A New Look at Grief, Gratitude and God
- Selected Excerpts -
by Terri Daniel with Danny Mandell
“Is it true there is a cure for all illness? Only if you are wise enough to see death as a cure.”
As an afterlife awareness educator and mother of a child who died at age 16 after a lengthy illness, I am fiercely committed to the idea of conscious dying and conscious grieving. By understanding that death is neither an enemy nor an ending, the process of grieving the death of a loved one becomes a journey of awakening for the person who has died and for those who remain on earth.
I’ve spent a lifetime studying metaphysics and spirituality, and I believe unequivocally that there are no "good" or "bad" experiences; only the soul's constant craving for growth and expansion. In this view, illness and death are not experiences to be avoided, but to be embraced with gratitude for the shifting of perceptions and gifts of growth they provide. In a state of gratitude at this level, we accept every experience with love, because we recognize it as one of our soul’s creations. Even something as painful as the death of a child can be seen as part of a flawless pattern of perfection that moves the family and the entire soul group forward in unexpected ways.
When my son Danny was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness at age 10, friends and family asked, “Does this change your unconventional spiritual views? Does it make you want to go back to traditional notions of God, afterlife and religion?”
This might have been a good question for someone who’d taken only a few tentative steps outside the religious box during her lifetime, but for me, the question was preposterous. The stunning news that my son would only live a few more years actually confirmed what I’d intuitively known since I was a teenager… there are pre-birth agreements between souls. Reincarnation is real. There’s a reason for everything. And we create our own experiences on earth with the assistance of non-physical guides and helpers.
In 1967 when I was 14 years old, a Krishna Consciousness congregation moved into an old church in my neighborhood and I attended their Sunday feasts and listened to lectures by their teacher, Swami Bhaktivedanta. When I was 16, my liberal, free-thinking high school English teacher taught the first five books of the Bible as literature, and from there, fueled by intense curiosity, I went on to read the rest of it (my family was not religious at all, and the high school class was my first exposure to this material). By the time I was 19 I’d read the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Ruth Montgomery and Edgar Cayce. These teachings resonated with me as absolute truth back then, and over the years, supported by further study and practice, these truths were confirmed again and again. So when Danny was diagnosed, I knew instantly that his soul had a plan of its own. And it was my intention to honor his intention.
Let’s go back for a moment to those traditional notions of God, afterlife and religion. Had I perceived this situation through that lens, I might have been gripped with fear and helplessness, too puny and unworthy to comprehend the mysterious workings of an all-powerful God who randomly dispenses good or bad luck, sorrow or joy, wealth or poverty in life, and reward or punishment in death. By contrast, a more self-empowered spirituality says that we are not at the mercy of a humanoid God who is separate from us, but are equal parts of a collective energy that IS God, an energy with which we work as co-creators. This work is done “on earth as it is in heaven,” as our souls continually seek experience in and out of the body. The growth work we do during our earthly incarnations carries over to the Other Side, where we evaluate and create new and effective situations to bring forth the ideal experiences to fuel our continued exploration. In this way there can be no tragedies, no here and there, no them and us, and no death.
Over the years, my passion for examining death from the perspective of both the dying and the grieving led me to an interesting mix of studies and practices drawn from all the usual sources and many of the not-so-usual ones. One of those sources is The Anamcara Project, a unique spiritual education program created by Richard and Mary Groves. Their Sacred Art of Living and Dying seminars have attracted more than 10,000 students from a wide range of healing professions and the general public, including educators, clergy, hospice workers, physicians and metaphysicians. I was drawn to the program when I first heard the term, “spiritual midwife,” referring to someone who helps the dying make their transitions from this world to the next. Because the word “midwife” so perfectly described the role I played in Danny’s death, I sought out the Anamcara Project, and it became an important part of not only my work as a hospice volunteer, but my personal growth path as well.
One of the things I learned in the Anamcara training is that in the early hospices it was understood that death is not the opposite of life, but the opposite of birth, or in a sense, the same as birth. In many of these hospices it was common to see women giving birth on one side of the room while people were dying on the other side, all guided by midwives, while minstrels strolled around playing soothing music. Death may not be the opposite of life, but it is certainly a part of life, and there are many social and religious traditions that recognize and honor death as the sacred, intimate journey that it is.
