I've had a few encounters with death. Here is an essay I wrote about them for the book Shaman Pathways - Deathwalking: Helping Them Cross the Bridge, which comes out today. The book is a collection of essays by practitioners from a variety of pagan and shamanic traditions. It is edited by Laura Perry and is published by Moon Books.
Three Encounters with Death
By Lucya Starza
When I first met death, it wasn’t what I expected.
I was a young witch then – well, in my 20s – and not very experienced. Even as I approach my 60s, with decades in the Craft, I would say that witches are not generally well trained for deathwalking. Although they should be. We will all encounter death sooner or later.
I was doing a meditation to meet the Goddess from A Witch Alone: Thirteen Moons to Master Natural Magic, Marian Green’s excellent book for would-be witches. The meditation I was doing was one to find out which Goddess I should be working with. I was expecting a lighter being – perhaps Epona or Brigit from Celtic mythology. In my mind’s eye I followed a dark tunnel, not knowing where it would end. I was startled – even shocked – that what I saw when I emerged was a bloody battlefield covered with corpses and rotting heads. The battle had ended, all that was left was death. Above this, in front of me, was a figure, female, like a huge black bird of prey. I’ll call her Death, because although all cultures give her a name, I would not want to restrict her to any one culture. And, yes, of course I was scared, but it faded. Death is not our enemy.
“You are not mine yet,” was all she said to me. I was allowed to leave.
I met her again – or an aspect of her – several years later, as my friend died in my arms.
It was a Friday night in the 1990s and I was out clubbing with a group of friends. This was pretty normal; I was still young enough to rave all night and sleep all day as a regular weekend activity – and the friends I was with were my close clubbing buddies. Not that long after we arrived at the club, one of my friends said he felt unwell and wanted to sit down. I went with him, leaving our other friends dancing. Suddenly – really completely without warning – he collapsed into my arms. I shouted for someone to get help. His heart had stopped, but someone trained in CPR got there fast and someone else called 999.
Everyone was trying to save him and everyone did all they could, but I knew he was leaving. Again, I saw that black bird of prey – smaller than before, but still large. I knew no one else could see the being. I wasn’t sure if it was Death herself or a psychopomp. I wasn’t scared that time – the Black Bird wasn’t frightening. Sombre, serene, the Black Bird quietly waited, hovering above my friend, despite all the noise, the activity of resuscitation, the pumping music and other clubbers who were still dancing and talking without realising what was going on. I saw his spirit rise up out of his body and go towards Her.
“Please give him back,” I pleaded.
I got a sense of implacability, of fixed purpose. No argument was possible.
“I have only come to speed his passing,” said the Black Bird, and they left, my friend’s spirit going with Her, down the long corridor out of the club and onwards. I knew my friend would not be revived, although those trying to do so didn’t seem to realise it. And the ambulance arrived, and all the way to the hospital they tried their best. Then the waiting at the hospital – all his friends, because we had all gone there with him. They told me I was being too pessimistic to say I knew he would not be returning to us. But I knew. I had seen him leave.
Could I have done more? I don’t think so. I know my friend had had a hard life, perhaps he was ready for a better one. He had told me that as a young boy he had been abused by a priest and that he had never really got over that. Music and his close friends were the only things that made him happy. He had died in the place he would have wanted to be, with the people he would have wanted to be with. His death was by natural causes – a blocked artery causing a cardiac arrest – it was swift, he hadn’t suffered.
Of course it was a shock, and I grieved terribly, but I also knew that my friend’s spirit had been guided onwards to the next life by one who knew the way. Many months later I got a message and knew his spirit was in a new place – a much better place – but that’s another story.
Who could really ask more from Death?
Years later, I sat a death vigil for my father. He had gone into hospital for what should have been a routine knee operation, but contracted pneumonia and was in the hospital for a long time. I should probably add that my father was elderly and suffered from dementia. Before his operation, my mother – herself also elderly – had been his main carer, while my husband and I had recently given up our own flat and moved in with my parents to help them both.
With his illness he became even more confused, and out of this confusion refused to co-operate with the physiotherapists who were trying to get him mobile. He began to recover from the pneumonia, but it became apparent that he would never walk again and his dementia was getting worse. He became extremely aggressive – physically lashing out at the nurses and being very argumentative with his family when we visited him. Over the time he was in this state in hospital, we gradually realised that when he came out, we would not be able to care for him at home. Although at that stage, we had no reason to believe he would not come out of hospital alive.
Then, one evening, I visited him on the ward and he seemed a lot better. Lucid and in a good mood. He told me how much he loved me and I told him I loved him too. I had a chance to talk about various things from the past that needed reconciling. In hindsight, I know I should have realised people often have a lucid moment before they die. But I didn’t.
I left feeling happier about his prospects than I had for weeks. But then, in the early hours of the next morning, my family got a call from the hospital saying my father had lost consciousness. His pneumonia had returned. Further tests showed he had also contracted MRSA. They tried to save him, but he did not respond to treatment and did not wake at all. The MRSA was causing his organs to fail and, after several days, we were asked to make a difficult decision as to whether they should continue trying to save him – something that was not likely to succeed but would increase his discomfort – or whether he should be allowed to die in as much comfort as possible. We decided the latter.
The three of us – my mother, my husband and I – sat round-the-clock death vigils for him, staying there in eight-hour to 12-hour shifts on rotation. Days and nights went on like this. It felt as though we were all in some kind of limbo between life and death. A week went by.
I made a decision. I called on that Black Bird. Death, the psychopomp. The name didn’t matter. I knew what She could do.
“Please,” I said. “Please come and speed his passing.”
And she did.
I’ve thought long and hard about the ethics of all the decisions I made during that time. Some were made by the family together after long discussion. That last one was made by me alone. I told my husband, later, afterwards. I never told my mother – and she is now with my father in death. I do not feel good about it, but I do know that if I was to relive that time, I would do the same again.
I know that one day I will die. I’m not afraid – not of death or Death. I’m afraid of pain and suffering, but death is just a transition. Sometimes people linger in pain and suffering – either in their bodies or in spirit – because they are scared of moving on. There is no need to be; it is part of the natural cycle of things. We all die and our bodies rot, like those bodies on the battlefield, but our spirits can move on, and it is best if they do so. When I am dying, I know that I will not want to linger. I will call on that Black Bird and whisper: “Please come to me, I am one of yours now. I am not afraid. Please, speed my passing.”
I started my story by saying that in general witches are not well trained for deathwalking. I strongly believe that. Sure some initiations involve a ritualised encounter with Death, but this isn’t the same thing as actual training in how to help people as they face death, go into death and beyond.
Deathwalking includes counselling the living in preparation for death as well as guiding the spirits of those who have died into the next realm either at the time of death or later if they linger in a way that is not helpful to them. In an untrained way, I dealt with situations that happened when I was present and no one else was around who could even see into the spirit realm. I probably made mistakes – that’s usual when the untrained try anything for the first time without proper guidance – but I did my best. Shamanic practitioners have training in deathwalking as a core part of their learning. Us witches would do well to learn from them.
You can view Deathwalking on Amazon
Links and previous related posts