I taught the first workshop in my Ritual Healing Skills series last weekend in Calgary, and I’m still floating on the magic the group created together. The focus of this first workshop was on deepening our own personal relationships with death, dying and our dead, because we can’t help others come to terms with mortality if we haven’t done so ourselves. The activities spurred rich conversation and deep learning, and and there were moments of remarkable and poignant healing. This is what the curriculum is designed for, and what I was hoping and more or less expecting would happen.
What I wasn’t expecting, however, was the degree to which the warm-hearted community that formed during our time together was such an important part of what people got out of the weekend. Participants talked about feeling isolated in their circles, because they wanted to explore ideas about death, but were regularly told that this was “morbid” or “weird.” Some folks had felt the call to be present with death from a very young age, and had pushed that calling deep underground because it wasn’t supported or validated by their family and friends. For many people in the group, being in a group with other like-hearted folks was a profound experience of coming home.
It can be lonely to walk with death in this culture, because not only do we push away death, we also push away the gifts of people whose calling is to be with death. There are a few professions (primarily palliative care, funeral service, and the clergy) whose members work intimately with death but, other than that, we are sadly lacking in avenues through which people can engage deeply with mortality. As a society, we need skilled people who can help us to be with death, but because of our collective death phobia and denial, there are very few channels through which non-professionals can offer that service. That’s a loss on both sides: when our soul-gifts aren’t received by our community, the community suffers, and so do we.
Much of my work is guided by a line of Stephen Jenkinson’s: “The mark of a good death is that it is a village making event.” In my work with clients and families I see again and again how true this is. What’s also becoming evident, however, is that those of us us who are called to walk with death also need a village. Especially as this movement is finding its feet, we need places where people with a secret, buried passion for deathly things can bring those sparks out of hiding, and let them be seen and validated by others who truly understand them. Together, we can blow gently on them until they become flames that have the strength to burn on their own.
In every community, we need guilds of death walkers, societies of death midwives, collaboratives of death doulas. We need spaces where the much-needed and long-forgotten skills of walking people across the veil can be remembered and re-invented for our modern world. We need support to help silence the voices that say this work is odd or that we are odd for being called to it. We need to feel what it’s like to be welcomed and applauded, rather than silenced, for exploring complex and difficult questions about life and death. At the heart of it all, we need each other, because death is much too big to face alone.