Posts Tagged ‘death’

How Others Responded, Part 2

July 22, 2012

“Counseling wisdom is that it takes five years for life to start feeling normal again after the loss of a spouse,” a woman I knew said.

How do you respond to a statement like that? My husband had been gone for more than fourteen months at the time. Her statement was not unlike a curse. It came hurtling across the internet and into my email inbox as a prison sentence she seemed bent on imposing: three years and ten months more before you will be okay.

But I already felt okay. I’d experienced an energetic shift at the anniversary of Howard’s death. There were still moments of sadness (as there always are in life), but I was back. The concept of “normal” seemed ridiculous to me, not simply because I’d never aligned with statistics for the “normal” person, but because what normal is changes with major life events. Including the death of a spouse.

Actually, there was something more to her pronouncement than a sentence. It felt like a judgment, a way of saying, “Don’t try to fool yourself. You’re in denial and you’re suppressing grief if you think you’re okay. I’m a member of the psychology community. I know better than you.”

Of course, I’m overeducated in the field of psychology, with two degrees in it. Psychological generalizations and labels had been among the things that had disenchanted me with psychology. Too much of the field seemed divorced from the “psyche” in psychology—the soul of it. When I became a shaman, I realized that while I couldn’t deny the impact of psychology on my thinking and life, it was shamanism that spoke to the soul-based way I lived.

That woman’s reaction was a bit more blatant that others after my husband’s death, but it was one of the classic reactions I got: Know that you will be devastated for a long time. In fact, you may never get over it. There were four other reactions: Discomfort over the death; heartfelt sympathy for my loss; surprise that I wasn’t over it yet; and, genuine acceptance of however I was dealing with it. It was a relief to be with people who were grounded in that last response and could radiate it. These four basic reactions remained the fundamental reactions I got from people throughout the first eighteen months after my husband’s death.

Many people expressed heartfelt sympathy when they first heard of Howard’s death, and they expressed it again when they were face-to-face with me. A few people avoided me. A few rallied to support me. But over time, it seemed to me that the fundamental mindset that a person had about life and death came oozing out when I responded to their question, “How are you doing?” Some people seemed permanently fixated on the pain of loss. The woman who pronounced that it would be five years before I felt normal again appeared to me to be one of those. Others projected a kind of fearlessness about life, an understanding that tragedy happens, but life wins out for the survivors of death—if they let it. Maybe because I fall into that latter category, I appreciated that reaction from others most.

It wasn’t that this latter group pushed me to be perfectly fine when I wasn’t. On the contrary, as a whole, they were better at assessing exactly how I was feeling and accepting it more than others. More than anything, they didn’t lay a judgment on me about how I “should” be responding to the death. Their response to my response allowed me to relax into exactly who I was when I was with them.

If there is something to be learned from all of this, for me, it is that we cannot really make assumptions about how anyone will handle the death of a spouse. And the person who has experienced the death cannot make assumptions about how others will respond to them, as survivor, or to the fact of the death.

So what can any of us do for another when they lose a loved one? We can bother to pay attention to how they are and what they need—reading it in what they say, what they don’t say, and what they project—instead of making assumptions. And we can send them waves of love, from our heart to theirs. Does anything else really matter, anyway?

Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall

How Others Responded, Part 1

June 9, 2012

Terminal illness and death are topics that elicit interesting responses from people. I found that many people simply didn’t know what to say when they heard the news that my husband had metastasized prostate cancer. Others seemed to assume that my experience would fit some model based on what they had read or experienced themselves. A few made no assumptions and were just there for me.

One close friend had lost her husband to cancer many years earlier. When I first told her the news of Howard’s illness, she seemed to assume that things would become dire quickly. That had been her experience and she assumed it would be mine. Every time I saw her, she asked, “How is Howard?” in that voice that radiates the expectation of bad news. When month followed month and he was still alive, still on his feet and carrying on with everyday life, she seemed confused for a time, then settled into a kind of watchful waiting.

I love this friend and she proved to be one of the strongest, kindest supporters I had during Howard’s illness. But her early responses to his illness, while quite human and understandable, were more focused on expectations based on her own experience than curiosity about mine. What I needed was for her to serve as witness to what was actually happening in my life. She eventually stepped into that role, and in doing so, gave me an invaluable gift.

