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How it all Began – a 30 year journey
December 17, 2019
It’s October 1989.
My friend loses her mate in a car accident. He is from a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses but did not choose to follow that path. When we call his parents to inform them he has died and see what arrangements they would like to make, they say they don’t know to whom we are referring and hang up. He is without a family.
Deanna looks at me and says, “Now what?” I have no idea but I feel a sense of trust with my mom’s Methodist minister and call to see if we can hold a non-denominational service at their church. Not only does the minister agree, she tells me some tips that might help when working with a group in grief. She is amazing and I am grateful. I honor my first ministerial mentor.
I officiate my first funeral and for once, speaking before a crowd isn’t hard and paralyzing. I am comfortable holding this space. The seed is planted but won’t sprout for years to come. Sometimes magic is slow and delicious in its unfolding.
It’s February 1991.
I commission an animal ally shield painting from an artist. I know the wolf belongs there and I’m pretty sure a winged one goes there too, but I can’t tell who so I choose eagle but don’t feel quite settled about it.
Months later I’m in my old room at my parents’ house asleep when I hear something at the window. I get up and see outside an enormous white owl. It is the most beautiful, magical thing I have ever seen. I open the window and it perches on the sill, slightly lifting its wings so I can wrap my arms around its warm and powerful body as it envelopes me in its wings. I feel an ecstasy I have never experienced before or since. It is so beautiful, I weep. This weeping wakes me up and I feel my body drop a few inches down to the bed. Was I levitating? Was that a dream?
I go to see my therapist, a dream specialist who also lived on a Navajo reservation for a number of years as part of his internship. I can’t wait to tell him about my dream so I do. He looks at my quietly then says, “I wouldn’t touch that dream with a 10 foot pole! That’s a spirit dream. It needs no interpretation. It is what it is.” I hold it as precious and with great curiosity.
The artist I commissioned for the shield calls me shortly thereafter and explains she can’t seem to get an eagle on the shield. She says she has tried several times and it just keeps coming out looking like an owl. She has a sense it is supposed to be a white one. Shivers run up and down my spine. Of course I say yes and explain what has happened. Sometimes magic is slow and delicious in its unfolding.
During this time of seeking, I go to inter-tribal powwows to follow a thread of my lineage. It is not long before I learn from my Navajo elders that the white owl is a harbinger of death and they acknowledge it is right I carry this medicine for many reasons. They tell me some indigenous people will think it unlucky while others will respect and honor it. I’ve carried this burden my entire life as one who speaks the unspeakable, unveils taboos and explores the realms of shadow. I recognize the truth of what they say but don’t yet see the purpose of it.
A friend and colleague’s father dies. She is not Christian. She needs some kind of spiritual support and ceremony. She asks me to officiate her father’s funeral. I have never met him. This is my first funeral for a stranger. Again, it is easy for me to hold this space and turn toward suffering. I see I am made for this.
A dear friend is on life support at the VA hospital. He has no family. I am called to make the decision to take him off life support. I know his wishes. I go to the hospital, meet with the doctors and say, “Unplug him, please.” I am the only one who can stand to be in the room as he undergoes the most mysterious of journeys. I can’t imagine being anywhere else. I hold his hand, stay for his last breath and sing him through the veil.
Many of my friends in the circles of my spiritual communities envision owning and operating a retreat center. I see myself at a center for the dying and their loved ones instead. I see it clearly. We offer residential and short-term accommodations for clients, family and friends. The food is exquisite, organic, local and lovingly prepared. We have beautiful gardens and in-room nature providers, medical staff, hospice workers, offerings from a variety of spiritual paths, daily meditations, caregivers and support systems, volunteers, parties, retreats, respite, saunas and salt water pools, complimentary care of many kinds, a temple and outdoor ceremony space with a natural burial cemetery, memorial art installations; a place of sweetness and restoration for everyone who comes. I name it “Journeys End,” the logo: a spiral with a star shooting off the end. It seems far-fetched and unattainable but the vision persists. Sometimes magic is slow and delicious in its unfolding.
It’s April 2016.
Seventeen years after that vision I’m in Minneapolis to teach a workshop. A community member and friend Colleen Cook, newly diagnosed with terminal cancer asks me to be her death midwife. We talk for a long time about what that means and I agree. We walk that road together until she leaves this plane.
It’s Spring 2017.
A friend calls to see if I want a care job she can’t take due to another commitment. She tells me it’s to help someone die. She helped a woman die the year before and now her widower is dying. I meet the family. Our connection is sweet. I find I am well-suited for this work. I meet local hospice workers and quickly land on a list of private caregivers they share with their patients. My death magic and work go public with no conscious effort. Spirit is clearly steering this boat and I’m in.
It’s May 2019.
I feel more connected to a sense of purpose than ever as I work with community members and new friends to help them fully live until they die and when they die to have a good death, whatever that means to them. I complete my certification through the Larner College of Medicine, University of Vermont as a Professional End-of-Life Doula.
It’s June 2019.
My friend Rev. Kate Adamson and I meet for a daylong retreat around the topic of ways to collaborate in death work. She is an inter-faith minister. Her stepson dies unexpectedly and she steps in to provide a home funeral and natural burial for him, deeply serving the family and community in the process. Her and her partner’s stories about this experience are powerful and beautiful. Check out the NHFA podcast “A Path Home” and listen to their story here.
It’s July 2019.
I go to MN to attend the death of Colleen Cook. Always epic, mythic and profound, she teaches me until the very last breath. I am tested in ways I never imagined. I am held by community in heartbreakingly beautiful ways. I come home and recognize this feeling of initiation, of completing the impossible task. I am changed. I am a death midwife now.
It’s October 2019.
30 years since that first brush with fate. How very true that this magic is and has been slow and delicious in its unfolding. Kate and I drive to the NHFA 2019 Conference in Chaska, MN. As we cross the border into MN, my first time back since Colleen died, I get a text that the story of our journey together which was published in my local paper days before is being featured this very day on the front page of the weekend edition of USA Today. We stop at a rest area and pick up a copy then visit Colleen’s grave. Epic. Mythic. Profound. Three of Colleen’s favorite words and often true about her and the stories that surround her, even after death.
Throughout the course of the Conference, Kate and I become clear and focused about our mission to begin our work together. We form a volunteer organization Threshold Services of Central Virginia, to help educate, advocate and facilitate home funerals and natural burials. We offer our first Death Salon – Samhain 2019, a playshop for friends and family to introduce our work. With a core of volunteers already on board, support from the NHFA and so much work to do ahead, I am excited to see where these greater threads of magic lead as I continue my soul’s work of being with the dying, bedside vigils, legacy projects, care coordination and weaving threads of support. I know better than to be in a hurry as the big vision continues to simmer on a back burner, the heat still on, ingredients added daily. Sometimes magic is slow and delicious in its unfolding and well worth waiting for.
For those of you called to the work of being with the dying, for those of you who are quickly approaching the threshold of death, for those of you who have a loved one making their way to that great mystery soon, for those of you preparing for your own eventual death, may you find humor, magic, comfort, delight, resources, and support here.
May you fully live until you die and when you die, may it be a good death.
May the presence of death bring you more joy in the ecstasy of living.
– Written on the day of Rumi’s Urs, Shebi Arus. Ya Mevlana!
Postscript: Minutes after writing this I learned that my first initiator in 1995, Cori Edwards, died at the end of November while helping a neighbor during a snowy power outage. I honor her and all she taught me. What is remembered lives. Within minutes of getting this news, I received a request to join another beloved community member’s team of death workers as her time draws near.The magic continues…
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