I was watching the movie “Re-Cycle” last night; it was rather trigger-y in some spots so venture at your own risk. But one scene really stood out for me – in the Land of Forgotten Things were hundreds of graves, with the dead sprawled listlessly round dried flowers and long-burnt-out incense sticks. They had been forgotten, and when the heroine of the film tried to venture through them, they stirred. She had picked flowers previously, and she began to place these in the palms of the dead, who were holding out their hands. They closed their fingers over these offerings and placed their fists over their hearts, momentarily appeased.
I struggled with my Dying Awareness Week entry because there is so much to be said, and it’s impossible to fit it into a single post. But this small scene from a movie gave me the jolt I needed: and so I want to talk about Remembering the Dead and Dying from a psychopomp’s viewpoint.
This is a really sticky wicket for a lot of people who are witnessing the dying of a loved one; I have found it pretty easy to Greet the Dead when I wasn’t personally involved. But losing one of my own? Yeah, that’s hard stuff – and yet it’s all part and parcel of life. It took me a while to be able to ride that turmoil and be okay with it, but many others aren’t sure how to act, or what to say, or what to do. I’ve seen it happen time and time again – people are often so afraid of saying or doing something wrong that they just disappear from the dying person’s life. I have been guilty of the same. Don’t get me wrong, dying is a very personal thing and everyone has their own way of approaching it. The role of those of us who must bear witness is usually defined as being emotionally remote, yet supportive. Personally I don’t do that – grief is for the living, after all. I mourn and weep as needed, as part of my role as a Sacred Mourner. Everyone is going to have their own approach, and I admit I do not support the “professionally distant” way of bearing witness.
But here is the thing – the best way, the easiest way, to work with someone on their way to death is a simple one: ask them. Really. That’s it. Perhaps the person in question won’t want to talk about it at all, and that’s something you’ll have to keep in mind, as well as saying “I may screw up from time to time on that, so please forgive me.” Those are the people who want the professionally distant approach, and for them, that works. There are people who right at the point of dying are absolutely terrified and they do not go peacefully; that takes nerves of steel to deal with. Conversely, the dying may have very specific ideas in mind, may want to plan everything out to the letter and go with a smile – it does actually happen. Regardless of the request, do your best, your absolute utmost, to abide by this. Your grief is yours, but their death is theirs. Do right by your dying ones; own your shit and your issues, and give the dying what they need. Being “uncomfortable” isn’t an excuse to get out of it unless your own mental health is on breaking point – and again I shall point to Dying Matters and to Death Cafes for that.
When Marissa was diagnosed as terminal, we had a discussion about what I could do for her when she died, and I agreed it. She also insisted I dress in my voudou whites for her funeral; as predicted this went down REAL well with her staunch Gardenarian, proper-English-folk Coven. I am sure she was laughing her ass off, too. When I came back from the funeral and I was texting a friend, I found I still had her number on my phone. I laughed through my tears – if only it was that easy! ”Hi, Marissa, enjoying the afterlife? Is the food crap? I’m surprised, the reception is really good, actually.” She would have seen the humour in it, and indeed laughed madly about it with me, so I kept the number there for a while. Now I’ve got a picture or three of her which I bring out now and again. Remembrance is good, and what she asked of me, even though every time I find a photo it still kicks me in the chest.
Emotion is a part of my work – I cannot do anything without it. I will readily admit when it comes to dying children I am such an emotional wreck I am unable to give these children what they need in their final moments: I used to think this was because I wasn’t strong enough – now I realise it’s because the role of passive, professional “soul midwife” isn’t my calling. There is a role for those who howl like something lost when a child dies, and I now embrace that role.
For my own work – and I know many other psychopomps have this as well – Greeting the Dead isn’t just for Samhain. Sometimes it’s a regular part of devotions – we may find ourselves doing service for our own folk or for those we don’t even know. This can take on many different roles; a disir altar of our Beloved Dead, performing community outreach for the dying, or cleaning up cemeteries in our local area (there is a Friends of the Church group in my very small village, and it regularly tidies the cemetery space – I am hoping once I get my driving test done I can start getting involved myself). Greeting the Dead and the Forgotten is something I try to do once every three months; I had attempted to do it every month but actually found it very draining. There are things about working with the Dead that many books won’t tell you, so I’ll highlight a few things here:
- The Dead aren’t always wise. A lot of books out there highlight one’s ancestry and disir as being founts of eternal wisdom. Sometimes they are. But sometimes they’re just as cantankerous and difficult as they ever were in life. Choose who you allow into your space, and find ways to keep a polite distance if you can from those you don’t. Most of my blood family aren’t people I really want anything to do with other than a few exceptions. In some cases, I’ve been able to make my peace with my dead – in other cases I know there’s no damn point, they’re just as frustrating in death as they were in life so I don’t have anything to do with them. What you can handle and what you can’t requires you to have a fair bit of self-awareness – to me that’s the pinnacle of this practice.
- The Dead aren’t always kind. In the film I mentioned, the heroine ran out of flowers. As soon as she did so, the Dead stood up and turned from passive, limp creatures into the standard of just about every zombie-film out there. This is an important and very overlooked part of working with the Dead, and it frustrates me somewhat when various sources state there is no such thing as demons or bad energy, as it sets up a lot of novices into thinking the Otherworlds are a benevolent Disneyland. This is not the case, especially when you are just starting out – I was taught we are light a bright flame, and spirits tend to act like moths; a bright light will draw in the curious. Sometimes, the nastier elements want to bask in the glow, or steal the fire for themselves. In my experience it doesn’t happen often, but it does happen enough that one should be capable of dealing with it when it does. Know how to banish – know how to protect your space, and how to cleanse yourself after an encounter with the less-than-desirable.
- The Dead may not want to be disturbed. There are many stories of honouring one’s ancestry and calling upon them help us with our issues. Sometimes, they’re happy to do this – but calling upon the Dead is never to be taken lightly. I feel my need has to be pretty damn great before I ask the Dead for anything – more often than not I find it’s my Dead who come to me somehow to try and help me rather than the other way round. In this way, I feel they’re able to do what they want, when they want, and it isn’t me constantly knocking on their door to mess with them. Remembrance is often fine; welcome, in fact, the Dead seem to enjoy being remembered. But that doesn’t mean they want to be bothered. Be respectful when you ask the Dead for advice, be grateful when they show up, and be sure to honour their memory in a way they appreciate most (make their favourite food, donate to a cause they held dear to their hearts, etc).
Remembering the Dead does not need to be elaborate ritual, it doesn’t need to require a Tumblr-worthy altarspace. It just needs to be sincere – a small keepsake you carry round with you from your Dead is often enough, since the keepsake brings the emotion in your heart of those you loved and lost. Bitter and sweet, painful and beautiful, all is memory. And to be remembered is a great gift. May we all be remembered, and not forgotten, when the time comes.