Early on, I found I had no desire to tell most people about the drama unfolding in my life. Howard didn’t want his identity to be prescribed by the cancer and I didn’t want mine to be fixed by my role as “wife of a man slowly dying of cancer.” Once, while with a group of Boulder Media Women colleagues at a potluck, the conversation among a small clutch of us turned to residential writing retreats. I wistfully admitted I would love to apply for one of the programs that offered room and board for a month in a quiet mountain setting. When one of the women encouraged me and I said it wasn’t an option at the moment because my husband was ill, she replied, “Maybe he’ll be better by the time the retreat is set to start.” I didn’t respond. I couldn’t without admitting that I didn’t believe he would be getting better. That would have been the equivalent of a sharp left-hand turn in the conversation, and the road we would have been traveling was not one I wanted to take them down in that moment.

I did go down that road with people, but some joined me on the ride sooner and others later. “I can’t imagine what this is like for you,” some admitted upon hearing the news. I told them it was like having a slight fever . . . all the time. You adapted. It became your new definition of “normal.” But there was no denying that it sucked a bit of the life out of you, was impossible to ignore, and changed your focus.

As the months wore on and Howard became more fragile, I became more open about his condition. And it never ceased to amaze me that many people responded by immediately lapsing into their own experience with the illness and death of a loved one. Sometimes the loved one was a spouse, but more often a parent or friend. Occasionally it was a pet. It was as if their own undigested emotions over their loss surfaced as soon as I mentioned Howard’s illness and their need to process their experience took over. No doubt, some of them just wanted to show that they could have empathy for my situation, but often their own story supplanted the story unfolding for me in the moment. And there is a need, for those in the midst of terminal illness—their own or that of a loved one—to be able to include the fact of it in conversation without finding that the conversation has jumped from their own present to someone else’s past.

By far the worst of those experiences were the stories of grief at the loss of a pet. While I’m no stranger to the depth of love for and grief over the loss of a beloved pet, it is fundamentally insensitive to draw a line between the terminal illness of one’s spouse to the illness and eventual death of a pet. It made me wince internally and because my internal states are often transparent to even the most casual observer, I’ve no doubt that wince was visually perceptible.

Many people seemed surprised that I was “handling it so well.” Some of them bluntly stated that they believed I was feigning strength and bravely playing at stoicism. Others looked at me with curiosity, searching my eyes for signs that I actually loved my husband because they couldn’t quite grasp the idea of living with what is and just savoring what little time you actually have with a loved one who is dying. More than a few shook their heads and said they didn’t know how I was keeping it together, as if expecting me to come unhinged and fly apart at any moment—a little unsure of whether they feared I would do so or be disappointed if I didn’t. A few wanted to cast me as some enlightened human, a model for taking life on the chin with equanimity. In truth, of course, I was just another pilgrim going down the road.

The response I found truly helpful mostly came from an inner circle of very close friends who were willing to walk with me on my road for a little while, shoulder to shoulder, as fellow pilgrims. They could be with me without looking for signs of structural fracture. They were empathic without being cloying. They asked how Howard was doing and really did want to know the answer, whatever it was. They didn’t tiptoe around me, but cut me exactly as much slack as they always had, no more and no less. They stayed present with me when I needed to talk—didn’t flee mentally, didn’t try to change the subject, didn’t doubt my self-appraisal . . . but did energetically hold me in a loving embrace.

It was that response that helped carry me through.

Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall

Shedding Energetic Debris

May 14, 2012

The beginning of the end had happened at the beginning of Thanksgiving week in 2010, so it would have been a fair assumption that the holidays were going to be difficult for me in 2011. But by October, I thought I was going to be fine during the holidays and planned to spend them alone.

That was October.

November 1st came and I was not so fine. The idea of being alone Thanksgiving seemed like the plan of a crazed woman. Howard had almost died the night before Thanksgiving in 2010 and I’d spent Thanksgiving cooking a huge turkey with all the fixings while he slept through the day. The cooking had kept me occupied. At the time it seemed a better idea than, say, drinking Jameson and pacing the floor. A year later, I suspected I might be drinking Jameson and pacing the floor if I was alone Thanksgiving of 2011.

When Cindy Morris invited me to spend Thanksgiving with her and her roommates, it was like a postcard from God informing me that my plight had been noted and taken care of. Cindy had been such a solid friend during Howard’s last days, not to mention the months that followed, and here she was, turkey baster in hand, looking after me one more time. Being looked after by someone else had been such a rare occurrence throughout my life that she seemed like some combination of Mother Earth, Mrs. Santa Claus, and all of the Greek goddesses, all rolled up into one person.