But sadly, modern America has created a culture of denial around death, and hospice care is still not generally understood or accepted. In ancient times the word "hospice" literally meant ‘hospitality,’ a process of assisting travelers with their journeys, including the journeys of birth and death. In those times we lived closer to the land; we saw people and animals die all the time, and there was very little about it that was terrible or frightening. The terror came with religious doctrine and the concept of evil and punishment, which embedded the fear of death into our culture.
One of the greatest losses to our society over the last few generations is the sacred process of caring for our dead at home. Before the industrial revolution, when grandma was dying, she was surrounded by her family, including young children, and after death her body was cleaned, dressed and laid out on a table for viewing by friends and family. The body was then buried in a family graveyard on the family acreage. It was a natural and expected passage, and there is now a growing movement in the U.S. to return to these practices in the hope of bringing death back into light and out of the dark place where it’s been relegated by fear, repression and religious dogma. Danny had a beautiful death at home, with his beloved dog and his family by his side. I’d learned from the home death movement that a body can stay at home much longer than modern practices dictate, and we kept Danny’s body with us for five hours before calling the mortuary. It gave us a chance to gently and consciously release his physical presence, and to honor the sacred vessel that had done such a worthy job of housing his soul.
A "good death" should be as fearless as possible, and one way to lessen that fear is to seek alternative views that honor our intuitive knowledge, our non-physical senses and our inner gifts while eliminating the notion of Divine punishment. Embracing death with boundless leaps of faith can shift the experience of life-threatening illness or trauma from terrifying to transcendent. An understanding of our own divinity and the perfect journey of our souls, supported by guides, angels and loved ones who have passed before us, helps us understand death as simply a journey to another room, where life continues in a different form and all deaths are pathways to healing.
HOW WE LEARN ABOUT DEATH
Most modern Americans never see a dead body unless it's been embalmed and dressed up for a funeral. But in many other cultures, people are exposed to death throughout their lives. In countries suffering from war or famine, in tribal societies, in cultures that accept death and in most places where people live close to the land, death is not hidden or sanitized.
During my childhood, when a grandparent, aunt or uncle died, the younger children weren't allowed to go to the funerals because the adults thought it would be too upsetting. When I became a mother I could see the flaw in this logic, and true to my role as the black sheep of the family, I encouraged my adult siblings and cousins to take their little ones to these funerals, recognizing these events as opportunities to teach children about the cycles of life and death. My family's preference for avoidance and suppression did more to create fear and superstition in the children than to protect them from it.
It's probably fair to say that most people view death in one of these three ways:
1. Heaven and Hell
We have one life to live on earth but our souls live on after death, and if we follow the rules of our culture and our religion, we will be rewarded after death with a conflict-free eternity, recognized by our god and our peers as a good or righteous person. If we don't follow these rules, we will be judged for our sins and sentenced to an eternity in a place of terror from which there is no return or redemption. When dying or grieving, this view leaves us terrified that we may have failed in life, and gives no reason for our experiences on earth other than an ultimate reward or punishment after death.
2. There is nothing but the physical
In this view, there is no such thing as a non-physical world. When we die, our bodies decompose and we're gone, flat lined, forever. There is no soul or spirit, and no afterlife. The physical body is all there is, and after it dies, there is nothing left. A lifetime of achievements, losses, relationships, growth experiences, issues and creations remains frozen in time, because this one lifetime was our only encounter with existence. When dying or grieving, this view leaves us feeling utterly abandoned as victims of random chaos in a finite system. It exacerbates the feeling of permanent loss for the bereaved, making the grief process more difficult.
3. The soul lives on for the exclusive purpose of growth and awakening
The soul continues to broadcast its energy after the body dies. It continues its journey, sometimes embodied during incarnations, and at other times disembodied and continuing its work from non-physical realms. The soul continues to live and be part of the human panorama. When dying or grieving, this view gives purpose to one's life on earth, and provides limitless opportunities for expansion, correction and creation, no matter how short or how tragic the current physical life might have been.
