A Vietnam veteran I knew told me a story about the first time he visited the exquisitely profound Vietnam Veterans Memorial, located in Washington, D.C. He said he paused at the name of every one of his friends who had fallen in that war and pressed his finger on each inscription. Then, he said, he was able to lay them down at the monument, for he had been carrying their memory and their legacies all the years between the war and the day the memorial opened.
“I was afraid no on would remember them or their stories," he told me. "I had witnessed an important part of their lives. I was there when they left. I wanted to make sure someone knew and valued their contributions, and so I carried them with me everyday.”
A heroic man, this veteran I knew, but his is not an unusual story. I see many clients I could place right alongside him in the ranks of the heroic, the legacy-keepers not of fallen comrades, but of their family members.
It isn’t easy to tend graves. It takes a quiet toll. If I don’t do this, the legacy-keepers seem to say, who will do this? Sometimes I wonder if the legacy-keepers of today, the mourners and archivists of their families aren’t the psychopomps of old.
In ancient societies, a shaman or priest might fulfill the role of psychopomp. The duty of the psychopomp, however, was not to carry the soul of the dead. It was to usher the soul of the newly deceased into the spirit world, so that it didn’t become lost and wander. So that it didn’t remain attached to a plane of experience to which it no longer belonged. If the psychopomp is part of the archetypal make-up of your soul, you might commonly find yourself at the deathbed of a family member or friend. You might be the one who eulogizes them, tends their grave, memorializes them, prays for them, reminisces about them, and mourns them—sometimes for many years.
It is an honorable role to be a psychopomp. But, if you don’t understand this is your role; if you don’t know how to fulfill it, or you strongly resist stepping into these shoes, it can lead to a great deal of physical discomfort and emotional conflict.
This past week a client, who is facing the task of helping a dying cousin to pass over, came to my office. She was feeling unsettled and irritable. She was in the throes of old grief for others who had passed over, and dreading the dying loved ones to come—somehow certain she would once again be the one called to their bedside. Part of her felt the need and the willingness to keep the vigil for her cousin, but part of her rejected the additional burden it would bring.
We hold a lot of superstitions and fears around death in our modern culture. We get stuck in the ending, as if there were nothing beyond it, as if death were an aberrant and unwarranted phenomenon. We fail to emotionally and spiritually embrace the natural cycles of life, death and rebirth—the way of all things. We fail to believe in the continued life of spirit, to rejoice in the immortality of the soul. We cling to the body that will one day drop from each of us, and this attachment catches us and keeps us wandering in grief, like a soul that cannot find its way home.
If you are experiencing grief that does not relent, or feel you may be a legacy-keeper and wish to perform the role with more intention, direction, and grace, there are ceremonies, rituals and shamanic healing that may be instrumental. My client was given specific rituals to help her cousin to pass over and more rituals to release the dead she was still carrying. She left, feeling validated and supported in her sacred duty.
Like the Vietnam veteran I spoke of earlier, there is a place where we can all lay down our dead, capable arms of spirit beings into which we can place them, so that the dead find their way to peace and we find our way to ours.