Interactive Presentation on Crossing the Owl's Bridge: A Guide for Grieving People Who Still Love (particular emphasis on grief as a result of suicide) Sierra College, 11001 College Trail, Truckee, CA
What inspired you to write Crossing The Owl’s Bridge? When my brother died, I didn’t want to “let go,” I wanted to keep loving. But people kept saying that it was time to “buck up and move on.” I realized that even though he was not physically there, he was psychologically more present and I was curious about how our relationship continued even though it was changed by death. Many folk tales and religions talk about this new relationship in the imaginal, so I began researching this idea and it is an ongoing exploration. Through practicing continued connection with the deceased for myself, I realized that instead of “letting go” I was allowing “transformation.” I found this helpful and wanted to share that knowledge with others who are suffering. What’s the meaning behind the title? The owl is significant in that it is comfortable in “night-consciousness.” It has well-disguised feathers, eyes designed for acute perception in almost complete darkness, and the ability to hear the faintest of sounds. This description is a good metaphor for the sensibilities that we need to survive grief because in this place, it is dark and we need heightened perception. Many worldwide cultures see the owl as both the signal of impending death as well as an opportunity for communication with the spirit world. Among several Native American tribes death itself is referred to as “crossing the owl’s bridge.” You write about grieving and overcoming the loss of a loved one. What have you come to understand about such a process? Instead of “overcoming” loss, I would use the word “integrating.” This integration is dependent on the power of imagination. In death we gather memories, pictures, belongings; we smell their clothes, and re-create an image of our beloved. In this way, we are telling their story and carving out a new place for them. We are simultaneously authoring our own story. If we pay attention, the remarkable thing is that the deceased themselves often offer us the information that we need to keep loving. Through our imaginations they tell us to plant roses, host a tea party, or feed pigeons. Add the ancient folktales, which have set out the guideposts for us, and we need only to be receptive to begin to know the way.
You lost your brother at a young age. How did you come to grips with what happened to him? I would describe it as developing from a child-like state to maturity. At first I was completely consumed with my own reactivity and it all felt so personal. After that, like a teenager, I tried on different belief systems to see what resonated with me—psychology, self-help, religious paradigms, new age views. Most ideas made sense in some way and offered some truths, but didn’t fit completely. Then I came across a Japanese proverb that said, “My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon.” It reminded me that in absence there is presence. In losing my brother in the physical world, I became aware of connections in the imaginal world: with him, with others, and with the divine. I learned that bereavement is a chance to serve love.
Sibling loss differs from other types of loss – of a parent, of a child, of a friend. Help us understand the unique traits of recovering from losing a sibling. When my brother was taken over a 750 foot cliff by a wall of snow, my sense of self and family life were also broken metaphorically on those rocks. A sibling is someone who has a shared history, who you have come to know yourself through. Chad was the wild one, the funny one, the bad one. He held the shadow for our family. With him gone, who were the rest of us? Not only do you struggle with your sense of self, you can also lose your parents in any functional sense because they are in so much pain. The people who you most want to look to as a model for how to situate the experience are often not able to be there for you in that way. Though painful, it can be an amazing opportunity for growth. Do we still love someone no longer living with us? How so? Ask a woman who has had an abortion how old her child would now be and she will probably know the answer. Visit any cemetery on the second Sunday in May and there will be dozens talking to their mothers. Churches around the world flicker with candles lit in honor of those we miss. We still love. Just because the physical body is gone doesn’t mean the force that animated it—love—is also gone. Love is a timeless, inexhaustible energy and our most compelling relationship with it is through living things. After the death of the physical body, we access love through our attention. That attention can be creative, as exemplified by many of the stories in my book. Or, it can be destructive, in that in our attachment to the physical, we stay stuck in chronic pain. Why are the bereaved attracted to psychics, mediums, and channelers? Modern science tells us that to see or hear things that others can’t is a form of psychosis. But, when faced with the tremendous leap of faith required to imagine our loved ones in the abstract mystery of death, we are reassured by talking with the dead; we crave their responses. This desire is as old as human nature. Some cultures search for the faces of their loved ones in drops of blood, smears of ink, ripples on the water, or mirrors. Others sleep on the skull of the deceased in order to receive divine wisdom. Worldwide, history is replete with examples of the bereaved consulting