Whatever your belief system may be, the ideas you absorbed as a child were handed down by your tribe… your family, your culture, your social circle and your religion. This includes television, movies, books, art, education, relationships and other sources. But as you evolved as an individual and were exposed to new information, through the use of your free will and critical thinking skills, you mixed-and-matched with your childhood beliefs to create the theology you now have. When I was a child, my tribe told me that God punishes bad people and rewards good people. I moved out of that belief in the same way many of you moved through the beliefs of your own tribal origins. It's an evolutionary process in which we choose to keep some ideas and reject others according to where we are along our spiritual paths. But in the beginning of each earthly incarnation, these beliefs are given to us according to tribal tradition.
GOD: A NEW STORY
Q: How can God let this terrible thing happen?
A: It depends on what you think God is.
At some point in your childhood, if you grew up in Judeo-Christian America, you began learning about God, creation, The Ten Commandments, Heaven and Hell, Jesus, Moses, the Bible, Hanukah, Santa Claus or some combination of the above. And if the Old Testament was part of your childhood teachings (especially if you actually read any of it), you may have gotten the impression that God is constantly angry and disappointed in us because we are unworthy, sinful, marred and imperfect and can't live up to his demands and expectations. A God who wipes out humanity with a flood, murders those who don't follow his rules and encourages genocide against the inhabitants of land he claims for his "chosen" people presents a scary picture. Many of us -- especially those who were raised with strict religious backgrounds -- grew up feeling that we did something wrong just by being born and that we have to work hard all our lives to get back into God's good graces. And maybe if we hit all the right buttons and do all the right things, God won’t be mad at us anymore and we’ll get to go to Heaven.
While this mindset may not be obvious in our outward behavior, it plants invisible, insidious seeds of self-loathing and inadequacy in our thinking, and belittles the dignity of our souls and our very existence. If we're always worried about the King of the Universe being angry with us, we don't have much chance to recognize Divine Love when it's right in front of us. If we're lucky enough to see through this at some point, some of us may become spiritual seekers, which is great, but others will be turned off to spirituality of any kind, which eliminates the Divine from our lives completely and leaves us spiritually bereft. It's a lot of pain to live with, and it's all because of a childhood wound caused by the lie that we are not one with God; that we are so separate it that is actually possible for God to judge us.
This is the story most of us were told as children, and it implies that we have a limited amount of time in which to please God before we die, and only one chance to do this for all of eternity. We will either succeed or fail, but either way, we only have only one shot at it. So we plod through our lives doing the best we can, and even though we're good people and follow all the rules, bad things still happen to us. Our hearts get broken, we lose our jobs, our spouses abandon or abuse us, our children get killed by drunk drivers, we get sick or depressed and have the same experiences that everybody else has, despite our belief that if we're "good" we'll be protected from trauma. And we think, "Hey, this isn’t supposed to happen. I did all the right things. I'm a good person and God’s supposed to be nice to me. There must be something wrong with me. I failed in some way, because no matter what I do, I still feel powerless and unsafe, and nothing can fix it; not getting baptized or doing community service or donating to charity or saving the whales… nothing."
Of course nothing can fix it. Because it isn't broken.
These so-called "bad" experiences are part of the soul's journey and the program we signed on for when we chose incarnation. The experience of pain and conflict is as much a gift as the experience of joy and security. We are here to accumulate experience for the purpose of growth and expansion, and the pain, isolation and powerlessness we feel at times can be understood in different ways depending on how we look at it. The biggest error in our thinking is in perceiving God as an authority figure, like a stern parent who disciplines us by dispensing reward and punishment for our behavior. How different would our life experiences be if we saw God not as a parent, but as a partner? An energy-generating source that supports our growth in whatever way we create it, via whatever experiences we create, offering nothing but unconditional love? Rather than a watchful figure standing over us in judgment, what if God is simply an energy of love and light that doesn't have an opinion?
GRIEF, LOSS, GOOD AND EVIL
In my work as a grief guidance facilitator, I've walked the grief journey with individuals from every religious perspective. Those who've lost a loved one in a tragic manner have one primary question... "why would a loving God let this happen?"
The answer depends what you think God is.
