The Space Between Breaths: An Exploration of Grief and Final Threshold Rituals
by Lisa Schouw

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It is winter. The clouds are dark and thick in the late afternoon sky. I am standing in the doorway between my mother’s bedroom and her lounge room. My mother is lying asleep in a hospital bed with her back towards me; my nine-year-old son is playing on the lounge room floor with his knights and castles. We three are caught in a shared moment, though profoundly different in its aspect. My mother, dying of pancreatic cancer, will be gone within two months; my son, lost in the world of childhood enchantment, is acting out a timeless battle of chivalry and courage, while I am caught for a moment between the world of the living and the world of the dying.

Most of us have experienced a moment when an event or seemingly chance occurrence happens and our lives are changed irrevocably—be it simply standing in a doorway, a sudden accident, the chance meeting of a lover to be, the birth of a child, or the death of a loved one. In her thoughtful poem, Silence, Australian poet Judith Wright (1955) evoked the power that is contained within that moment between breaths:

The silence between this and the next breath,
That might be – is not yet – death.

Barely six months after the sudden death of my father, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The contrast between my father’s passing, which happened over only a few days, and my mother’s, which unfolded over several months, profoundly affected my subsequent grieving process. With hindsight, I sense that my father’s death prepared me for what followed with my mother as I could honor his passing each day as I tended to her.

Stanley Keleman (1985) wrote that “we are always dying a bit, always giving things up, always having things taken away,” (p. 25). During those tender days in which I accompanied first my father and then my mother on their journey toward death, I experienced many “little dyings.” In the final weeks of her life, my mother asked, “Will you dance with me?” And so, as mother and daughter we danced to a song from my childhood and from our homeland of Africa. “This will be the last time I ever dance,” she said. “I am glad it is with you.”

Archetypal psychologist James Hillman (1989) argued that soul refers to “the deepening of events into experiences” (p. 21). He believed the significance soul makes possible in our capacity to love and in our religious concerns is derived from its unique relationship with death. In his play, Never Sang for My Father, Robert Anderson observed that, “Death ends a life, but not a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind, seeking some resolution which it may never find,” (as cited in McGoldrick, 1995, p. 127).

Watershed events such as the death of a family member are what pioneer and founder of Family and Systemic Therapy, Murray Bowen, called nodal events, which “can have an effect for many generations to come” (as cited in Gilbert, 2004, p. 80). My mother was four years old when her father died, and yet she still spoke of her formative loss in the final months of her life; how it affected her mother, brother, and herself in different ways, and how her own dying might mark my son and me into the future.

For the last nine years, I have migrated through the cycles of grief passing through what J. William Worden (2009) calls the “tasks of mourning” (p. 39). Each of these formative loops has been accompanied by rituals of leave-taking as I have moved into the matriarchal position in my family, experienced my own unexpected courage in the face of the unavoidable deaths of loved ones, and finally reengaged with the transformational process of tending to the meaning and focus of my own life through my creative practices.

Writer and Buddhist philosopher Matthieu Ricard suggested that “the spiritual journey is like travelling from valley to valley: crossing each mountain pass reveals a more magnificent landscape than the one before” (as cited in Follmi, 2003, p. 56). Here there is a pattern of highs and lows, with a progression from one landscape to another as life unfolds in ever-richer forms. This notion of movement suggests that that there is no going back. We must let go and leave much behind.

Grieving is simultaneously a deeply personal and a universal human experience that reveals itself over time. Across cultures, humans have created myths and their accompanying rituals to guide us through the difficult thresholds of transformation. In his groundbreaking book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell (2008) offered that “It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward” (p. 2). Rites of passage such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death are differentiated by formal ceremonies that function to make the whole community “visible to itself as an imperishable living unit” (p. 331). Rituals give form and shape outside of logic, within the realm of imaginings. They provide a means by which we can manifest our humanity—and some would say—our soul. If soul is revealed in attachment, love, and community as Thomas Moore (1992) writes in The Care of the Soul, then arguably it may also represent the essence of what it is to be human.

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (1989) observed that rituals provide “an answer and reaction to the action of God upon man” (p. 253). Here the performance of rituals is an action performed in the service of meaning. The word ritual comes from the Sanskrit rita, meaning “truth or order.” It relates to the physical order of the universe and is manifest in the way “the sun and moon pursue their daily journeys across the sky” (Britannica, 2016, n.p.). Another aspect of this concept is encapsulated in the moral law of the world and the concept of sacrifice. In the Vedic tradition, it is essential that the performance of sacrifices to the gods be conducted in the proper way, to ensure the continuance of the natural order of things.

Rites offer a means through which communities and individuals can embody their cultural myths. These myths serve to awaken and support a sense of awe before the mystery of being (Young, 2005). They add a cosmological dimension to human life, which matches the lived experience, knowledge, and mentality of a given culture, while still allowing attention to be given to mystery or the unknown. This dimension shines a light on the order of the cosmos and ultimately our place in it. The Christian celebrations of Christmas and Easter, and the Hopi Sun Dance all “employ the ritual art of remembrance” (Houston, 1987, p. 102).

