The Shadow Knows: Its Secret Preparation for Death

One of my dearest friends, Sherry, is dying in this moment, now, as I write this page. I awoke weeping this morning and feel pulled to go to her, to be present with her….I await the call.

She is at home on hospice. Before her lung cancer diagnosis eight months ago, she had a dream that she was caring for a dead body with dignity, learning to bathe it with gentle care. She was chanting and praying over it, then painting a casket with blessings.

“I’m the next body,” Sherry told me firmly.

Following her dream’s guidance, she planned her after-death care with a death midwife. After she passed away, we would wash her body, wrap it in silk, and lie it on dry ice for three days. Friends and family, circling through the candlelit room, would meditate while wishing her spirit safe passage.

As an avid environmentalist, she had thought she would do green burial. But there is no more space left in this city. So, she considered cremation. But when she discovered the toxic environmental effects of it, she felt reluctant. She and her death midwife looked into green cremation, which is an emerging technology that uses water, rather than fire, and has less toxic impact. But it was not yet ready to go.

So, she chose a sea burial. Her body would be taken to a marina, where a ship’s captain agreed to return her to the water elements. With this vision, she was reinventing her death, just as she had reinvented her life — from creating the first environmental company in the US to sell non-toxic products, to becoming a special ed teacher, then a therapist and meditation teacher.

Now, it’s reality. The phone rings: “I can’t give up. I need a miracle.” She wants to try a new drug, one with horrific side-effects. Yesterday, she was letting go. Today, she is holding on. Like so many, she is struggling against the loss of self-control, the loss of her capacity to have impact on what’s happening to her. The loss of her dream of a long life of loving service.

In this moment, Sherry can’t accept the truth that she is dying. . . soon. The fighter in her is aroused and wrestles with another part of her that knows the harsh truth. She is swinging back and forth between living and dying, time and the timeless, certainty and mystery. And the tension between them is unbearable.

I realize then that hospice is a liminal space — a zone between the old world and the new one, between releasing not only our roles but life itself and embracing death. In hospice, the patient’s body, mind, and heart are hanging between trapezes, in midair, without a net. No past. No future. Crossing a threshold, once again, but this time into a complete unknown.

Sherry had a moment of grasping onto the last trapeze — her identity as cancer patient with hope of cure.

I am a witness to this sacred process in my dear friend. I, too, am holding on and letting go. I can feel my own desires to push her toward life, then again toward release. I watch others around her doing the same. My grief feels like a heavy weight on my chest that makes it hard to breathe, mirroring her breathing difficulties.

I do not want to project my own feelings and beliefs onto my dying friend. Then I will not be with her as she is. I will be with my idea of her and my idea of what she should do now. No, I tell myself with a breath, each of us has a right to choose how we die.

But I struggle with her lack of quietude, her need to surround herself with loved ones, constantly asking others’ advice, rather than slowing, going within, and listening to the voice of Spirit. I ask, softly and gently, about this. “You have a large, loving community,” I say. “But can you listen to yourself with these murmuring voices around you day and night? Can you hear your inner voices?”

“No,” she replied. “I can’t hear my own intuition. I’ve spent 60 years learning how to attach to others, how to love them. Now I have to detach, let go of everyone. I’m not ready. And I’m afraid to be alone.”

She was so busy doing connection, from a lifetime of caring for others, that she was missing being connection, that is, recognizing the interconnected web of life that just is. And this emotional busyness was now, at this crucial moment, drowning out her inner guidance. “Who in you knows the truth about death?” I ask. “Who has guided you in the past and who is guiding you now?

“Oh, a white eagle came to me on a shamanic journey.” She’s smiling now. “It’s a spirit guide I’ve been neglecting.”

“Can you ask it for guidance now?”

“It tells me that dying is like a shamanic journey, traveling away from the body, past my fears and the images those fears generate, toward another realm. I’ve done that; I know how to do that.”

“Anything else?” I ask.

“’Dying is safe,’ the eagle says,” as her body relaxes into the bed.

A few days later, she stopped talking and began to go in and out of awareness. She took her last breath in peace, with her best friend holding her hand. Every detail of her vision was enacted. As the boat carried her body out to sea, dozens of dolphins circled and leapt into the air.

To my surprise, I discovered that Jung called death a goal that’s being lived unconsciously in late life, that is, in the shadow. “If we listen to the quieter voices of our deeper nature, we become aware of the fact that soon after the middle of our life the soul begins its secret work, getting ready for the departure.”

In other words, the Shadow knows. Sherry’s dream was not unusual. A recent study of dreams in dying people confirms this observation. A team at Hospice Buffalo, N.Y., conducted interviews with 59 terminally ill patients to examine their dreams and visions and whether these could predict the timing of death. Their conclusion: As death neared, there was a dramatic increase in frequency, particularly in seeing dead loved ones. And these incidents brought inner peace, in contrast to delirium.

The study, reported in NextAvenue (Oct 26, 2015), found that 88% of patients had at least one dream or vision, and 99% believed they were real. Common themes included traveling, seeing loved ones, and being comforted by them.

Death is not a failure to the soul, then, as it is to the heroic ego. Rather, beneath the ego’s dread and foreboding, behind the fortress of denial, something in the shadow is preparing us for the end. This something is separate from our conscious will — but it’s purposeful, helping us to orient to the tasks of aging and death.

This something, I would add, is the soul’s evolutionary impulse or holy longing, which is carrying us to the great return. This something is not imagining Death as intruder, but as homecoming. When we align with it, we are aligning not only with the cycles of nature but with evolution itself.

So, there is an intimate link between our relationship to shadow and our relationship to death. This link is embodied in Hades, Greek god of the underworld, known as the Good Counsellor, who helps the dead cross the threshold to the afterlife. Hades teaches us to be quiet and listen to the inner voices that direct us to the gold buried beneath. Hades calls us to the depths, to our own underworld.

When we resist the call, we deny the shadow of death. In denial, the ego does not open to the preparation occurring in the shadow. In denial, we live as if we will never die. So, we fail to do life completion. We fail to become an Elder. We fail to cross over from role to soul. In denial, we die as if, in some ways, we never lived.

What if, instead, we were to open a channel of communication between ego and shadow so that the wall between them became more permeable? This, after all, has been our exploration with shadow-work. We have allowed the ego to recede and the silenced voices from the darkness to be heard. We have coaxed them gently into awareness and discovered their precious gifts.

Now, we meet the shadow of death, an impersonal force that is out of our control, with a purpose all its own. What messages might we hear in the whispers of Hades? What if we met Death as a counsellor? What if we released our heroic strategies to defy it — and instead coaxed Death to speak to us?

My dear, sweet friend heard the whisper of Death and heeded its call. An athlete only a few months ago, then a dying patient, Sherry also was an experienced meditator and student of Thich Nhat Hahn. She knew the deepest truth: Our individuality dies, our separateness dies. But the spiritual essence of who we are cannot be annihilated. Whether we view that as atoms, genes, ecosystems, the web of life, a reincarnating soul, or transcendent Spirit, we are That. And It is eternal.

This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Reinvention of Age.