oracles, druids, soothsayers, witches, sorcerers, and necromancers. If we are unable to access our own imaginations to connect with those we miss, it makes sense that we would seek out those who are more comfortable with this process. You write that many folk tales show us pathways through grief. How so? Thirty thousand generations of humans have been faced with death and their stories provide age old interpretations of the mystery of loss, fueling our own imaginations. They validate emotions and confusion and longing and hope, and love, of course. As soon as a tale begins, maybe with “A long, long time ago, in a faraway place,” it signals a departure into the symbolic world, and we know that something hidden will soon be revealed. Through the tensions they create, we are offered mirrors of our own dynamics, clear expressions of our emotions, and pathways through our angst. Folk tales present us with existential questions and also, solutions. As a clinical psychologist who has taught courses in death and dying for two decades, how do you find people respond to your teachings? People who sign up for Death and Dying are often deeply afraid of being drop kicked into difficult emotions-despair, hopelessness, fear. In a culture where we are taught that life is good death is bad, and darkness is to be avoided, the topic can seem overwhelming. In class, we develop familiarity and fluency around loss. What do you say to a person who is in great pain? How do you sit with your own? How can you help? There is a focus on conscious, connected living and conscious, connected dying. As death becomes less stigmatized, students are able to see some of the gifts that deep feeling and an awareness of the life-death-life nature of reality presents. They leave feeling more able to relate, and more hopeful about their own ability to orchestrate creative outcomes to loss. You write: “Death presents an extraordinary opportunity for a deepened relationship.” How so? We know ourselves through relationship. When a loved one dies, we ask ourselves “Who were they, really?” and “What was the meaning of their life?” At the same time, we are asking these questions for ourselves, “Who am I, really?” and “What is the meaning of my life?” There are dynamics in life that play themselves out in death, and this awareness helps us to better understand our loved ones and in turn, ourselves. As we re-create who our loved ones were—smell, touch, and sight all come back through the stories we tell. In participating in these psychic, archeological digs into our memories, alone and with others, it is like meeting our loved one over and over again. We are offered continued and deepened relationship with the deceased. Why is the death of young people so much harder for people to live with? Research shows that if you ask someone about their biggest regret in life, they usually will respond with something they didn’t do, as opposed to something they did do. The loss of potential can be even more gripping than the loss of something that has come to fruition. I have seen people more traumatized by a miscarriage than the death of their 93 year-old grandfather. As humans, we are story-makers and meaning-makers. We want a clear beginning, middle, and end and these pieces can be important factors in how we understand what is happening. Early death challenges our expectations of this timeline, upsetting our ability to make meaning. What role does anger play in the grieving process? If we think of anger as hurt turned outwards, a symptom of our own vulnerability and feelings of powerlessness, it makes sense that it would be present in grief. It can show up in many forms—we shout at God, or those we see as responsible, or to the deceased themselves. Sometimes we are most angry with ourselves. Anger shows us what is most important to us and to whom or what we belong. If given expression, containment and direction, anger doesn’t need to overwhelm us, it can help us understand what is most precious. How is death a “spiritual transformer,” as you wrote in your book? When an important, identity-defining person evaporates, it initiates us into a relationship with the unknown. Rationality, clear sight, and a need for control don’t work anymore. We are being invited to develop our connection with the unseen, or universal, or divine. For those who are well versed in a religious tradition, this path may be laid out for them and it might be more accessible. For those who aren’t, death often requires painstaking soul-searching and the development of a system of belief that makes meaning out of the experience of loss. How has grief changed in the last 100, 50, or even 20 years? I believe that fear and lack of imaginative responses makes grief more difficult to navigate. Death used to be in our homes and now it appears mostly on our television sets, or removed in mortuaries. We used to care for the dying, prepare the body, dig the hole. Someone made food, another thought of what to say. It was considered a normal part of life and not something unnatural and preventable. In some hospitals it is called a “negative patient outcome.” Our death denying culture gives rise to fear. Today, we have also come to expect scientific answers to our questions and unfortunately, science is really disappointing when it comes to death. Pre-scientific cultures had to develop comfort with the mystery, which gave rise to imaginative solutions. Why do people say the wrong things, however well-intentioned, to the grieving? Because we are so afraid of darkness, complex emotions and ambivalence, we never learn fluency around the topic of deep pain. Our