Each society has a specific moral order, including ethical laws and social roles. A sociological function in response to social group, place, climate, and culture forms a third function of mythology (Young, 2005). An example of this would be the Navaho, whose spiritual life is guided by directions and prescriptions received from Spider Woman for walking what they call “the pollen path” (Houston, 1987, p. 102).

Ultimately, myths offer a way of teaching us how to live through all the stages of life with integrity as they provide a framework for psychological growth. In the final stage of life this movement impels us forward and our ability to embody its expression in our lives is where the psychological element, encapsulated in Campbell’s fourth function of mythology (Young, 2005), is at its most potent. It is within the soul’s last journey that the adventure of the hero reaches its most elaborate and significant development. Campbell (2008) described this final crossing as a return to the “pristine knowledge of the world-creative divinity” (p. 317).

 

A Doorway to Another Time

I have a heady mix of Nordic blood running through my veins as my ancestors came from the barren and often frozen lands of Northern Europe, so in acknowledgement of this ancestral link, I turn now to an ancient ritual of death that has the threshold symbol of the doorway at its centre. In the period 780-1070 C.E., the Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes were collectively known as the Vikings (Holland, 1980, p. xiv). After the death of a chieftain, they would act out this need for healing time by conducting a richly complicated ceremony that served to ease the loss of the man, while also connecting the tribe to the world of their Gods and all that awaited the chieftain in the afterlife. Possibly one of the functions of the ceremony was to wipe out the human sufferer as an individual and to illuminate the “cosmological circumstance” at play (Campbell, 1972, p. 59).

From his eyewitness account in 926 C.E., Arab diplomat Ibn Fadlan (as cited in Smyser, 1965, n.p.) described the rituals that marked the ceremony. The body was interred for 10 days, while new clothes for the chieftain’s journey to the afterworld were sewn. A female shaman, known as the angel of death and who acted as a representative of the Nordic god Freyr, oversaw the ceremony as mistress of war and death, love, lust, and fertility.

A thrall girl (or bond-maid) volunteered to accompany the chieftain, and during her final days, had intercourse with all the men of the tribe as a gift for the chieftain and a guarantee of tribal fertility. There was an implicit acknowledgement in this act of an ongoing exchange between the world of the living and that of the dead: a belief that the actions of the tribe would have a direct impact on their chieftain’s journey.

The orientation process to the new stage of life is reflected in the rituals enacted before the death of a loved one, immediately following and also in subsequent remembrance rituals. To understand the grieving process fully, Worden (2009) suggested that the meaning of attachment must be included, and that an individual’s way of mourning is connected to the behavioural responses that make up part of “re-establishing a relationship with the ‘lost object’ ” (p. 15). Perhaps it was through the completion of detailed and allotted tasks that the Vikings began to adapt to the loss of their chieftain, through a process that required “confrontation with and restructuring of thoughts about the deceased” (p. 39)  and with a world that had changed.

On the tenth day, the disinterred chieftain was placed in his longship, which was a symbol of the cycle of birth, life, and death (Holland, 1980, p. 197). The body was surrounded with intoxicating drinks, food, a stringed instrument, and all his weaponry. These everyday objects and possessions form part of identity and in the context of death they can be seen as “transitional objects” performing the function of holding on, and later letting go (Gibson, 2008, p. 16). Interestingly, in the Viking rite, the objects were sent with the chieftain rather than being kept with the living as we might do today.

It can be argued that the display of the body, along with animals and artifacts, may have been a construction of a temporary and idealized image of the dead to be remembered by the mourners, “not through its endurance and permanence, but through its brief visibility and subsequent destruction” (Kuchler, as cited in Williams, 2004, p. 11).

A decapitated horse was cut to pieces, the parts arranged around the body, along with a dog, a hen, and a rooster. Each of these gifts is “endowed with living, healing, magic power” (Jung 1958/1978, p. 104, para. 76) and symbolized aspects of a bountiful life and the difficulties that awaited the chieftain on his journey to Valhalla, the great Hall presided over by the Norse god Odin. It was in this Hall that dead warriors spent their days fighting and their nights feasting while they waited for Ragnarok, the battle at the end of time.

It is said that there are 540 doors in Valhalla, and in the late afternoon of the tenth day, the thrall girl was tied to something that looked like a doorframe. Heavily intoxicated, she would be lifted three times by men from the tribe and would tell of what she saw through the doorway into the afterworld. In this last stage of the ceremony, the relatives of the dead chieftain arrived and the ship would be set aflame.

This final threshold crossing is present in the mythological image of an open door; the space between breaths, where we catch a glimpse of our current place in time and that which lies beyond. The movement through the doorway enacted within the Viking ceremony symbolizes an enduring connection between the chieftain, the tribe, their Gods, and those yet to pass over the threshold.

As I stood in the doorway between my mother and my son, I had to let go of her corporal life and turn to face a world forever changed by her absence. If, as Keleman (1985) suggests, “living with dying is learning about the transformation arising from your turning points,” (p. 26), then my grieving has indeed been a series of turning points in life; points that have confirmed the strength of the relationships in my family, increased my acceptance of loss, reaffirmed my joy and hope, and above all, made me live the life that I have left more fully, for as Daniel Levinson (1996) argues, ”a life is, above all, about the engagement of a person in the world” (p. 3).