If we see God as a connective fiber that links every action in the universe in an interdependent movement toward wholeness, then there's no reason why this force would shield us from discomfort and conflict. To expect God to behave like a protective mother hen is an infantile view that further separates and disempowers us. If we think that God's love is supposed to provide us with a conflict-free existence, we will always be disappointed. Because when that expectation is not met -- and it can never be met -- we end up focusing more on our feelings of anger and abandonment than on the valuable lessons these experiences were designed to teach us.
Instead of wondering why bad things are allowed to happen, consider instead that there are no "good" or "bad" things in the universe, only the creations that move us forward in our evolution. We cannot judge these creations, because they are necessary in order for growth and expansion to occur. They are there to provide traction, something to push against, like a swimmer pushing off the edge of a pool.
Whenever this topic comes up in one of my workshops, someone inevitably raises the question of good and evil, and along with it, a mention of the poster boy for all evil -- Adolph Hitler. The idea of good and evil is difficult to give up because it's so tied to judgment, and people are very attached to judgment. In these same dialogs I'm often asked why people have to die in war, plane crashes, floods, famines and terrorist attacks. And I've been known to answer, "Why is it better to live here on earth than at home in Heaven?"
If you understand that we are more than just these physical bodies and we exist in multiple dimensions, it's easy to see how the revolving door between this world and the next simply carries us from one classroom to another in the continuing education of our souls. Death is like waking up from a dream and finding yourself comfortably at home in your own bed. If we relinquish the idea that God judges us and replace it with a self-empowered view in which everything is connected and happens for a specific reason, then the Hitlers and the Mother Teresas of the world are all part of a magnificent Divine dance of balance. Stillness vs. disruption, order vs. chaos, yin vs. yang, expansion vs. contraction… all of it leads ultimately to Oneness.
This dispassionate attitude about death was illustrated for me once in the most unlikely of places. It was a rerun of the old television show Kung Fu with David Carradine. His character, Kwai Chang Caine, was a Buddhist priest traveling in 1870s America who had to contend with drunken cowboys, vicious thieves and angry mobs wherever he went. Foolhardy men were always picking fights with him (which naturally he'd win, because he was Kung Fu Master). In an episode I watched just a few years ago, the sheriff warned him to get out of town before the angry mob caught up with him. The sheriff shouted, "If you don't leave now, you'll die!" Caine just shrugged with calm detachment while playing his flute and said, "So. I will die."
"There is a different way to understand the concept of “harmony” vs. “conflict.” In the natural world on earth, the ecosystem works in perfect harmony, but it requires conflict. A wolf must eat a rabbit, and while the wolf is chasing the rabbit, the rabbit is in a state of panic; it is not peaceful, and the whole situation is quite violent. Yet this is perfect harmony in nature.
The same is true in human experience. Is it a natural part of the human ecosystem when thousands of humans are killed in an earthquake? It's just like the wolf killing the rabbit. Without these so-called “negative” experiences, we would have no swimming pool edge from which to push off. The souls involved in these experiences have chosen this as part of their contribution to the evolution of the human species. They are members of a soul group that has agreed to this experience for a number of reasons, one of which is to serve as volunteers who help awaken and enlighten the rest of humanity."
The universe holds itself together by exerting opposing forces upon itself, and there is cause and effect in everything. It expands and contracts constantly, because there has to be something to push off from. In Glenda Green's magnificently channeled book, Love Without End: Jesus Speaks, she receives this amazing explanation of the necessity for conflict:
“In order for faith to be forged, there has to be a profound threat to one’s certainty through great compression of conflicting situations… faith and consciousness are both forged under similar circumstances. Once a soul has achieved both faith and consciousness, there is no further need to remain in the confusion of conflicting reality. Until then, it is necessary for you to live at the level of man's varied experiences, feelings and challenges where both your faith and your consciousness may be awakened and fulfilled."
I recently received an email from someone who was concerned about her friend's difficult pregnancy. She asked the email recipients to pray that the pregnancy that the baby would be born healthy. While I understand her desire for a happy outcome, I also know that the only prayer worth making is a prayer that says, "lead me to the highest possible truth in this situation." Some of us are led to truth by having healthy children, and some of us are led to truth by having seriously ill children or no children at all. From the soul's point of view, one experience is not better or worse than the other. All that matters is the growth plan of the soul.
