by Fanny Brewster
Window to Eternity: A Personal View of Death
In Georgetown, South Carolina, October days are slightly breezy with a moist warmth which anticipates the hurricanes of fall. My mother died on such a day six years ago. As I chose cosmetic items in a neighborhood store for her journey to a larger California metropolitan hospital, her arrhythmic heart raced rapidly and within minutes slowed to rest.
This paper is a exploration of death from a personal perspective. It looks at the role of the analyst and service we provide as caretakers of the dead—our own and the family of our clients. There exists an African tradition in which dead persons are removed from their homes by way of an opening other than doors. In Europe, bodies were once removed through windows. Both rituals acknowledge the continued presence of these individuals in their “past” lives. Death removes only the physical body, not the psychic presence.
In A Different Existence, Van Den Berg (1972), says that the past speaks to us in the present. Within the therapy room, both client and analyst bring the ghosts of their past. “The past that is significant is the past as it appears now. The past that is significant is a present past.” (p.80) In his description of the young man who visits him, Van Den Berg refrains from labeling him with a diagnostic term. Instead, he listens to the patient’s story. “A tale is being told and the task of the therapist is to listen for the figure who tells the tale, for the figure who is spinning the story.” (Romanyshyn, 1988). It is an approach which speaks to the naiveté and not-knowingness that must be present if the analyst is to bring trust to the relationship. It is a trust that knows: “That which touches us shows itself in the appearance of objects.” (1972, p.80)
It is only through the moment to moment experience of being with the other that we are able to allow for “something”—the spirit of something to comfort in the space “between”. To allow the past to be the present. “…we are led and even forced by the evidence of experience itself to affirm the paradox that the past is something given in order to be made. Re-membering the past is a matter of making a real past real…. fictionalizing the factual.” (Romanyshyn, 1988)
In Swahili, there are two words which identify time, Sasa and Zamani. The first identifies events “about to occur, or in the process of realization, or recently experienced.” (Mbiti, 1967,page.23). Zamani is the past but also contains the present and future. When the physical body of an African dies he remains in the Sasa and becomes one of the “living dead”. He remains thusly until there is no longer a family member alive who remembers him and says his name. Death is followed by ceremonies that acknowledge that the dead person is still a part of the community, living and dependent upon it to keep his name alive through ritual. Death rituals may continue for up to a year past the physical death. “They are still part of their human families, and people have personal memories of them. The groups are bound together by their common Sasa which for the living-dead is however, fast disappearing into the Zaman.” (1967,p.82)
Today’s analyst becomes a family member of the deceased. We have only a very small place in our contemporary cultural consciousness for death and dying. We live for today, but unlike the now of the Sasa, it is rather the urgency to forestall death, push it from our lives. In the absence of a cultural community to hold mourning, the psychoanalyst assumes this role and does in fact become the “undertaker”. Because we do not have initiation rites that teach how to live as though dying each day, we fear death and find its presence intolerable in our short-lived lives. The analyst then becomes ritual holder allowing the past and its spirits a place to be seen and heard through images, dreams and gestures. In this way, the living-dead can find peace.
When my mother died someone placed a wreath on the front door of my childhood home. At the funeral, the church held rows and rows of beautiful flowers. Mourners placed long stem red roses side by side on her closed coffin at the gravesite. My mother always said because I had given so many flowers during her life, I would never have to buy any at her death. But at the florist, I couldn’t stop buying flowers. I couldn’t stop myself from trying to fill the emptiness, the space between, that her death had left. As time passed, I came to recognize this space as the loneliness that existed in our “past” relationship. “From the imaginal point of view the dead are not in history. On the contrary, it is history which is in the dead. Our lives are haunted not so much by what once was as by how what was is and shall be.” (Mogenson, 1992,p.29)
I arrive home. As I walk up the steps I see a child sitting on a man’s lap. The man’s chest and face is hidden from my view. He is well-dressed in a suit and brown leather shoes. I recognize the child as mine. My feeling is that the child belongs to me.
This is the first dream I have after my mother’s death. It speaks to my feeling of vulnerability, my child-like feeling of being held by an unknown, unseen stranger—the ability to finally hold myself in an unknown way which only her death permits. But it also speaks to my claiming myself. After her death, I live all the childhood experiences of pain and abandonment that I could not face during her life. I am a child again at my mother’s death. There is a joyous freedom and release from having to keep her safe—something I was unaware I was psychically doing until her death. I begin to grow and become initiated into life as an adult.
“In many African societies, a person is not considered a full human being until he has gone through the whole process of physical birth, naming ceremonies, puberty and initiation rites, and finally marriage (or even procreation). Then he is fully ‘born’, he is a complete person.”(Mbiti, 1969,p.24) We miss something of value in our American culture by not having rites of passage that served our ancestors. It is as if all the pain of leave-taking which occurs at death has been stored and saved over the years rather than expressed through ceremonial rituals. In those moments of being with the death of loved ones we suffer for all the deaths of missed rituals which would have prepared us for and held us at this final physical separation.
When the doctor called telling me of my mother’s heart attack, I remember that my breath stopped. Time changed, my body shifted into an unknown space. I listened in a new way. And yet through the entire conversation with him there was a tremendous silence. A kind of empty, waiting silence. If the analyst is to welcome the living-dead and help prepare a place of rest then she must be able to welcome and be the keeper of what in fact does become sacred space and time. The silence which is created becomes a part of the temenos. However, it is through the body that the analyst and client create “…a gestural field…a transformation of space into place.” (1995). The body of unfamiliarity that I felt as myself, speaking with a stranger about my mother’s body is the un-known of the spirit bodies to come. It is the past that the client brings to the therapy session. It is through the creation of a presence that is receptive to these spirit bodies that we allow for healing to occur.