It was one of the best Thanksgivings I’d ever had.

But right around Thanksgiving, I began having problems with my gut. Since my gut was reliably healthy, it got my attention. What in the heck was going on? I might have had little experience with being taken care of by anyone else, but I was very good at taking care of myself. I got plenty of sleep, ate healthily, exercised, meditated . . . leaped over tall buildings, bent steel with my bare hands . . . . Okay, maybe I didn’t do those last two things, but I took good care of myself. And my gut was suddenly the gut of a sedentary, junk food eating, hyper-stressed burnout.

As I meditated one Sunday morning, right before going to my massage therapist (David Kochevar), I was told that the problems with my gut were coming from debris in my energy field. And it wasn’t even my own energetic debris. It seemed I’d somehow accumulated some of Howard’s energetic debris during his last six weeks of life. It had been time-stamped to come into my awareness for release a year later . . . and it was now time to dispatch it. I was told by guidance to have David work on my midsection. That would do part of the job.

Fortunately, David is a kindred spirit. Our appreciation for the workings of Spirit—if not the specifics of our personal theologies—tended to dovetail. He had not only been my massage therapist for most of his career, but he had become one of my favorite people in the world. I knew he would take what I’d been told in stride. He did. And I walked out of his office a new woman.

But I knew his work on me was only part of what needed to be done. I wasn’t quite sure of what constituted the rest. I decided to do a shamanic journey, and while I was quite capable of journeying myself, I wanted Antonio to drum for me. Journeying with Antonio was always a richer experience than journeying on my own, just as those who came to me for shamanic journey work had a richer experience journeying with me than they would have attempting to journey on their own. I always likened it to massage: You can massage yourself, but the involvement of another person’s energy makes being massaged by someone else a very different experience than massaging yourself.

I scheduled the journey with Antonio, only to cancel it within a week. I told myself I was crazy to think I could fit a journey into an already over-booked December. But it was more than that. The timing wasn’t quite right.

During another morning meditation, I asked my “council” (a council of spirit guides I often meet with in meditation) what I needed to do to clear the remaining energetic debris, and I asked for their help. They not only agreed to help, they wanted to accomplish the deed right then and there. I was a bit taken aback. Excuses raced through my mind, but really, I wasn’t sure if I was ready. I had no idea why I was balking. What, exactly, would make me ready? When did I think I would be ready? I took a deep breath and told them to lead the way.

And they did. When we were done, I knew that the debris was gone. I felt clearer, more myself, than I had felt all year. And I realized that I had postponed the journey because it was not to take place until the anniversary of Howard’s death had passed. I scheduled it for December 30th, the day after the anniversary.

I spent Christmas alone, at peace. I wasn’t quite so serene on December 28, the day before the anniversary of Howard’s death. The death ceremony, his final hours, the coma he lapsed into . . . it all occupied my mind and surrounded my heart like an old memory, both painful and beautiful. The 29th felt less constrictive, and it seemed fitting. Howard had been released from the constriction of his failing body a year earlier on that day.

I was ready to journey on the 30th. It was a beautiful, profound journey (and, perhaps, a story for another time). When January 1st, 2012 came, I felt ready to reclaim my own life . . . a life richer and deeper because of my travels with Howard as he made his way from life to the great life beyond, a life I embraced fully because I was happy to be among the living, happy to continue my Earth walk, thrilled to see time spread out before me like a carpet of flowers. I was back.

Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall

The Tears

March 7, 2012

The tears just came when they decided to. I had little control over it. I’d never been able to make myself cry, but I’d been able to keep myself from crying. Now it seemed my psyche and emotions were calling the shots and I could either accept it or stay holed up in my home for however long it took before I could emerge back into society without the threat of tears overtaking me. I decided to accept it.

Besides, my feelings and behavior were surprising to me and I was curious about them. How would I feel next? What would I do before the day was out? I felt pulled along by some higher force that knew what was good for me better than I apparently did. Mostly, I was okay with that. But when I dissolved into tears in public, it was, admittedly, a little disconcerting.

In January of 2011, I sobbed in front of the entire Colorado Independent Publishers Association (CIPA) group as I thanked them for their support. Little more than a week later, when I held an open house to honor Howard’s life, I managed to make it through that event without tears. But in February, I mistakenly thought I could attend that month’s CIPA meeting without a repeat performance of tears. I hadn’t considered that there would be people at the February meeting who hadn’t been at the January meeting. When our eyes met, the tears began to form at the corners of my eyes.