Contrary to what millions of people came to believe after reading the book The Secret, everything we create in our lives is a successful and perfect manifestation, even if it doesn't make us happy. If we're manifesting poverty, illness, struggle and loss, it's because our souls are seeking the growth lessons brought through those experiences. If it serves our soul's evolution to be homeless, then these are lessons we put it into our life plans, and they can't be short-circuited. The law of attraction is not just about attracting the fun, easy stuff. We can only attract what our souls are crying out for -- the stuff we came to earth for -- and these things usually don't match up with what our egos prefer. The true secret is to recognize these experiences as growth opportunities rather than tragedies, and work with them from that angle. Every tragedy gives us a chance to practice releasing fear and opening up to Divine guidance, and that practice leads us back to oneness with the energy known as God.
The Ego vs. The Soul
There are two primary aspects of us at work when we're incarnated. Let's call them the earth aspect and the heaven aspect. The earth aspect (which we'll call the ego or the personality) deals exclusively with managing life on the physical plane. It is responsible for the body's survival, and in order to do that, it must possess certain skills and characteristics. The ego needs to be competitive for example, in order to get the best job, the best mate or the best grades at college. It needs to accumulate wealth and security in order to feel safe. It needs to be aggressive in order to acquire food, sex, dominance over others and anything needed to establish a sense of control over its environment. The ego needs to make judgments in order to create the necessary boundaries and divisions that make it feel secure and in control.
The heaven aspect (which we'll call the soul or higher self) is concerned with earth experience only insofar as it serves the soul's blueprint for growth. The soul is who we are in Heaven, when we're Home, connected to Source/God .
The soul doesn’t care if the body is beautiful or disfigured, rich or poor, healthy or diseased. It surveys the scene from an elevated perspective and chooses scenarios and situations that will bring forth the greatest experience of universal love. The soul knows exactly what will serve its growth and the growth of the whole. That is the soul's only intention.
The ego, which only wants to survive on earth, kicks and screams against what the soul creates. Because it can't see beyond the dense realm of earth, the ego thinks it's alone in the universe. It doesn't want to lose control, so it experiences fear, greed, manipulation, clinging and panic, while the soul experiences only trust. The ego doesn't want to die, but the soul knows there is no death.
Throughout life on earth these forces are in opposition to one another, like in the cartoon images of the devil sitting on one shoulder and an angel sitting on another whispering conflicting prompts into each of your ears. The friction between the soul and the ego is where the idea of God vs. The Devil came from. It's expressed symbolically throughout western theology in a thousand ways, from Adam and Eve's expulsion from the garden to Satan's fall from Heaven and every story in which somebody disobeyed a direct command from God. These stories represent the struggle between the soul and the ego. In the Kung Fu episodes, Caine is the voice of the soul and the angry mob is the voice of the ego.
In order to survive on earth, the ego must be present, but the soul is always in the picture, prompting and prodding us from behind the scenes like a proud parent cheering on a child in a school play. The goal of spiritual practice is to align the ego and the soul. The ability to receive Divine communication is absolutely dependent on knowing and accepting this truth.
The soul knows that it's eternal and always connected to Source, but the ego is so busy trying to survive that it has little or no sense of that connection, so it feels panicked and fights even harder for a sense of control over its world.
To understand this, imagine a warrior or soldier who believes he has to force others to comply with the beliefs and customs of his culture, whether it's tribal traditions, religious doctrines or political ideologies. He believes he is doing this to support and honor his culture, and he feels justified killing, torturing and enslaving people for this purpose. This is an expression of his ego's fear of death; the fear of separateness and aloneness in the universe. He does not know that he's one with God and with other humans (if he did, he couldn't justify killing and enslaving them), and this causes great psychic pain. So in order to feel less alone, he needs to bring others into that pain with him, into his belief in separateness.
Religious wars are fought on the premise that "my culture knows what's best for you, and if you don't agree, you must be eliminated, because your presence is a challenge to my sense of security in the universe." So the warrior projects his fear of extinction onto others by eliminating them. He is then temporarily relieved of his discomfort. He doesn't realize that this very attitude creates more fear and makes him even more alone, because he is now living in a state where he has to constantly defend himself and his culture, and can never be at peace. It's a lonely, self-perpetrating cycle, and it originates with the sense of separation from Source. This is the behavior of the ego.
