"Shaman-sorcerers have the upper hand; as beings on their way to dying, they have someone whispering in their ear that everything is ephemeral. The whisperer is Death, the infallible advisor, the only one who won't ever tell you a lie."
Don Juan Matus to Carlos Castaneda, "The Active Side of Infinity"
I first came across Griefwalker on Netflix a few years ago. I’ve since been to screenings, have watched it half a dozen times in my own home, and have shared it dozens of times across social media platforms and personally with people I thought might benefit from it. I’ve also had the privilege of listening to Stephen Jenkinson talk when he came through Austin, Texas on October 15, 2015 in promotion of his book: Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul. I saw a fellow cancer survivor there that night- someone I knew from my metastatic support group. I knew she had stopped treatment and was doing alternative treatments and things to support her body through the process. And she did pass away, as so many of the people I’ve met through my cancer circles have.
Immediately after we left that magical time with Stephen, on our drive home, my husband and I talked for the first time about my dying, in a candid and honest way- twelve years after my initial diagnosis and nine years after my metastatic recurrence. It was a long-overdue discussion, and it’s Stephen I thank for opening up my husband enough to finally be ready to receive it. Talking about death in our culture is not easy, especially because we don’t have the language or context that supports that. But it’s not coincidence that a beloved cancer sister, whom I had walked very closely with on her journey since she was initiated into the death club, whom I had laid healing hands on and prayed over many times, died the morning after that Stephen Jenkinson talk.
To say I consider Stephen a mentor would be an understatement. I usually refer to him as a “death shaman”, although he doesn’t refer to himself as such. In fact, I think I heard him call himself a “death angel”, but I am not convinced an angel is much different than a shaman. In his case they certainly must be the same thing. And what makes him so? I can only encourage you to watch and determine for yourself who or what Stephen Jenkinson is. But regardless of the labels we use to describe the work he’s doing, the fact is that it’s unquestionably a sacred work. In this death-denying culture, one that has progressively colonized and secularized human beings, Stephen’s voice offers a powerful healing medicine for the aches of our souls. It holds the potential for connecting us deeply to one another, to ourselves, and for restoring something that has been painfully absent for a very long time.
Griefwalker is unapologetic in it’s approach to the topic of death and dying. Being a metastatic cancer survivor I’ve had to peer into the face of death, and experienced first-hand the complete isolation that came as people in my life consistently shut me down every time I tried to talk about dying. Griefwalker was like a tall, cold glass of water after a very long, sun-beaten journey, barefoot through a parched desert. And that’s perhaps what endeared me so much to Stephen and his work- he gave me permission to be authentic with myself in the dying process even as everyone around me wanted me to deny it, pretend it wasn’t happening.
Griefwalker isn’t for the faint of heart. Approaching it head-on requires a courage, a spiritual warriorship that looks into the finality of one’s own life. And Griefwalker takes us on the death journey along with a few families facing it. One of those families struggles with accepting the death of their very young daughter. And the death taboo is exceptionally enchanting when it comes to the young. It’s not just tugging at our worst fear- that of our own death- but the fear of a parent losing a young child. And I won’t lie- even in public I struggle with fighting the ugly cry through those very real and raw scenes with those parents and that sweet little girl. Life is indeed a journey, sometimes marked by a tremendous amount of pain and suffering. But if you’re called to do this end-of-life work, then there’s no other way around it. We have to have the courage to not just look into the eyes of death, to kiss it square on the mouth, but to also be present in the moment with people in nearly unbearable pain and what Stephen calls “wretched anxiety.” We have to be prepared to gently and compassionately guide them through, and beyond, in a way that teaches honor and restores the connection to our souls, to our ancestors, to one another. We have to make death sacred again. Indeed, this is a profound work, and I thank Stephen Jenkinson with my whole soul.
But Griefwalker is also about more than death and dying. It's also about grief- in all it's forms and from all it's sources. In this way Stephen refers to himself as a "grief monger." Contained within are the precious pearls of wisdom that Stephen leaves like bread crumbs leading us to the holy grail. Which when we drink from, offers us a divine perspective on what it means to be human, and the glorious beauty of life- grief and all. Because to be alive, to be human, to love, is to experience grief. And who wants to really live half a life anyway?
I have a lot of favorite quotes from Griefwalker, but here are a few of Stephen’s timely words:
“The grief of being alive- you know, unfortunately, the word throws so many people off because they think it’s a drag, like it’s a thing that you shouldn’t have to know or feel, like can’t you just love being alive without this grief thing that you keep being on about. Like what about Disneyland, come on. It’s possible to just be happy, isn’t it? What about the people who say I’m happy to be alive because I see that flower or I see that beautiful morning sun? And where’s your capacity to see the flower come from? What season are we in right now? The dying away of the very flower you’re talking about. So until your ability to see the flower is rooted in the fact that it won’t always be there, and neither will you, how much of the flower do you see?"
“Grief is not a feeling. Grief’s not how you feel. Grief’s what you do. Grief is a skill. And the twin of grief as a skill of life is the skill of being able to praise or love life, which means wherever you find one, authentically done, the other is very close at hand: grief and the praise of life, side by side, the honored guests, room at the head table, and they’re toasting you, grief and the ability to love life, they’re clinking their glasses and toasting the living, so here’s to your health. Until the time comes we come to get you, live well.”
“Their capacity to be a family after you’re gone is going to derive from how you died. Not of what- how you did it. In other words, how human you can be in the face of something that seduces you away from being human is the thing that will determine what kind of family they can be. It’s the table you set that’s going to determine what food they eat. ……. The work for you is how to be a parent at a time like this, and how to be a spouse at a time like this. You have to learn something that you wish you didn’t have to learn, but it’s how to love somebody as if it’s not gonna last, ‘cuz it’s not. The way we’re trained to love, whether it’s love a person, or love yourself, love a cause, is we’re trained to love what’s lovable about it. You don’t love anybody until you love their end. You don’t love being married until you love the end of the marriage too, because the marriage includes its’ end. Of course it does, just as truly as getting born includes not breathing anymore sometime. And that’s what you have to love. Not accept- accept’s too neutral. You have to love it- that’s really active. You have to say yes to die.”
I hope you are brave enough to look into the deep and say "yes."