“When the environment contains the possibility of real or imaged threat, either in the form of an intrusion into private space or the possibility of engulfment, then do we become consciously aware of the presence or absence of boundaries.” (Roose, 1993, p.60). The author of this statement appears to be suggesting that there is a private space (which I assume belongs to the analyst) that can be transgressed upon within the session. This is an attitude that appears significantly different from that of “Lateral depth (wherein) the unconscious is the work between (us), not inside a place of retreat.” (Romanyshyn, 1995). In her article, “Still Point of the Turning World”, Roose speaks of a client whom she has seen for ten years. She says of their experience, “As far as I can see, his life situation has deteriorated steadily over the ten years he has come to see me. He has no dreams, no imagination, a total lack of empathy.” Continuing she adds, “It feels as if I am locked in a death grip.” (Roose, 1993, p.68).
Perhaps this is a client who needs to be released from the ‘death grip’. A question arises for the therapist: “What possible meaning is there in having such a person in my practice?” I ask the same question. I cannot observe in this relationship a space for death to occur. The language that is evoked speaks of control. I perceive the tragic flaw of a Disappointed Witness rather than a refusal to welcome and bury the dead. In this way, there could possibly be a transformative experience for both client and clinician.
In the beginning, Nzambi slid down to earth on a rainbow, and there created the animals and the trees. After this he also created a man and a woman, and he told them to marry and have children. Nzambi imposed only one prohibition upon men, that they should not Sleep when the moon was up. If they disobeyed this command they would be punished with death. When the first man had become old and had Poor eyesight, it happened that the moon was veiled behind the clouds, So that he could not see it shine. He went to sleep and died in his sleep. Since then all men have died, because they are unable to keep awake when the moon is up.
Within this creation myth, one can see the tragic flaw that begins the human cycle of death. We cannot help but fall into sleep. We must fail and die in order to continue life in a more meaningful way. The loss of the physical eyes creates an opportunity for the opening of “new” eyes of Psyche through sleep. Each night we die to ourselves through falling asleep. When the moon rises, our unconscious also rises but first comes sleeping into death. “the capacity to imagine death, a capacity that is given to us by the death through our mourning of them, is what allows us to image life….to flee from death is to flee from life as well. (Mogenson, 1993 p.143)
I am walking on a city sidewalk. Across the street I look and see my mother. She is dressed in a familiar checked suit that she had years ago. I’m excited to see her. She sees me and begins to cross the street towards me. I become apprehensive. I realize that she is dead. But she looks rested and happy. She smiles softly and kindly at me. She stands on the sidewalk in front of me but I cannot touch her. I feel as if someone is standing between us. I feel that she is removed from me. It looks like a shadow between us. I sense that I am to let go.
With the death of my mother, came a re-awakening of many things in my life, especially my creative self expression—my creativity. In releasing her spirit, I have been able to release from within more of my own spirit. The poetry that I have written within the last year speaks in part to that place of release that I have come to feel.
The night before my mother’s death, I went into the hospital chapel and prayed for the courage to let her die. I believe that in those moments I began with her a parallel journey of healing. In the above dream, my mother appears happy and rested. These were rare momentsin my mother’s life. I believe that because I have been willing to let her pass, become one with the living-dead and participate in her burial, she in turn has shown me the way to a deeper and richer life.
It is this relationship with my mother, which continues to influence my relationships in the world. It is said in some African societies that after five generations, the living dead move into the company of spirits—a collective body of consciousness. In my lifetime, my mother’s presence continues to help me create and re-create time and space for both life and death.
Eleven crows with iridescent rich feathers
swoop in layers in front of my windshield. Their chatter hales down like
Hard pellets fallen from an August rain cloud in this October month.
I drive into furious black wings, expecting they can be swept aside, made
Invisible. That they have not chosen me, but like me, are weary after night flight across a sleeping continent.
As if in response, their black pea eyes refuse to blink.
Instead, their wings push roughly against air, forcing me to breath deeper.
Like the first time, out of the birth waters,
Trying to catch that first breath of air,
Screaming out that first birth of air.
On this highway each exhalation releases:
Wings rising and falling to earth.
These messengers of Eshu, bring divination, falling like rain,
blurring my vision in the embryonic air of my steel sac.
Finished, they fly east to the ocean.
The rise of sun reflects like water and oil on wings of charcoal.
The space behind my heart darkens, while feathers fallen to earth,
Announce my mother’s death.
Boa,F. (1988). The Way of the Dream: Conversations on Jungian Dream Interpretation. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
Feldman,S,(1963). African Myths and Religions. New York: Dell Publishing.
Mbiti,J.(1969). African Religions and Philosophy. Portsmouth: Heinemann Educational Books.
Mogenson,G.(1992). Greeting the Angels: An Imaginal View of the Mourning Process. Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing Co.
Romanyshyn R.(1988). Psychotherapy as a creative process in Psychotherapy and the Creative Patient. New York: The Haworth Press.
Romanyshyn,R.(1995), December. Unpublished lecture presented at Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, CA.
Roose,J.Stein,M.(Ed.) (1993). Mad Parts of Sane People in Analysis. The Still Point of the Turning World. Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publications.
Von Franz,M.L.(1986). On Dreams and Death: A Jungian Interpretation. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
Van Den Berg,J.H.(1989). A Different Existence. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
Fanny Brewster, Ph.D., M.F.A., LP is a Jungian analyst and graduate of the C.G. Jung Institute of New York. She completed her doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute and is a faculty member of the C.G. Jung Foundation for Analytical Psychology of New York. Her most recent publication is “Kensho: The Mirror of Self-Reflection” in The Quadrant Journal. (2012) Correspondence: 88 University Place, New York, NY 10003. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.newyorkdreamwork.com