When humans first separated from Source, it was like leaving a warm house and walking out into an ice storm without protective clothing. The pain and shock of this was unfamiliar, yet it was part of the agreement to take birth and experience other facets of existence. This pain, this "freezing out" by Source, is in our cellular memory and is expressed as the ego's fear of disappearance, or the fear of death (if you believe death to mean complete and permanent separation from life force). It's like being locked out of your house on a freezing day, naked and vulnerable with no way to get back inside.
Throughout the ages humans have had this terror at their core, and from this terror most of the mythologies and religious stories were created, most notably, the Garden of Eden; a separation story that launched the entire Judeo Christian tradition. But as we develop in spiritual practice, we begin to see that the garden goes with us wherever we go. The garden is Home. It is Source, and our departure from it represents our choice to live in the earth realm. But even having made that choice, we can never be separated from Source under any circumstances other than our own belief in the illusion of separation. Once this is understood, we can find peace. We can relax and breathe again… a deep, primal belly breath that echoes the first breath of creation.
Imagine how a very young child would feel if she were lost in a busy place like a shopping mall or an airport, separated from her parents in an immense, crowded, dangerous world. This is how it feels to live on earth without feeling connected to Source/Home, and this is why a life without spiritual awareness and spiritual practice is so empty. It's also the reason for religious wars, because those who are hungry for power and control are the ones who live in the most fear, loneliness, and belief in separation. This is the true definition of Hell.
But where did this start? Why come to earth at all, and why do we forget about Home once we're here?
If we stayed in the warm embrace of Home we wouldn't be able to pile on the learning experiences we accumulate on earth. It is a choice. One can choose to go to college to take on a challenging academic program while working at a full time job, struggling for money and studying intensely. There's a lot of stress in a plan like this, but it's a choice one makes when one wants to learn a particular thing. This is how we choose to come to earth.
If we came in with a clear remembrance of Home, we wouldn't be able to tolerate life on earth because we'd just want to go back and be safe and warm again. The motivation to expand our cumulative experience is stronger than our desire for safety and warmth, and it is a path for which we volunteer. It all balances out because we get to go Home between incarnations, rest up, get strong and be reminded of who/what we are before we dive back into the fray again (like seasonal breaks from college). We don't have to dive back in if we don't choose to, but everyone living on earth at any given time has chosen it as a curriculum. For some, the curriculum involves a spiritual quest to learn how to balance the ego and soul, and for others it's the experience of the warrior who serves only the ego. Everybody is on a different academic track, but ultimately it all leads to the same place… an awareness that we are not separate.
My dear friend Suzy Ward is the author of several books channeled via her son Matthew, who died in 1980. She sends out a monthly newsletter of "Messages From Matthew," and he does a wonderful job of explaining this idea. Here's an excerpt from his April 9, 2009 message:
"Now then, all participants in pre-birth agreements choose their respective roles, which are based in unconditional love for all others in the shared lifetime. Agreements are designed to benefit all the participating souls through their filling gaps in a physical lifetime or completing unfinished karmic lessons, which leads to balanced experiencing. By necessity, the role of some souls is within what is most commonly called “darkness” because it appears to be the opposite of light; but darkness is the absence of light, and since light and love are the same energy simply expressed differently, darkness is the absence of love. The only way to heal individuals who have been captivated by dark persuasions is by filling their “absence” with love, the original ingredient of all souls.
Now back to the souls who agree to play “dark,” or heavy, roles so other souls in the agreement have the opportunity to achieve balance. As an example, when in one lifetime a person is a warrior who tortures and kills an enemy warrior, in another lifetime the two switch places to allow both an opportunity to achieve balance in that respect. And since at soul level, each willingly chooses to play both roles in different lifetimes in order to assist the other, there is reconciliation of the light and the dark. This not only pertains to every one of the billions of souls embodied on the planet, but the countless souls living throughout our universe. When you consider that every celestial body also is a soul, you can understand why the universe is in a constant balancing motion."
We all are moving toward that balanced place together. All the elements are necessary; the warrior, the monk, the slayer and the slain.
© 2008 Terri Daniel with Danny Mandell