At home, no day passed without tears for the first three months or more. I missed Howard, to be sure. But sometimes I suspected the tears were more about the loss of what had once been between us than the absence of him in the moment. It was tricky stuff. At times the tears felt like the necessary discharge of built up energy–a kind of relief valve. At other times, I felt they were little more than a form of feeling sorry for myself. Mostly, they didn’t last long, but I could never predict what would trigger them. Going through his things? Making dinner for me instead of the two of us? Canceling his credit cards? Maybe those things would trigger tears and maybe they wouldn’t.

I was finally ready to have a face-to-face meeting with the Social Security Administration by the middle of April. I was there primarily to file for the death benefit–all two hundred and fifty-five dollars of it–but I had also been told I needed to talk with them about widow’s benefits, something I had no clue I might qualify for. I was taken aback by the almost immediate combativeness of the young clerk. She behaved as if it was her job to protect the government’s money from fraudulent filers, and I might be one of them. She disliked the marriage certificate I presented, but ultimately accepted it. She drilled me not only about Howard, but also about my first husband. I’d arrived an innocent, but had the odd feeling of being a criminal because I was being treated like one.

I managed to hold it together until she referred to my dead husband as my “second ex.” I clarified. I’d divorced my first husband. He was my “ex.” My second husband had died. I was a widow. Haughtily, and with a shake of the head, the clerk said that to them (the SSA), they were both my “ex” husbands.

That was it. I started to cry. I looked her in the eye and said that I guessed she’d never lost a husband.

And she softened. From that instant, the formerly combative clerk was more advocate than opponent. She apologized. I apologized for crying. I said that while she could refer to my first husband–the one I’d divorced–any way she wanted, I expected a bit more respect for my dead husband. She apologized again. But I couldn’t stop crying, and it was more than a few tears sliding down my face. I was sobbing and I struggled, with limited success, to curb it. The clerk handled my business as quickly as she could, apologizing again for making me cry.

When I’d finished my business (and discovered that I would, indeed, be receiving a widow’s benefit), I made my way back to my car and stopped trying to keep the sobs in check. I just leaned over the steering wheel and let them have their way with me. Once I could actually see straight, I drove home.

By summer, the post-death fog had lifted and the tears were no longer a daily event. But when my youngest sister was diagnosed with cirrhosis in the liver she’d been given some years earlier to replace her failing one, the impact on me was cumulative. She went into a quick downward spiral, and I responded to more than her plight. My feelings about her plight were piled on top of the still-raw loss of my husband. Grief upon grief. Threat of loss upon loss. Social events I’d been looking forward to were now impossible and drifted by without my attendance. Some of the returning life in me had been sucked out with the news about my sister.

Still, I was working. I was seeing clients. I was managing.

Then, in July, I presented a recently expired “bird bucks” certificate for ten dollars off to the clerk at Wild Birds Unlimited. The certificate had arrived shortly after Howard’s death and had been forgotten until I found it buried in my billfold, days before my trip to the store. I didn’t want to lose the ten dollars. My hope was to have the certificate honored and I actually thought I could make my case without tears.

It would be fair to ask why in the world I thought I could do that. It would be fair to ask why I felt compelled to ask that the certificate be redeemed, even though it was expired.

My answer? I don’t really have one, but I suspect that there are clues in the words, themselves: lose, redeemed, expired. Maybe I just didn’t want to experience another loss. Maybe it seemed to me that enough had “expired.” Maybe my subconscious was looking for redemption. And maybe a cigar is just a cigar and a “bird bucks” certificate is nothing more than that. Life’s mysteries are not all profound and mystical. Sometimes they are mundane, the only profundity to be found in their abject silliness.

When tears threatened, the young man behind the counter went looking for help. The gray haired woman who emerged from the back room assured me that the certificate would be honored. Before long, she was offering words of solace that sounded right out of a grief training manual and I began to feel like a character in a Monty Python movie. I couldn’t laugh in that moment. Let’s face it, feelings of embarrassment bordering on mortification do not segue into belly laugher easily. That would have required a level of spiritual adeptness I most assuredly found lacking in myself in that moment. True, I wasn’t far down the road with my discounted birdseed before I saw the humor in it, but standing before the bird expert cum spiritual advisor, I just didn’t have access to it.

