Wisdom on Death from Shamans & Mothers

David Palladin continues his reflections on shamanhood and dying when he says: 

“Emergence” Sand painting by David Paladin, 1973. Reprinted with permission.

We have the privilege of serving others, of reaching out to them.  We can share with others that they have died and are reborn.  Even Christ said that you’re not alive until you’ve born again.  The shaman is a warrior who has experienced that kind of death before their physical death.*

I shared some stories of my mother’s death that I recount in my book, Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet.  Humans can often approach death in ways other than passive, death itself becomes an invitation to be creative.

When my mother was in the hospital and close to death, two of my sisters came to see her.  She said to them, “I was up all night last night, didn’t sleep at all.”  

Dr. Sarah Kerr of the Centre for Sacred Deathcare offers a 4-part process for saying goodbye when someone is dying.

One responded, “I will talk to the nurse and ask her for some meds to help you sleep at night.”  “Oh, no,” my mother said.  “I was up all night because I have never died before, and I wanted to figure out how to do it right.”

Then she turned to one sister and said, “Roberta, this is a waste of your time, your hanging around to watch me die.  Why don’t you go do something more important and useful.”  Then she said the same thing to my sister Terry.  

Then she said, “This is a waste of time for me too.  How long is it going to take for me to die?”

Matthew Fox’s mother, Beatrice Sill Fox. Photographer unknown.

Weeks later, when the doctor told us she was soon to die, all seven kids flew in with spouses etc. to be with her.  After three days I had to return to work in California, so I went up to her sitting in a chair to say my goodbyes.  

She said to me, “Tim, you know I’m not afraid to die.”  I said, “I know and I know why.”  She replied, “Why?”  I said, “Because you are curious and you are looking forward to an adventure.”  She replied, “Exactly.”  With that we kissed, and I moved on with that word “exactly” being the last word we exchanged.  

She died ten days later while riding an indoor bike.

*A correspondence from his wife from a closing address David gave to participants at a shamanic workshop he conducted in 1983.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Creativity Where the Divine and the Human Meet, pp. 218-220.

Banner Image: Dandelion releasing its seeds, Finland. Photo by Saad Chaudhry on Unsplash

Queries for Contemplation

Thomas Berry has said that we need “fewer priests and fewer professors and more shamans.”  How do you think David Palladin’s teachings on shamanhood and death relate to that observation from Berry?  How do the stories of my mother’s attitude toward dying strike you or encourage you?

Recommended Reading

Creativity: Where the Divine and Human Meet

Because creativity is the key to both our genius and beauty as a species but also to our capacity for evil, we need to teach creativity and to teach ways of steering this God-like power in directions that promote love of life (biophilia) and not love of death (necrophilia). Pushing well beyond the bounds of conventional Christian doctrine, Fox’s focus on creativity attempts nothing less than to shape a new ethic.
“Matt Fox is a pilgrim who seeks a path into the church of tomorrow.  Countless numbers will be happy to follow his lead.” –Bishop John Shelby Spong, author, Rescuing the Bible from FundamentalismLiving in Sin

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7 thoughts on “Wisdom on Death from Shamans & Mothers”

  1. Avatar

    Thank you Mathew for sharing your personal and family story regarding your Mom, as well as the video clip by Dr. Kerr.

    My Mom is currently deemed palliative, with cancer. The wisdom Dr. Kerr offered in her video mirrors the conversations that have been unfolding, between my Mom and myself over the past several months.

    My Mom is living each moment to the fullest that she can, grateful for what she calls the blessing of another 24 hrs. Often she has expressed how curious she is about the next right of passage beyond life in the physical. She’s content with the not knowing, surrendering with a sense of excitement about it all; which to be honest in some strange sense is making it somehow easier for myself in many ways.

    All of this comes from the sacred place of trusting in LOVE, even unto death into new life; rather than reacting out of fear. This is but one of the valuable gifts my Mom is revealing to me, which is opening my heart to choose the same, not only in this situation, but in other areas of my life as well.

    Lady Death, through my Mom, is teaching me about trusting in, relying upon and depending upon the transforming power of LOVE, and that I need not be afraid of not only physical death, others or my own; but also just as importantly that I need not fear all the little deaths beyond the physical that I may encounter during my journey of Life.

  2. Avatar

    To repeat what David Palladin said in yesterday’s DM about what shamans (and past/present/future mystics, saints, spiritual beings… ) teach us: the importance of “dying before we die… and to rise as a warrior whose only weapon is Love… “

  3. Avatar

    Dying is not the hard part for me. Dying, I go to dying with open arms. Like Beatrice, I go on bike! I go on skates, on skis. I go dancing and running. It’s the living part that is treacherous to me. I guess the dead have been teaching me how to stay alive. When I first heard about David Paladin, I was listening to Caroline Myss (it was my first time listening to her too) recount Paladin’s torture during WWII and returning to his tribe in the States and being thrown into the water. Oh my! Hearing his story, I knew right away I need to learn from this man. I just stuck to him like glue! And even though he passed when I was four years old and only recently I learned about him and his paintings, he is great help to me. He is full of laughter and joy and power.

  4. Avatar

    Like the shaman, we must experience the death of some of our most cherished ideas before we can be comfortable with the anticipation of our own death.
    A few weeks ago, I was admitted to ED emergently at the point of death. I was still mostly conscious—enough to understand that my condition was critically grave. It’s a condition that has the potential to cause a devastating stroke. I called my daughter over and said, “Pray that I don’t survive a stroke.”
    I had no fear at all.
    I’ve thought a lot about that since then. My husband of 56 years died a year ago, in my arms as I tried to help him through a seizure. Much of myself died with him and this occupied much of my thinking in the past year. After losing myself and stepping out of what I’d believed to be reality, I actually Found my core self. After being made to understand the fragility of the physical, I became able to see the spiritual.
    Death is easy, friendly, and gentle.
    Do not be afraid.

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