 

A Creative Response – Don’t Look Back

As an artist and clinical psychotherapist, I do not separate the stimuli of the outer world from my inner creative life, for they are intertwined in ways that are mysterious and unknowable. So, as a final parting ritual between myself and you, the reader, I offer you an original song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IfQD9E4D5RY

I was just beginning my immersion in the world of Campbell’s myths when I attended a wake held in the late afternoon of a hot Australian summer. We gathered under the tall gum trees at a place where the river meets the ocean. From these encounters came “Don’t Look Back” (Schouw, 2014):

At the close of the day
We will wait at the water’s edge
And the arrow will fly
To light your way

These first lines echo an eternal rhythm as we stood in a circle beneath gently-falling summer rain, marking the passing of a human life. We were enacting an ancient ritual deep in the heart of suburban Australia that mirrored a similar circle variously drawn by the Pawnee priest in Northern Kansas and Southern Nebraska to represent a nest, the dwelling place of the people, and the kinship group, clan, and tribe (Campbell, 2008, p. 34). As each person spoke it was as if we were laying down beacons to mark out the trajectory of a life.

An arrow’s journey is sure and true, and the energy of its flight dies away as it reaches its target. By beginning the song this way, both the metaphysical and the cosmological functions of myth are evoked (Young, 2005, p. 4). We are connected to mystery and our natural place in the rhythm of life. This is mirrored in the last ceremony of the Viking rite, conducted as the sun was ending a cycle.

“The true symbol does not merely point to something else. It contains in itself a structure, which awakens our consciousness to a new awareness of the inner meaning of life and of reality itself,” (Merton, as cited in Campbell, 1972, p. 265). The mythological symbol of water is ubiquitous. It can be a means of traveling from this world to the next as in the Styx, one of the rivers of the ancient Greek’s underworld. It is represented in aqua permanens, the “water of life of the alchemists and of the ancient pre-Christian world” (Campbell, 2002, p. 182), or the Rio Abajo Rio, “the river beneath the river which flows and flows into our lives” (Estes, 1992, p. 298). The water’s edge is an “emblematic mythic place, where life and history flow by, the eternal streaming of the Tao” (Houston, 1996, p. 2). It is the place I go to whenever my soul needs replenishment or reconnection to the cosmos.

In her poem, Silence, Judith Wright (1955) makes the connection between the creative-divinity and the eternal waters:

Silence is the rock where I shall stand.
Oh, when I strike it with my hand
May the artesian waters spring
From that dark source I long to find

The word Hallelujah appears in the Hebrew bible and Christian hymns as a call to praise God or in praise of God. Throughout Canadian poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen’s composition “Hallelujah” (1984), we experience that many different hallelujahs exist; an ecstatic cry of sexual release, a yearning for a forgotten God, a bitter accusation, or an entreaty for salvation. In the last verse of my song, I have used it as a call to the angels, asking for them to perform the task of carrying the loved one away safely:

At the close of the day
We will sing hallelujah
As the angels come
To carry you away
As the trumpets sound
And the night birds sing
We will gather together
To guide you home

The trumpets sounding resonate with the music of the heavens, while the night birds’ song evokes the lore of the messengers of the night. For the Ancient Greeks, the owl was associated with their goddess Athena, a symbol of higher wisdom, while the Pawnee hold the birds as a symbol of protection.

The construct of a hymn, “Don’t Look Back,” completes the circle by returning to the water symbol in the final chorus. There is a suggestion that the veil between the two worlds is opening, and that to look back would be to break the spell or destroy that which is unfathomable. Here, also the image of the Viking longship is recalled, and perhaps even the arrival of something bountiful:

Don’t look back
As the veil grows thin
For all is well
As your ship comes in
For the last goodbye

In a thought provoking essay published in Psychosomatic Medicine, George Engel (1961) observes that “the loss of a loved one is psychologically traumatic to the same extent that being severely wounded or burned is physiologically traumatic” (as cited in Worden, 2009, p. 16). Engel argues that, “just as healing is necessary in the physiological realm, a period of time is likewise needed to return the mourner to a similar state of psychological equilibrium” p. 16).

Through the restorative rituals of grieving and creativity, I continue to experience a deeply personal and universal unfolding which connects me to the enduring living unit of all humanity. As Sogyal Rinpoche (2002) offers, “Don’t let us half die with our loved ones, then; let us try to live after they have gone, with greater fervor” (p. 314), for all is well.

 

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Lisa Schouw (BCHC, MA, CMPACFA) is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Sydney (Theater and Performance Studies Department). She completed her M.A. in Engaged Humanities and the Creative Life, with an emphasis in Depth Psychology, at Pacifica Graduate Institute, USA. She works in Australia as a clinical psychotherapist,singer/songwriter, theater maker, and singing/performance coach. Her passion is the part creativity plays in the individuation process of her clients and fellow artists.