Tears and laughter do, I came to understand, often share the same psychic space . . . and I could hear my late husband laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation all the way home.

Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall

The Organic Nature of Grief

February 5, 2012

When my husband died, I had many a conversation with friends and family members about the grieving process. The term “grieving process” was one most people seemed to understand, and I thought I had at least a sense of it, myself. I’d had a fair amount of time to get used to the idea that Howard was dying as he made his pilgrimage through cancer treatment. I expected to be heartbroken but also a bit relieved when he died and I expected to be my old self, whatever that was, fairly quickly after his death.

I was right about being both heartbroken and relieved when he died. I was wrong about being some version of my old self quickly after his death. I wasn’t even sure what my old self was when he died.

My “self” had been on its own pilgrimage for a dozen years or more. I’d transformed and transformed again. I was familiar with transformation and more comfortable with it than most of the people around me seemed to be. My friend Cindy Morris, a gifted astrologer, explained this by saying, “Well of course! You were born with Pluto in your eighth house.” My own take on it was that I’d experienced enough transformation to know there was little use in fighting it. Ride it as if riding a surfboard on a mammoth wave, that was my attitude.

But in February of 2010, I’d gone to Lake Titicaca in Peru to join with other shamans and many pilgrims in the reactivation of the Solar Disc. That experience had changed me profoundly. Many years earlier, during my shamanic apprenticeship, I experienced a change right down to the level of the DNA. That was profound. When I came back from Peru, though, I felt like someone who had reincarnated into the same body. I looked like the same person I’d been, but I wasn’t.

During the remainder of 2010, something in me opened further as I accompanied Howard on his slow march to death. After his death, when I could sort myself out from that part of his energy field still hovering about me, I realized that one of the blessings of having been with my husband as he was dying was that it further softened me, further opened me to what it meant to be human. One side effect of the transformation triggered in Peru was that I was better suited to accompany my husband on that march as it quickened its pace, and one side effect of having done so was that many of the barnacles and unidentifiable encrustations of life had been worn away. What was left of me was someone I actually wanted to know.

But that person I had become was grieving and it became very clear to me very quickly that grieving was not a process—at least not a process as most of us have come to think of the term. It was neither rational nor linear. It had an almost unidentifiable beginning, but a beginning sometime before Howard’s actual death. It could not be flow charted, Gantt charted, or PERT diagramed. There was no chain of events as predictable as Kubler-Ross suggested in her theory on dying and death.

No, grieving was far more organic than that. It seemed to flow according to the laws of nature, as opposed to following models structured by man. In everyday terms, that meant, among other things, that I could not predict what would take the wind right out of me, nor could I predict when that would happen.

I also couldn’t predict which days would be inexplicably sorrowful any more than I could predict which days would be filled with pure joy, just because I was alive. I couldn’t predict whether I would want to see others or be alone, nor could I predict who I might want to see. Much of the time, though, I did want to be alone. What I felt most of the time when I wanted to be alone was not unhappiness, but something more like curiosity about the very air around me and interest in my own internal landscape.

Grieving, it seemed, was filled with surprises—some of them pure astonishment and others numbly shocking. And it was as organic as fertile earth.

Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall

Getting On with Our Lives

April 26, 2011

There is always a moment in time that sets the foundation for what is to come. With my husband’s illness, it was that day early in 2007 when he returned home from his medical appointment, announced that the prostate cancer had returned and had metastasized to the bones, and then, after a bit of conversation, announced, “We have to get on with our lives.”

That statement set the tone for the next almost-four years. He refused to be defined by the cancer. He refused to give it purchase on his soul. He refused, even, to acknowledge that it might do him in—at least he refused that acknowledgment for a long time to come after that day in 2007.

When he gave me the news, I got up from my chair and went over to sit in his lap. Tears welled up in my eyes and spilled over. Despite the fact that he hated tears, I did nothing to suppress them. He held me and we were wordless for some time before his pronouncement that we had to get on with our lives. Neither of us could know, in that moment, what getting on with our lives would come to mean between then and his death on December 29, 2011. We quickly began to understand, though.

During his illness, people often asked me what it was like for me. My answer was that it was like have a low-grade fever . . . all the time. What was “normal” was different than it had been. You carried on—you got on with your life as Howard put it—but it was always there in the background, dampening things a bit. Oddly, though, where our day-to-day lives were concerned, it also had a vivifying effect, as paradoxical as that was.

