I spent the weekend with the Angel of Death. At least, that's what some call Sarah Kerr
. Others name her Death Midwife or Death Doula. She is cheerful about all of these titles as she goes about her imaginative, pioneering work, offering nature-based spiritual support for illness, death or loss. Her weekend workshop, Death Undoes Us: Rituals for Family and Close Friends, brought together healers from Nova Scotia, British Columbia, Alberta and Texas. Her work has even gained national attention from the likes of Maclean's
and The Walrus
These days, death is on our minds. We wrestle with assisted dying on one hand while watching horrified as suicide claims our young. Another American massacre means that the inevitable flowers, candles, vigils are everywhere. If we lived in a death-denying society before, avoidance is more difficult now.
In April, Observer
columnist Anne Bokma's wrote that people are seeking "secular sacraments for those life passages that have been mostly ignored by religious institutions
." On the weekend, we were a blend of religious and "Spiritual but not Religious" learners. Sarah's approach fits well for both, I think.
In my book, Language of the Heart: Rituals, Stories and Information about Death
, I wrote: "After the Industrial Revolution, much of our secular society shunned rituals as magic or superstitious nonsense that we could do very well without if we used logic, science and common sense. But . . . although some of life if logical much of it is not. Even the young know that life is full of mystery." Rituals and ceremonies help us understand life on other levels; rituals are the language of the heart. Christian communion or the exchange of wedding rings, for example, move us into sacred space and invite transformation.
Sarah's workshop was part of her series, "Rituals for Living and Dying: Practical Skills Training for Death Midwives and Celebrants." Twenty-five of us explored rituals, attitudes and alternative ways of dealing with life transitions. The tools of her trade are shamanic drums, bells and rattles; artistic, fabric art and rocks beaded with exquisite patterns — all prayerful in addressing the Great Mystery. She uses stories, too, spinning them with the ease of a Joseph Campbell.
Our paths have crossed periodically for years, but this year, I wanted to learn more about Sarah's work. So I attended a New Moon Transition Ritual in April with eight other women. It was beautiful, as were our surroundings; Sarah is a gifted artist. Her bright and bubbly personality are quite present in her painting, sculptures and fabric art.
Hers is energetic work in all senses of that word. Her rituals help to move energy and offer space for transformation for individual and communities. After the New Moon Ritual, I downloaded her doctoral thesis from her Soul Passages website; it’s not something I'd do lightly. I found the title hard to resist: Dreams, Rituals, and the Creation of Sacred Objects: An Inquiry into a Contemporary Western Shamanic Initiation.
During the weekend, we discussed not only rituals for the dying or bereaved, but for other losses: a limb, job, driver's license, miscarriage, abortion, health, marriage and our planet's overall health. I also recalled that since The Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing, Canada has struggled with the loss of our identity as “nice” people.
Spending the weekend with therapists, hospice workers, chaplains, writers, trauma counsellors, life coaches and ceremonialists was inspiring. I intend to spend more time with this Angel.