the most weight, even if it is a personal friend or confidant and not an immediate family member.
Countless shamans talk about the importance of this step. I had a student who sat beside her dying mother for weeks. The older woman was unable to let go, despite the fact that she was in a great deal of pain and could no longer eat. The student had cleaned her mother’s chakras, her energetic centers, and she and her sister had begun to forgive each other and heal the lesions of the past.
She finally said, “Mother, we are here with you and love you very much. We want you to know that we will be okay. We will look after each other and keep our family together. Even though we will miss you, it is perfectly natural for you to go. We will treasure all of the beautiful moments that we had together, but we don’t want you to suffer anymore or to continue clinging to life. You have our full and complete permission to die. You know that we will always love you.” A few hours later her mother took her final breath and died peacefully.
ALL GOD’S CREATURES GRIEVE
Death is a rite of passage that involves a new journey beyond this life. For the person who is leaving, it can be a time of celebration, for in a sense they are graduating. For those of us left behind, it is a time for grieving, and feelings of sadness and loss are natural. Humans grieve, animals grieve, and even plants grieve.
At Stanford University in California, in a long-term study that has been extensively published, a female gorilla named Koko learned American Sign Language from her keeper Penny Patterson. Through signing and gesture, she has been able to communicate many things, including her grief about the hunters who killed her mother, as well as the loss of the kitten who became her companion in captivity. The observance of such behavior in other animals—including elephants, wolves, birds, and domestic pets— suggests that all creatures experience a period of grief when a mate or offspring dies.
Grief is a natural process that we all experience with a loss. In our busy lives we don’t always give ourselves the time to grieve our losses. We try to get on with our lives as quickly as possible. Gone are the days when loved ones and families were left alone to grieve.
If we don’t take time to grieve, however, the energy around the loss builds up inside of us as a pervasive state of disharmony that may affect us later on. We might become ill or find ourselves acting out in a way that we don’t understand.
Often, we have to return to our jobs and our daily routines, but it is important to create time for ourselves to grieve. You might enter into one of the many grief groups that exist in your area. You might want to create some time during the day where you can be with yourself. You might tell co-workers and friends of your loss or let yourself cry with others.
A good way to support those in sadness and loss is to let them express their feelings without trying to heal them or make them better. A good way for them to heal is to express the energy of the loss until it doesn’t exist anymore. Trying to repress it for public appearances just delays healing. One way to work through the grief process, teaches Sandra, is through journeying and ritual:
Once when I lost a friend who was very dear to me, I journeyed on a ritual that I could use to help me deal with my loss. The information I received was that I needed to channel my loving feelings toward this person. I had all this love that no longer could be expressed. I was guided to plant a tree in my back yard that I could care for as I wanted to still care for this lost friend. Nourishing this new life was a wonderful way for me to use my energy that had no other way to express itself.
Sometimes a dear friend or loved one is taken from us unexpectedly. In such an instance, it can be hard to achieve closure, and the shock and grief can be more painful than when you can prepare for someone’s death.
I had a good friend who was suddenly killed in a car crash. She had many friends, but most of us didn’t know each other. It took weeks for all of us to find each other but eventually we did.
It was important to us to grieve with others who knew her. We created a memorial for her. We met at her house because she loved the land on which she lived. We gathered in a circle, and I asked everyone to share a story about her and what he or she loved and missed about her. After each person shared, I asked him or her to push up with their arms, sending her on in her journey while releasing any attachments to her.
At the end of the ceremony, we all felt that we had achieved a profound sense of closure.
Hank shares this story from his background as an anthropologist and as a workshop leader of more than eighteen years:
About ten years ago, I was approached by a woman at a workshop at the Omega Institute near New York who informed me that she had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and was approaching the decidedly mixed experience of chemotherapy plus radiation and possibly a mastectomy. As I sat beside her and listened to her story, I perceived wave after wave of her fear about these upcoming possibilities. I then asked her a few pointed questions and learned that she was in a deep state of mourning for her partner who had died (she was lesbian).
A further question uncovered an issue of grave concern. I asked her when her partner had passed, and she informed me that this had happened five years ago. Despite the passage of those five years, she was still in a deep state of grief. She simply could not let go of her catastrophic sense of loss, and from my shamanic perspective this had created a deep sense of disharmony in her soul complex—a disharmony that had been held for much too long and was now generating disharmony in her body, hence the cancer.
We then had a serious talk in which I shared with her my knowledge of an indigenous way of dealing with grief—an account that is published in The Sacred Pipe by Oglala shaman and medicine man Black Elk.1
When faced with the loss of a loved one and the grief that inevitably follows, the Lakota and Oglala Sioux peoples of the Plains Indian cultural complex traditionally created a medicine bundle—one that could have incorporated an item of the deceased person’s clothing or something special they had valued in life. The soul of the deceased was then invited to reside in that bundle so that the grieving person could ritually care for them, feed them with their love, sleep and dream with them, even ritually bathe them. The bereaved would care for this bundle in this way for one year; then after one year to the day, the bundle would be opened. The soul of the loved one would then be released and the grieving would cease on that day.
The Lakota knew that grief held for too long was detrimental to the bereaved as well as to the community in which the grieving person was a member.
As I shared this with my workshop participant, I could see how this indigenous wisdom helped shift her inner sense of balance. She got the message, and she looked much better in the week that followed, yet I don’t know how this story turned out as I never heard from her again.