Death, Fear and Denial : Some thoughts from a Western Magical Perspective

I wrote this back in 2004 following the death of Vivienne Elanta. In recent months I have seem the same fear and denial arise among within magical communities, physical and virtual. So I think this may be worth an airing now, though of course its themes are perennial. When do we stop praying and working magic for ‘a miracle’ and help our beloved ones prepare to journey to the Other Country?   

I learnt of Vivienne’s illness only a few weeks before her death. A once close friend, she was diagnosed with an untreatable and fast growing brain tumour. I started grieving upon hearing the news, crying tears at work, hiding my heated face in the toilet. This intensified after I visited her and experienced directly what her illness meant. I sat with her and we talked and were reconciled and at peace. At this stage I was tempted to slip away. I had not seen Vivienne for several years; I had no obligation, no need to commit. But as I walked in the dark from the hospital I knew I was caught. Being trained in the death and dying wisdom of the western magical tradition, I could not just leave. Death was near and tugged at me, demanding my attention, calling me to action, not just for Vivienne, but for her – for Lady Death, also. So I offered what skills and wisdom I knew and in that offering I learnt more than I gave.

Fear

Despite the rapid and global organisation of healing circles, I had no hope Vivienne would survive. She was going to die. Many people at this stage were still praying for a healing miracle, meaning a recovery of Vivienne’s bodily health. I did not. Instead I prayed and worked magic for her to be whole, regardless of life or death. This approach is described in a novel by Tony Hillerman where he describes a Navajo man, Chee, remembering the healing of his grandmother:

Most of all he remembered the hataalii standing grey and thin and tall over his grandmother, holding a tortoiseshell rattle and a prayer plume of eagle feathers, chanting poetry from the emergence story, making Old Lady Many Mules one with White Shell Girl, restoring her to beauty and harmony. And restore her it had. Chee remembered staying at the old woman’s place, playing with his cousins and their sheepdogs seeing his grandmother happy again, hearing her laughter. She died of course. The disease was lung cancer, or perhaps tuberculosis, and people with such diseases died – as all people do. (Quoted in The Trickster, Magician and Grieving Man by Glen A Mazis, p. 240.)

Because our culture has such an intense fear of death we frame our healing in terms of life. Healing however comes from the word for ‘wholeness’ and within many traditions healing does not automatically mean to live. Unless we see death as an integral and right part of life we cannot hold this view. All authentic spiritual traditions, ancient and modern, have a holy place reserved for death. Within the western traditions the magic circle is divided into two halves, one that tracks our life from birth to death and the other which tracks our existence from death to rebirth. Healing is about being whole within ourselves, integrated and complete. We can be healed and die. We can live and not be healed. Without healing though we are fragmented and splintered, in life or death. We become the unquiet dead, restless and longing. Or we become living cogs in a ravenous, ever-hungry consumerism that feeds on injustice and pain.

death boatman squareAs I talked with Vivienne and members of the community that gathered around her, I tasted fear. This was good. It nurtured the realness of the world for me, its presence on my tongue grounding me into reality, denying escape into thoughts of miracles or ‘karmic plans’. I felt fear and was afraid. Afraid for Vivienne. Afraid for my own mortality, and for that of my son. I was afraid of the petty self within me which was glad it was her, not I lying there, dying in hospital sheets. While not happy, I was glad of my fear and the fear surrounding Vivienne. Others however, were not. Despite embracing a deep ecological world-view that encompasses death and despair, it was hard for people to show their fear. We were asked not to say that Vivienne was dying, as “miracles do occur”. Healing – meaning life – “was possible” and many healers were working hard. Functionally, this request told us to think ‘positively’ (Vivienne lives) and that ‘negative’ thoughts (Vivienne dies) would only hinder the healing process.

This request showed clearly how pervasive the fear of death is, no matter what we do or what we think, no matter what philosophy or religion we hold. Fear of death seeps in and takes up residence in the by-ways of our souls. In infests our spiritual traditions, our healing, our relationships and life. It becomes the unseen demon resting on our shoulder, the inner discomfort in our dance. Despite allegiance to worldviews and theologies that give a positive orientation to death, we are afraid and uncomfortable with her. Expression of that fear becomes more shadowed and denied, more unspeakable in traditions which have death positive theologies than those that do not. This is a sad paradox. Membership of a group or tradition that has a positive death theology can hinder the expression of real fears and reaction to death. I was blessed with the circumstance of returning to Vivienne’s community after several years of absence and dislocation. I functioned in many ways as an outsider. The discomfort of being outside gave me the gift of opening and tasting my own fear and the fear of others. I believe that the real fears of many of Vivienne’s community were not expressed, chiefly because death was seen as ‘natural’. No need to be afraid. End of story.

There is of course far more to the story. The western magical tradition, like many spiritual traditions, recognise different ‘selves’ or aspects of the complete human being. The two primal selves, the Guph and the Nephesch can be equated to the biological life processes and the unconscious. Our minds, personalities and emotions, together with our spiritual consciousness are affected by these primal selves and vice versa. When we are physically sick our emotions and cognition are affected. When we meditate we release bodily tension and lower our blood pressure. However, the primal selves are billions of years old, resting on the wisdom and raw power of evolution beyond human comprehension. Our human minds are at best 100 000 years old. When we die, our primal selves struggle, resist and are afraid. As we die few of us can exert much control over this process. At best we can deny, very effectively in some cases, that such fear is occurring. This denial however has a heavy price as it greatly hinders the ongoing after death processes. If we are not in denial, we are afraid. It is natural, it is human and it is us.

In the popular Tibetan Book of Living and Dying Sogyal Rinpoche describes his master Jamyang Khyenste, a very accomplished and respected Lama. Jamyang Khyenste spent his life in the study of Buddhist wisdom concerning death. He knew intimately the process of dying and guided many people through the various stages of dying and beyond. Yet he often said that he was afraid of death and counselled against people treating death lightly (TBLD, p.5). This is wise counsel: no matter how we are in our lives, no matter what we consciously believe and what spiritual practice we follow, dying will be a profound shock. We will still feel fear. When an accomplished master speaks of his own fear, so much more is the call for us, who are not accomplished, to sit up and take notice. Recognition of death as natural process is not enough.

While I sat with Vivienne after her first operation, feeling the muted fear of her community and my own complicity in that muting, I realised that fear is the twin sister of death. We cannot offer a place for death at our table without inviting fear also. Without an invitation fear will attend anyway. But she will lurk in the shadows, away from the table light and whisper half heard poems of disturbance throughout the meal. My learning here was a determination to embrace and invite death’s twin sister, fear. Maybe in other cultures or other times we need not make such an invitation, but today in the west, where a central theme of our society is avoidance of death, we desperately need to see this unwelcome dinner guest.

‘The right intention’

After two operations and a short period in hospital, Vivienne came home to die. By now the expectations of miracles had decreased, but not altogether ceased. Life and death – being the mysteries they are – miracles did occur. I witnessed with wonder Vivienne speaking clearly a single word after weeks where speech had been lost. This was a miracle for those by her bedside, not for Vivienne. It was a reminder that the gaunt and dying woman before us was still the same, resplendent soul we knew and loved. I also saw the miracle of Vivienne at peace, connected with her garden and the earth blessings as she slept next to her beloved John. And when she came to gasp her last, Vivienne and John were granted a final miracle; her dying in the gaze and adoration of her partner. So miracles did occur, but life ceased.

During this time the shadowed words, ‘death’ ‘dying’ and ‘never’ emerged once again. My focus at this stage included the post-mortem journey Vivienne would shortly be undertaking. Other people also had thoughts and ideas along these lines. Many of these were prompted by exposure to the Tibetan Buddhist view, particularly through The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Having studied the Tibetan understanding a little and being trained in western magical views, I realised that most of the ideas suggested were based on only a partial understanding of the process. This is perfectly understandable as few of us have had the blessing and opportunity to study under Tibetan lamas. However, there was little recognition of the problems a partial understanding of the dying process may bring about. When I voiced my concerns, the majority of responses belonged to one or two views:

First, that whatever we did, even if it was incomplete, would benefit Vivienne since it would be done with ‘the right intention’. Or, secondly, death being a natural process, all would be well anyway. These two viewpoints worried me and gave me no assurance that the dying of my old friend would be well.

The first view is functionally equivalent to someone reading a few books on midwifery and deciding to help their friend give birth. ‘Midwifing the dying’, as it is now popularly called, is a rich and vast subject. In many spiritual traditions it is taught and refined over many years. In Tibetan tradition the practitioner is required to complete comprehensive training and initiations before they begin to study this topic. The short esoteric courses being offered on the subject stress the incomplete nature of their curriculum. It is a spiritual action of deep mystery, way beyond simple intention and requiring discipline, skill and practice.

DCIM100GOPROIn almost every tradition the process of guiding the dying is seen to be successfully accomplished with the assistance of non-incarnate helpers or spiritual blessings. Despite assurances from new age folk determined to put a positive gloss on all things, these helpers or blessings cannot be readily called upon at will. A strong relationship between the guide and the helpers or the blessings is required. This relationship has to be built, like all relationships, through time and trust. While it is true that the vast majority of people in our secular western culture die unaided and assisted, there is no reason to assume that partial intervention will benefit the process. Like all partial intervention, there may be some benefit or no benefit and, on occasion, actual detriment. Again, I refer to the parallel with birth; an untrained but well meaning person who has read a few books on midwifery may be of help, but could just as easily cause real problems and harm.

When I expressed these views to a couple of people in Vivienne’s community I was struck by resistance to them. Much of the resistance stemmed from a reading of the views as elitist, by positing that only some people can help the dying process. This is not the case. All authentic spiritual traditions rely upon and include community support for the dying and beloved dead. However, it is also true that virtually every tradition other than those (re)created in the modern west have specialists who span the mystery realms of life and death – priests, shamans, magicians. Sadly over emphasis on egalitarianism and a fear of hierarchy has robbed many of our traditions and communities of the role of the priest or shaman. And it is exactly in such transitional and stressful times as death when the priest is called into service. For our beloved dead this is especially sad. Whereas comforting and supporting the dying is a role best left to family, guidance of the newly dead is a hard task and a big ask of a newly bereft family or partner. What happened with Vivienne, which I suspect happens often, is that there was little or no support for the newly dead. This reinforced strongly my belief that the effective priest, the spanner and walker between the worlds, is as much required today as ever.

The second view I mentioned, that death is a natural process and will therefore transpire without problems is simply naïve. Even a cursory examination of other natural processes such as birth and sexual maturation show this – even within the ‘natural’ animal world. With death however, the majority of problems occur in the non-physical realm where they are hidden to our general perception. The western cultural bias denying the existence of (and participation within) a non-physical universe plays an important role here. Because we cannot easily see the problems and difficulties faced by our beloved dead does not mean they do not exist. However, even if we accept the possibility of the continued existence of the dead we are struck by another problem; the lack of maps and models to explain and make sense of this phenomenon. A lack of a coherent and shared map of the post-mortem experience was very evident in Vivienne’s community. The result was a mish-mash model of half formed thoughts and ideas from various traditions, books and popular novels. Without an effective and coherent model of transition we cannot accompany and track the newly dead through their journeys. This reinforced to me again the value of tradition and well developed theology to match the popular focus on innovation and practice.

The Other Country

So as Vivienne died and after her death I worked my magic mostly alone, drawing from the blessings and training I have been privileged to receive. While this was an honour I felt sad for my friend. The community that she had worked so hard and long to create in life, and which had supported her beautifully in her illness and dying, was not present for her after she died. This was not out of disrespect or lack of care, but mostly out of lack of knowledge. Much of this knowledge is not deep and esoteric. Most cultures and traditions have very clear taboos or customs involving the conduct of family and friends of the newly dead. These serve the same end – a smooth transition of the beloved dead through her journey. The western fear and denial of death has erased these customs and taboos or warped them into garbled and misunderstood superstition. This has robbed us of the power and ability to assist our dead in their journey. The need for the restoration of this knowledge in the west touched me deeply and hard. This writing was partly born out of that touch, in an effort to inspire some desire to reclaim this knowledge and awareness of the hidden side of death.

After Vivienne died I was asked to help organise the funeral and act as MC. Like many people in the deep ecological and new age communities, Vivienne was not a member of any organised religion but had her own personal spirituality. This was informed by wisdom from a number of spiritual traditions but fully aligned to none. Before she died she made only a few small references to her funeral and consequently when we began to compose the service difficulties arose. These centred largely on what to include, but on reflection I would now ask simply, ‘who is the funeral for?’ Is it for the deceased or for her community, or both? Is it to remember and grieve and let go, or does it also attempt to help move the dead onward in their journey? If these issues were clearly addressed in the planning of Vivienne’s funeral, the process would have gone smoother.

These are crucial questions which need to be addressed by each of us before we die. How do I want my funeral to be? How do I want to die? How do I want to be remembered? The Western magical tradition encourages us to ask these questions, to talk with our family and community and record our carefully thought out wishes, now before we die. We can use answering these questions as a spiritual opportunity to face and accept our own mortality. And since we are constantly changing, we need to repeat this process regularly. Some magicians do this yearly, along with updating their will, around Halloween, a traditional time of the dead.  If nothing else answering these questions will lessen the burden for those whom we leave behind to mourn.

Continuation

After Vivienne died several people reported ‘odd’ events or ‘coincidences’ which they attributed to her presence or influence. During a gathering of her community we were asked to name something we would like Vivienne to help us with ‘from the other side’. The beliefs and assumptions behind these observations and request are not part of historical religious or spiritual traditions. They belong to the popular new age movement, not part of any coherent theology. What they indicate is the need for mourners to perceive a sense of continuation of their beloved dead. Since the majority of Vivienne’s community did not subscribe to any formal belief of reincarnation, salvation or an afterlife, they perceived her continuing presence in nature, frogs, inner knowledge and in at least one case of direct channelled communication. The need to know that our loved ones continue is strong and if our worldview does not provide a container or recognition for this need, it can spill out into unbalanced ideas and thoughts. If this does occur we may fall prey to unhealthy spiritual systems and groups, or simply end up believing in nonsense, like the notion that the recently dead can assist people in their studies or to find a new lover.

Vivienne has been dead for two months. According to my tradition, I have tracked her and assisted her as she transformed and lost her identity as Vivienne, moving into that mystery we know so little of. For many people she continues in their memories of a strong and vital eco-activist. She also lives on through a fund in her name to provide training in activism. For me she lives on not as a woman or activist, but in the knowledge I learnt from her and her community as she died and afterwards. This knowledge will always be a part of me. It has already changed my perspective and life, informed and clarified by spiritual training. When next death comes to my door, all I have learnt from Vivienne’s death will stand with me in some way.

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8 comments

  1. Sue Vincent · February 14, 2014

    I have felt more fear of those I love surviving than of their dying. Of their death I have feared my own grief and reactions and watching others grieve in a culture that shies away from death. I do not fear my own death but the manner of its arrival and the ‘end’ of the human ties for this part of the cycle… and the grief of those who remain with questions and fears unanswered.

    There is something else too. Though I feel no fear there is a wondering of what it will be like to be conscious yet no longer me, and this ego-death is, I think, at the root of many of our fears and all the denial.

    But it is the first part of your article that touches me the most. Healing. There is much written about that these days and the essential truth of what you write here is often overlooked. Yes, you can pray for miracles… and miracles of healing that we can see and understand do occur. I have seen that happen when my own son woke… and that was definitely a moment when the fear of recovery and all its implications was greater than the fear of death. But there is a point beyond which miracles are just that… so far beyond possibility that they would need to be miracles in the biblical sense to occur. It is at this point denial digs its heels in as an expression of our fear of death and we refuse to see both its inevitability and its rightness.

    As my late partner and lifelong friend was dying I saw this so often as people projected their own fears onto the process and refused to see, cheering him along to a recovery that simply could not happen and thus, perhaps, unwittingly robbing him .. and themselves.. of the real support during the latter stages of that journey.

    Mainstream thought and faith in the West seems to teach little of the matter of death and it remains a closed and fearsome book to most. We have lost much with the passing… again through fear… of the wise-folk who assisted at the death and birth either end of life. Our sanitised and clinical manner of dealing with the process in general offers nothing to either living or dead.

  2. Sally N. · February 14, 2014

    Thanks Peregrin for this very timely (at least for me) reflection on death and its aftermath. I’ve seen it many times in New Age circles: the terror of death and extinction, the need to promote ‘healing’ which only means fixing the body, the group denials, and the inability to let people go. There is a lot to think about here, and much which resonates with me.

  3. Fiona · February 15, 2014

    Hello Peregrine, Thank you so much for this timely post.

    Here is a thought or should that be thought(s):

    Here in the UK over the recent Christmas period, our terrestrial TV included broadcasts of the whole series of both the Star Wars and Harry Potter films. These are 2 of the great modern myths and their popularity is reflected in both film attendances and book sales. OK, a cynic might say it made for easy scheduling, and as t was the first terrestrial broadcast of the last Harry Potter, so guaranteed good ratings. But this does not get to the root of why both are so popular.

    What is interesting is how both have a major antagonist centred on the fear of death.

    Anakin Skywalker turns to the Dark Side because of his vision of Padme’s death in childbirth.

    Tom Riddle splits his soul and stores it in Horcruxes on his route to becoming Lord Voldemort (from the French for Flight from/of Death)

    If formal religious allegiance has declined and there is less awareness of the death process then the fear is being reflected directly in popular culture.

    However, what actually concerns me most is “basic hygiene”.

    There are a lot of people in the West who do not believe in any form of post-mortem existence.

    What does this mean in terms of their death process both immediately before and after? No-one gives them appropriate care or preparation because there is no point. So, what happens to them when, well, there is something and they are completely unprepared?

    Also many funerals are for remembrance and are not necessarily “rites” for the deceased person.

    What does this mean for everyone else still living if they don’t move on and linger?

    What can we do?

    A very difficult, but necessary subject.

    So thanks again.

    Best Wishes
    Fiona

  4. Anne North · February 23, 2014

    Hi Peregrin, This post is also timely for myself. I am in the process of helping a wife cope with her husband who is ‘dying’ of cancer. Both husband and wife belong to the wiccan community and it has surprised me of their reactions to this process. The wife tells me that I am one of the very few people who will actually discuss with her the possibility of her husbands death/passing over. Many in the wiccan community are adamant that she should not think about this and that she should only think ‘positive’ thoughts about her husbands recovery. I am well aware of the strength and very real nature of thought forms . But my concerns are with the loved ones who are left behind after the person dies. All throughout the death process they have been praying for a ‘miracle’, visualizing her husband healthy and growing up with his daughters. And then this does not happen and he passes on to the next world. Their grief is sudden and they have the very real possibility of ‘losing faith’ in a belief system which did not come up with the goods. I am of the belief that this well intentioned ‘miracle’ talk is in fact a societal response of not being able to cope with death themselves. It is just veiled in talk due to being uncomfortable about death and talking about it. This is how strong the ego fights against physical death. You are absolutely right when you talk about the healing that can be done in preparation leading up to death. This is not just for the dying, but also for those left behind as well.

  5. Peregrin · February 24, 2014

    Hi Anne – great comment regards family and those left living. you are spot on the money from my own experience. THANKS 🙂

  6. MvdV · March 2, 2014

    The fear of death and removal of out from our everyday life actually lessens our appreciation of life itself.

    Momento Mori and our acceptance of death as part of our lives enhances not only appreciating our current lives but what we may recieve later.

  7. Peregrin · March 4, 2014

    GREAT comment, FR MvdV – THANKS 🙂

  8. Celtic Fire · March 7, 2014

    Hi Peregrin

    A very thought provoking and helpful post. I was really captivated by what you’ve written. Thanks!

    My old teacher used to regularly drill in to me that the first gift of the Mysteries is the initiate’s overcoming of the fear of death. I think he was pretty much right there.

    Crowley succinctly captured his own thoughts on this in the commentaries on Liber AL vel Legis:-

    “‘Death’ is, to the initiate, an inn by the wayside; it marks a stage accomplished; it offers refreshment, repose, and advice as to his plans for the morrow.”

    While it is relatively easy to pontificate about it like that, it’s not so easy to accomplish the necessary lasting paradigm shift in core thinking patterns and beliefs!

    Ritual, visualisation, meditation and contemplation can all help to achieve the sorts of radical changes necessary, but it takes time and effort. Any Western Mystery group worth its salt will provide teaching and training to this end.

    There’s also a lot people can do on their own too. Morgan Le Fay, speaking in Dion Fortune’s, “The Sea Priestess,” provides a great passage to meditate on in order to start challenging some of society’s unhelpful conditioning:-

    “In death men go to her across the shadowy river, for she is the keeper of their souls until the dawn. But there is also a death in life, and this likewise leadeth on to rebirth. Why fear ye the Dark Queen, 0 men? She is the Renewer. From sleep we arise refreshed; from death we arise reborn; by the embraces of Persephone are men made powerful. For there is a turning-within of the soul whereby men come to Persephone; they sink back into the womb of time; they become as the unborn; they enter into the kingdom where she rules as queen; they are made negative and await the coming of life. And the Queen of Hades cometh unto them as a bridegroom, and they are made fertile for life and go forth rejoicing, for the touch of the Queen of the kingdoms of sleep hath made them potent.”

    Celtic Fire

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