conditioning tells us to fix it rather than sit with it and learn what it is offering. Think of how newscasts report a tragic death. They tell you what happened and then they immediately jump to how to make sure this doesn’t happen to you, which serves the illusion of control. We haven’t been trained in the ability to really connect empathetically, so we use what has worked for us in the past, or repeat things that have been said to us. So you hear very well-meaning people say things like, “everything happens for a reason,” or “look on the bright side, at least you had him for XX years,” or “I know what you are going through.” It rarely addresses the deeply feeling place that we are in. In the process of grieving the loss of another, how does one evolve or change in his or her outlook on life or even his own eventual death? We come to know ourselves and our coping mechanisms. We also appreciate what is most important. Grief is like a hero’s journey. Death initiates us into the unfamiliar, and in this place we lose our innocence. As we face the external challenges of death we are also being asked to manage internal struggles, like our own pain and powerlessness. In intense loss, there are tests and trials—getting up each day, bathing, operating in the mundane world—which can seem as challenging as destroying the death star, saving humanity from a deadly virus, or finding the holy grail. Each person’s response is as unique as their relationship with their loved one. But in general, through this process a richness of perspective develops. In those ways, I would say it does change our outlook on life and death. Is life more precious to us once we see death’s destructive toll, or is it more meaningless to us as we conclude that death isn’t fair, nice or reasonable? We think that death isn’t fair because it is unpredictable and uncontrollable, but seen in another light, death is fair. Death is dependably the most inclusive of experiences, because everyone must face it. I think what you are asking is, “What is the role of death in helping us decide how to live our lives?” I would offer that it is unique for each person and probably one of the most fundamental tasks we face as human beings. Do we open to the wellspring of feelings that limited time in this reality presents and choose to make each moment as precious as possible? Or, do we close down in bitterness for fear of further pain? It’s a big question. When the death we mourn is that of a suicide victim, how do the dynamics of grieving change, if at all? They say that everyone has skeletons in their closet. When someone you love purposefully ends his or her life, it is like they are piling all their skeletons on top of yours—and, it’s a confusing mess. We are left not only trying to sort out our own responses, but also those of the deceased. We ask ourselves: “What could I have done?” “How did I not know?” We often feel tremendous guilt. Sometimes anger becomes intensified as our powerlessness comes sharply into focus. In a world that stresses control as a condition of our well-being, we are being brought face to face with our own impotence. We can’t fix it and often we don’t understand. The leap of faith required to know that love will continue across the space of death is harder to make. It is truly a complicated grief. What’s appealing about the process of creating symbols for the dead? The symbol can connect past, present and future and bridge the worlds of the dead and living. When a person we love in the physical becomes abstract in death, it is harder to access them. If we create or are attentive to something concrete that represents our relationship with the deceased, we are ushering them in some form back to the physical. As examples, collecting single socks, noticing when lights flicker, planting a tree, seeing the deceased in feathers, in a certain color, or a type of music—can offer us a lifeline to the deceased.
What do some people draw from their faith to help them understand death and the grieving process? People who are well grounded in their faith are often better able to integrate the experience of intense loss because the continued relationship with the deceased is seen as real and unquestioned. One mother who lost her sixteen year-old son said, “I knew right away he was in heaven with my Grandma Marin.” My Jewish friend believes whole-heartedly that his wife is peacefully in “sheol” or the dark realm of departed spirits. A Native American young man told me that though he is not supposed to speak of the dead, for fear of confusing the spirit, his father will join his ancestors and be available for wisdom and guidance soon. It can be reassuring to have a structure when one is in the chaos of loss. The structure offers a wholehearted belief that the soul continues on and that our loved one is still accessible. What did you mean when you wrote: “When death knocks at the door and demands entrance, it is ultimately a call for awareness, deepening and connection”? Death appears unannounced and we often find it making itself quite at home on the couches of our minds. It is staying. To come to terms with this unwelcome guest who turns your world upside down requires several things. You need to develop an awareness of your own feelings/belief systems and those of your loved one. Who were they? What were they to you? You are being invited to look at your relationship in a different way. This exploration will give you the tools that you need to stay in connection. Through this connection you will find that your own personal story is situated in the bigger context of universal stories.