Years before, I had written about the shamanic concept of making death your ally. I had never had such ongoing, personal validation for that concept as during Howard’s illness. None of us really know when the transformative magic of death will come, but most of us behave as if that particular whole-system makeover can surely be deferred until some distant point in the future, like something we can postpone until the fact of it can no longer be ignored, staring back at us in the mirror as sagging jowls.

Still, some come early to the understanding that Death is our closest companion throughout our lives, the one who will never abandon us, the one we cannot un-friend on Facebook, the one who hovers nearby even when we ignore it. Life threatening illness can make you one of those people—whether it is your own or that of one almost as close to you as Death itself.

Those last years were the best of our marriage. Actually, something remarkable had happened before the pronouncement of cancer. Howard had been in Iraq for two years, serving as an international police instructor and, ultimately, as the director of the police academy in Irbil, Kurdistan. Both of us were writers and we’d had a lively and intimate email correspondence during that time. We had also seen one another during a wonderful couple of weeks of vacationing in Italy and during his brief visits home. But like any marriage of duration, ours had its accumulated sludge. We were good companions to one another—if odd ones, because he was as grounded in the world of proven facts as I was grounded in the world of metaphysics. And we appreciated one another as complete packages—not in spite of or because of our idiosyncrasies and faults, but with them. But there was sludge. Somehow, though, those two years of fundamental separation washed away that sludge. The year he’d spent in Kosovo, early 1990 to early 1991, had not done that. If anything, that return had been something other than a soft landing for both of us. But this time, something had shifted and our marriage felt renewed.

It shifted even more with the news of his illness. Far less about the other annoyed us. There mightn’t be time for such self-indulgence. But we each also became far less annoying. Again, there mightn’t be time for such self-indulgence. Serious illness can bring things into focus like little else can. We found in ourselves an enhanced appreciation for daily life, a life we were happy to be sharing with each other.

We were committed to getting on with our lives, whatever that meant.

Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall

Death Ceremony

March 28, 2011

He wasn’t leaving. Always a man who lived by his own rules and always a warrior, he had been thumbing his nose at death for almost four years. It seemed that he was not about to change his modus operandi now, even though he was nearing the end of the dying process.

But he was more shell than human at this point and all I could do was attend to his needs . . . and love him. I had promised no ambulances and no hospitals, and I had, thus far, fulfilled that promise. He was at home, where he wanted to be, and I was happy for both of us that he was. And now it was a death watch.

I’d called my sister in Illinois two days earlier saying, “I give up. Come on out.” She had offered to come to help and was able to do so because the month of December was a slow time for her business as a lobbyist. Until then, I’d managed to carry on with a little help from hospice and a little help from Antonio, the shaman I had once been apprenticed to, who also happened to be a nurse. But after calling hospice for help on Christmas night and after finally surrendering to having a hospital bed—something Howard had refused but which could not be avoided now that he was barely conscious—I surrendered a bit further and asked my sister for help. I was pretty sure she had no idea what she was in for, even though I’d warned her. She was on her way and would arrive within hours.

Antonio had awakened that morning thinking, I have to go to Melanie’s house. There was a sense of urgency to it. He packed up his shamanic tools of the trade, called me to make sure it was okay for him to come, and drove over. His wife Helena was with him and it was a relief to see both of them.

During the long days and nights of what I knew would be Howard’s final moments on Earth, I’d just kept doing what needed to be done, seldom thinking about the fact that I was managing alone. Hospice had been coming every few days for the past month and I was extremely thankful for that, but apart from those visits, I’d been managing on my own. Except for the emergencies. I’d called Antonio more than once when Howard had gotten himself into a fix he couldn’t get himself out of because he kept insisting on doing things he could no longer do, like walk from one room to another.

Now, just having their calm strength with me, I realized that I was more than just a little frayed around the edges. I was beginning to unravel a bit. It hadn’t occurred to me to do shamanic ceremony because Howard shared neither my beliefs nor practices when it came to shamanism. But Antonio had come to do ceremony and not only did it feel fitting and respectful of Howard in that moment, I slowly grasped the fact that my spirit was calling out to me to do ceremony.

