Ruminations on Dying, Death and Afterlife

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  May 29, 2008 — 9 Comments

My mother died early last Friday morning.  She was 97.  Her body was worn out, but not her spirit.  I’ve had the privilege of sitting vigil with the dying in the past, and I was with my father during his dying days in a hospital 19 years ago, but this was the first time I’d ever been with someone dying of old age.  Besides, one’s relationship with one’s mother is the closets and in most cases the most complicated.  It certainly was in our case.

Named Elizabeth, called Betty by our father and her friends, our mother tended towards formality. She was a woman who knew her own mind, held strong opinions, and believed that women should have equal educational and professional opportunities with men.  Unfortunately, she didn’t live in an era when this was the case.  So instead of being an executive, a role I think would have suited her temperament and talents perfectly, she became a homemaker.
She came from a line of Methodist ministers.  Her maternal grandfather, Alpha Gilruth Kynett, preached a conservative form of Protestantism, more conservative than most Methodists today are known to be.  Mother saw life in black and white, right and wrong, good and bad.  There was only one way to look at anything, the one dictated by the King James Bible and middle class Euro-American society.  She believed in Heaven and Hell, in salvation and atonement and reunion in God’s Heaven with those who’ve gone before. 
I’m a Pagan, with a less certain but more holistic view of the world and how it operates.  I also consider myself to be a Priestess of the Dark Mother, a death priestess, a midwife of souls.
For as long as the human race — the one race, that comes in different sizes, shapes and colors, like birds and fishes, dogs and cats — has been around, people have contemplated the puzzlement of death.  When we can clearly see that the mysterious energy that animated our loved one has left a body and an empty husk remains, we have wondered where that soul has gone.
A few people have had a glimpse of that place.  They’ve survived NDEs (near death experiences).  Their descriptions after they return to this plane of existence vary, but most commonly they speak of white light or a bright tunnel. Some speak of seeing departed loved ones, seeing Jesus with open arms, or even, for a small percentage, seeing horrors.
I don’t believe anyone, other than someone who’s undergone an NDE, who tells me she or he knows what happens when life leaves.  We just don’t know.  Or maybe we don’t remember.  Some of us may claim with “crippling certainty” to know.  Some of us have stories of the worlds beyond the veil of the world of the living.  We often speak in metaphors.  The question remains:  Where do we go?  Another question is:  Does it really matter?  I don’t know if it does not not, but I know people will continue to contemplate this.
When our mother took a bad fall in her early 90s, the hospital released her to a “convalescent hospital,”  For the first week or two she was pretty out of it.  I brought a painting from her house to hang on the wall at the foot of the bed.  It’s a large oil of Jesus as fisher of men casting a net from a boat on the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus is oddly alone in the boat.  She and our father bought this painting in their retirement years from an artist on the Ocean City, NJ boardwalk.  Mom loved it.  She proudly displayed it over the living room couch.  So I thought that since she couldn’t walk without aid and would probably be spending a lot of time in bed, and she couldn’t see all that well either, having this familiar painting to view would give her comfort.  She had been declining both physically and mentally for some years at this point.  She believed in Jesus and the resurrection of the soul after death.
When my former husband, Rod, was dying of cancer, we hung a painting of Kurukulla (Red Tara) at the foot of his bed, in the West, the direction towards which many Pagans understand the soul to travel.  West is where the Sun sets.  Our daughter, then 12, stood at the foot of the bed to keep her father from leaving.
My friend John McClimans envisioned the place where he was headed as he approached his death as the yoni of his matron, Hekate, dark and mysterious and ablaze with glistening stars.
When I helped my friend Raven Moonshadow to die, I went with him to a place where he was taken into the lap of Kali Ma.  I went as far as I could while he went all the way.  I saw her jeweled toenails.
I have a painting (actually a fine print of an acrylic I watched the artist working on at CoG‘s MerryMeet in Minnesota in 1997) of Kali Ma done by visionary artist Paul Rucker.  This painting evokes for me the encounter I had when I traveled with Raven towards the Other Side.  I think I would find it a comforting sight when I am facing my own demise.
I phoned my cousin John in Honolulu this week to tell him of his Aunt Elizabeth’s passing.  He’s been writing to her all his life, and continued to write even after she no longer understood the words in his letters.  John has been a Quaker all his adult life and possesses a doctorate in religion and ecology.  We talked for more than two hours, about all manner of things, including this painting that hung on the wall of Mom’s room.  He suggests that each of us has a different conception of where we’re headed when we die, and that whatever image gives one comfort during the dying process is the one to use, religion aside.  I think he’s right.
My sister Catherine and I are giving the painting to Mother’s Methodist Church to hang in her memory.  I think she’d have liked that a lot.
~ Guest posted by M. Macha NightMare at Broomstick Chronicles.  Thanks, Jason.  I’m honored.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Erik

    I’m very sorry for your loss. I hope she went where she wanted to go.Blessings,Erik

  • Anne Hill

    What a beautiful post, Macha. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts at this most difficult hour.

  • deborah oak

    Thank you, Macha. I continue to feel it was one of the great privileges of my lifetime to witness you helping Raven cross. I too, saw the painted toenails,and felt my awe in your fearlessness in taking Raven close. I am so glad to know you on this side of the veil. It’s helped me trust crossing over to the other when my time comes. Your mother was blessed to have you as her daughter. Thank you for this beautiful post.

  • Julia

    Thank you for writing this. My husband I will ponder what picture we would want at the foot of the bed as we look into eternity.

  • Riverwolf

    Wishing you peace as you grieve for your mother. Yet how wonderful that you were able to be with her and how thoughtful that you brought in her favorite painting. It may have brought comfort to her. I certainly don’t have any wisdom to add on the subject of physical death but only wanted to say thanks for the wonderfully written post.

  • HR Mitchell

    Peace to her on her passing and comfort to those she left behind.As always, Macha, you craft beautiful tributes to those who have passed or are in transition from this world to the next, whereever that may be.

  • Barbara

    My condolences to you and your family on your loss, and many blessings to your mother on her journey.

  • thorn

    I remember seeing Raven float out of his body… Thanks for the priestessing you do. You will be in my thoughts on Saturday.

  • Donald Engstrom-Reese

    Dear Macha,Thank you so much for your post. My deepest condolences. As you know, I have also tended the deaths of beloveds. I am still amazed a the golden child stage of death that many folks enter just before they die.I still do not know much about where we travel too. I too have only gone as far as the living are allowed to go while traveling with the dying.The one thing that has been present on all of these journeys, is ‘love beyond all reason’. A love beyond my full comprehension fills me completely. It fills all that surrounds me. It shimmies and shakes my whole being. I am never the same when I come back home. Yes, I am still awash with grief. But, the ‘love’ is still palpable in every breath I take, every step I make. I am often aware of the sheen of this ‘love’ infusing my day to day life.I must say, I do love going to the parties thrown at the Roadhouse of the Dead. But, I still ache for the taste, feel, smell, sight, voice of my beloveds almost every day.May we all, the living and the dead, dare to dwell in beauty, balance and delight.