Each person that is called to serve the dying decides their own path for serving. Some do so through hospice volunteering or through working in the medical field, while others are creating their own way to bridge the gaps in health and death care.
Meet one beautiful doula, Sofia Enggren, whom I have had the joy and honor of mentoring. She has beautifully shared her story with us below:
One night last week I had a powerful dream. In the dream I am on some sort of retreat, but I have to stay inside because I am sick. As I am lying in my bed I receive a visitation from a man. It is communicated to me that this man is a shaman initiated into many esoteric traditions — he is able to traverse the barriers of space-time to visit people who need his guidance. I am one of those people, he says. He tells me that in order to address my sickness, I need to move to a place where the land speaks to me, and I need to work with burial. The word burial strikes me like a command — though I have heard the word many times across my life, I have never received the full imprint of the word until now. I woke up in the morning and my heart was soft and open; I felt clarity in my direction. The quality of the clarity was one of undeniable truth — I have rarely, if ever, felt this before. As I write this today, I feel incredibly blessed.
For me, the word “burial” is connected to the word “embodiment”. Our western cultural lineage has a long habit of separating spirit from matter; I believe this to be the basic pattern of war on a microscopic level — the war between matter and spirit. Spirit has long been seen as all-powerful and matter seen as disposable, shameful, and inert. In favoring the “higher” realms, we have created a pattern that resists fully arriving here, on this earth, in these bodies. Without this commitment, no matter “how hard we try”, we cannot live our purposes and we cannot find our joy. There is a widespread energetic pattern of moving “up and out” — whether this be in response to a particularly bothersome political situation, the reminder of suffering in the world, or the myriad array of miscellaneous sensations that are uncomfortable to sit with. In the practice of embodiment, we attempt to bring the presence of spirit into the body, so that spirit can be given witness through materialized expression.
Embodiment as a form of burial: When I first began to study somatic therapies, I had an experience of immense terror. A part of me was convinced that if I were to stay in my body, I would be buried alive. I was afraid of being trapped within a world that carries such a strong lineage of body-shame, suffering, and punishment. The centuries old Judeo-Christian story is that the body is the cause of sin, and as punishment for our sinful natures, we are forced to live in the material world: a place of suffering. This is a story that has lodged itself deeply into my cells — but as I do more work, it becomes clearer that this is only a story, and as a creative being, I have the power to transform the story. The story I am now writing is one in which the earth is a sacred container, infused with beauty. A space for our deep dreams and desires to unfold within.
After the dream about burial, I envisioned myself in a house on the western coast, digging my hands into moist soil. I am planting seeds along with prayer beads. I listen deeply, I sing, I speak, I touch, I love, I connect. I return to the origin point: my breath, and from here I begin again. I end again. I become a student of natural rhythms. I teach only what has been clarified to me as truth. I join in the efforts to bring deep regeneration to our Earth.
Grief teacher, storyteller, and activist Stephen Jenkinson refers to our widespread “grief illiteracy” — our inability to receive the lessons of grief, illness, and death is stripping the earth of her resources and drying out the sacredness from our lives. The cost of dying is immense. Our attempts to maintain life at all costs come less from receiving genuine value from life and more from the fear of dying. In 2009, Medicare spent $55 billion dollars for care on terminally ill patients with less than 2 months to live. Meanwhile there is very little effort placed into creating a warm environment for one to die within. Many beings die alone in hospitals with white walls, with unaddressed needs, unprocessed emotions, and immense fear. I passionately feel that there are better ways to use our resources. Today, the average funeral and burial process ranges between $7,000 and $10,000, and many times the family does not fully understand what will be done with the body of their loved one. Much hardship is infused into a process that has the potential to be incredibly intimate and healing for families. Sir William Gladstone writes, "Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender sympathies of the people, their respect for the law of the land and their loyalties to high morals." Our culture has far to go with how it cares for the dead.
I believe that a radical re-envisioning of death-care is at the foreground of learning how to mindfully and responsibly care for the resources of our land. As our bodies our made of earth, the way we care for our bodies reflects the way we care for the earth. The amount of disconnection exhibited at end of life does not only affect end of life — it is a reflection of the way we live out our lives. We have many advanced mechanisms to avoid these truths during our lives, and at end of life, we are stripped of these abilities. Death does not let us run. What better teacher for a world that cant stop running?
When I refer to “death” I refer to any mode that invites us to surrender, to open to the unknown, and to allow the movement of a greater force to come through us. The death process removes avoidance mechanisms and habitual distractions — it invites us to look directly into the heart of the world and take notice of what is present. What is the nature of our beings? What do we believe in and value? What are our hearts passionately committed to? Have we gotten the chance to know ourselves, be intimate with the world? Have with lived our purposes? Have we given ourselves over to love? And if the answer to these questions is no, what do we need in order to find integration and peace?
We are in a time that worships “production”. We are encouraged to produce something of value and create ourselves in such a way that our very being becomes a commodity. Our inner value is often determined by our “success”: how much recognition and approval we can receive from the world. But production without the “re” is not sustainable. Resources will run out. Death does not produce, and perhaps this is one of the reasons it is so hard to place within our cultural context. The work I envision is that of re-membering, re-cycling, re-envisioning, re-turning — using our compost to increase fertility. In many ways this is the work of the woman, as the woman is a being of reproductive power. This power has long been controlled, and as we can see in the current political movements, this power cannot afford to be controlled any longer. The world is being called to remember how to be in kind and sacred relationship — how to properly tend to the world that has so consistently tended us.
Inside my inner space is a womb. Inside the womb there are words, fabrics, candles, scents, dreams. I call it the “Sanctuary of the Senses” — a space where everything that can be perceived is a message emerging directly from the sacred. In this space we trust what comes through our bodies. It is a multi-faith church that my family helps me to build, to nourish, and to sustain. My work contains many dimensions — creative expression (word, song, dance), somatic and touch therapies, dream-work, death-care, plant and herbal medicine. I have been searching for the heart that brings them all together — gratitude is the word that comes. The meaning of the word gratitude is to give back. It comes from the same root as the words for grief, grace, and gravity. These words speak to the process of receiving what has been given, digesting it, and letting the remains fall back into the earth as a gift for regeneration. Chilean poet and activist Cecilia Vicuna reminds us of the “gra” in “gracias” which she says means to give thanks from the heart. Inside the heart of my vision, I honor the natural rhythms of the world, and joyfully tune into inner and outer nature. From giving witness, reverence follows.
I desire to create beautiful and blessed spaces for people to live, love, and die in. I desire to bring honor and intention to inner movements. I desire to care deeply for the body and offer my presence to those who have gifts to share. I want to create spaces for gifts to be given and received. I want to assist in the release of body-stored traumas so there can be more space for the emergent. The space around death — around surrender — opens a portal of energy through which we can receive great healing and guidance. As I move forward in this life, I am an advocate for the goodness of death.
A very important guide and teacher of mine passed away a couple of weeks ago, so I would like to take a few moments to honor her. I am remembering a particularly sweet afternoon we spent together, in which she managed to utter, “I have spent 50 years forgetting that emotion regenerates”. Regenerate is from Latin regenerare, which means: “to bring forth again”. With her passing, I bring forth. I give back. I bring forth. I give back.
I will end with a poem I wrote last year:
Sorrow without self-pity
Joy without pride
These are the wings
Upon which we will fly
To meet our Fates
In the seams of Time
Where Divine lips kiss
The Chthonic Underside
School of Accompanying the Dying
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