Because of Antonio’s support during emergencies, Howard had become comfortable with his presence. In fact, he had come to trust Antonio’s professional assistance more than anyone else’s. But he wasn’t used to having Helena see him so vulnerable and even though he was only marginally conscious, I wanted to honor that, so I asked Helena to wait in the living room while Antonio went in to see Howard. Antonio set up a small altar on the guest room bed that had been abandoned for the past couple of days because Howard had been moved to a hospital bed. I asked him not to use smudge—something that would ordinarily be a part of any ceremony either of us did—because Howard had never been fond of it. So Antonio moved the energy around my husband using only his intent and his feather fan.

Standing at the doorway, I watched as Antonio went to Howard, bent over him, and spoke words that only another man—and only another warrior—could say with any authority. He told Howard that there was a time for fighting and a time to put down one’s arms. He said that Howard could stop fighting now and come to rest. There would be new causes to take up on the other side. I came closer, but Antonio asked for some time alone with Howard and I deferred to him.

I joined Helena in the living room, saw Howard’s Native American flute on the bookshelf, and decided, rather spontaneously, to give it to Helena. Helena played the Native American flute and was, in fact, the only person close to me who did. She was the appropriate person to have it and I knew that Howard would approve. For some reason, it seemed important for her to have it now, not after Howard was gone, so I presented it to her.

And then I realized that Helena was meant to take part in the ceremony. When I returned to the bedroom, I discovered that Antonio had come to the same conclusion at the same time. We called Helena to join us. No ceremony had been planned and there was no real discussion now about what we would do—apart from my new staff playing a role.

I had given Antonio the staff almost two years earlier because I had been told, in meditation, that this was to be the staff I would use in my sixties and that I should give it to Antonio to paint or carve. Time had passed and I had feared I would never see the staff again. Unbeknownst to me, Antonio had, of late, felt compelled to finish the work on it. Only now did he understand why. He’d brought it with him and handed it to me saying that I was to use it for the first time in this ceremony for Howard. I’d had little time to even examine it, but could see that he had painted three small dragons on it, had embedded some stones in the wood, and had decorated it with feathers. It was a beautiful and suitable tool.

I brought the staff with me into the room and felt called to stand at Howard’s head. I set the staff against the wall behind me and could feel it grounding my energy. Antonio stood at Howard’s feet and Helena was to his left. She began to play the flute softly as I bent over my husband, placing one hand on his third eye and the other on his crown chakra. I closed my eyes and . . .

I was immediately in an altered state of consciousness. I found myself on a path, walking with Howard. “You have to go into the light,” I said to him, “and I can’t go with you.” He said nothing as we continued down the path. Then, in front of us, I saw it. Light. A wall of light. A portal comprised of pure, bright light. I pointed to it and told him, “There. There’s the light. That is where you must go.” We came to a stop in front of the light portal and he turned to me. I looked up at him and encouraged him to step into the light, and as I did, he transformed into the man I had known twenty-five years earlier. He was vital and full of life. He swept me up, embraced me, kissed me soundly, and put me back down. “I’m sorry, I can’t go with you,” I said and turned to walk away.

He kept his eyes on me, instead of on the wall of light, and I didn’t get far before stopping because I realized that we still had many, many cords between us, connecting us. They all collapsed in my arms the moment I touched one. An armful of energy, no longer linking us. I tossed them to the side of the path on my left, lifted a hand over them, and watched them burst into flames. Howard looked from me to the burning cords and back again.

With love for him spilling from me—but purer and clearer than it had ever been, now that the cords were gone—I returned his gaze and said, “Don’t they make a beautiful fire?” And with those words came a rush of compassion. For him. For me. For everyone who had ever lived. For everyone who had ever loved.

I turned from him, not wanting to, but knowing that we now had separate paths. I walked back down the path and found myself back in my body. I opened my eyes, looked up at Antonio and Helena, and looked back down at my husband. The self that had walked that path with Howard had known what the self back in the room had not: Howard wasn’t going to leave until I personally walked him to the light . . . and left him there. It had never occurred to me that this would the case. My husband was strong and independent. He didn’t need me to help him leave this life . . . or, perhaps, he did.

Later, after I told Antonio and Helena what I had experienced, Helena gave her own accounting of events.

“After so many years, I’ve come to realize that when you guys [shamans] are doing ceremony, I need to pay careful attention. There’s no telling what might happen. So I watched Antonio, I watched you, and I watched Howard. At one point, when you were bent over him with your eyes closed, his feet began to move. Not just restless moving. They were moving . . . as if he were walking.”

Of course. He’d been with me, walking down that path.

Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall