These past months have brought unexpected deaths to my family. Two cousins of mine, both named Joseph, departed suddenly, one from my mother’s side of the family and one from my father’s side. Both died young by modern standards. Both departed from large and closely-knit families that still reel from their gaping absence—an absence that does not seem repairable or reconcilable.
“I understand it on some level,” said my cousin’s daughter recently, “and I’m glad he is no longer suffering. But I can’t accept that he is gone from our lives now. I don’t want it or like it and I never will.
In my practice and my personal life, it seems like everyday someone is talking about a near and dear one passing—a father, a little boy, a young co-ed, a colleague, a sister, a husband, a neighbor….a virtual exodus of souls, it seems.
Death feels closer at hand for some reason, though, yes, it is always there. We feel our losses weigh on us, though, in truth, we are probably more magnified by death than diminished by it—what I like to call the dead giveaway. Because we are all so connected, the newfound strength, wisdom and grace that has come to our dead loved ones become ours, just as their troubles and triumphs were once shared in life.
Relationships do not end when a loved one passes over, nor do they become dormant or estranged. If anything, these ties and connections become more vibrant. Because death itself is a transformation, relationships must change correspondingly, and that shift requires that we change too.
In my work, I have gone to the Upper World, met and spoken with many clients’ loved ones over the years. And, because I am committed to doing ancestral healing for my own family, I communicate regularly with my own dead relatives—some of whom I knew in life and some who died before I was born.
There is a wealth of healing in these avenues of communication, golden opportunities to say what was left unsaid, solve mysteries that were not understood, hear words that were never spoken, and witness joy and peace that escaped our dear ones during their earth time.
I think it’s unfortunate that most people don’t communicate with their loved ones who have passed on, or feel they can’t, or that it’s wrong or foolish to try. They view death as a finality that cannot and should not be breached. That things must now be left unsaid and unhealed.
The ancients communicated with their dead. Indigenous tribes do as well. Every culture had a “day of the dead” when souls who had passed over were honored and addressed and sought out for wisdom. The ancestors knew the history of the people who prayed to them and had insights and blessings to share, as well as an investment in the prosperity of their descendants.
In the modern expression of shamanism, we follow this practice, and recognize that there is much healing available through these channels. But shamanism did not teach me the importance or skill of speaking with the dead. My father did.
When my father died 32 years ago, it felt to me like the earth had shifted on its axis. I remember looking into his room at the papers on his desk, the made-up bed, his slippers in the corner. I could not fathom how these things he held and the spaces that held him were still existent if he was not. I looked at the things my father, who was a builder, had created, and they seemed to speak to me about a continuity I couldn’t see, but could feel.
I looked forward to my first visit to my dad’s grave—I thought I would be able to have some measure of contact there, to once again feel the strength of his presence. My mother and I took flowers, and I helped her plant them. Then, I looked at her and said: “he’s not here, you know.”
I was learning my first lessons about energy, spirit, immortality, the soul, and the interconnectedness of all things. I was learning them by living them. In the months that followed I would have conversations with my dad in my head. I believed it was pretend, something I made up to salve my grief.
Then one day I started thinking about the things I was “hearing” him say. He was saying things I didn’t know in a voice that wasn’t mine, and I realized: I’m not making this up. My father was still there, his love for me strong enough to pierce the veil between the worlds. My schooling in Death 101 began with this lesson: When people die, their love for you doesn’t die with them.
It is never enough time, when someone dear leaves us in death. Often they seem virtually torn from the ongoing action and fabric of our lives. It seems senseless and cruel and wrong for this to happen. We feel so strongly that given the chance their lives could have been more, and that’s true, they could have been. But we have to believe–if we are to give our dead the honor they deserve–that their lives were enough. Just as they were.
After my cousin, Joe Hahn, who was an engineer, a tri-athlete, a yoga instructor and a spiritual teacher, passed away at the age of 51, I asked my guide how this could be understood. It seemed to me he could have done so much more, touched so many more lives. My guide said that Joe was a catalyst. He came to start things, not finish them. I said that wasn’t enough. My guide smiled at me. “Jesus was a catalyst,” he said.
The lessons in Death 101 go on.