Article: Death, Acceptance, and Grace
The Opportunity for the Reconciliation of the Shadow in Dying and Bereavement
By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.
Summary: The need to face our own death, or the death of someone close to us, offers profound opportunities for self-understanding and self-transformation.
The afternoon light was falling through the venetian blinds of the huge windows of the eighteen-bed ward where I sat at the bedside of Jeannie, a 92-year old woman who was dying. Her family members, who had not visited her during her stay at the convalescent hospital, were standing uncomfortably around her. I understood their dilemma. As a volunteer with the Zen Hospice Project, I spent a lot of time trying to help bridge the sense of disconnection that seemed to settle in between family and friends as death approached those I was trying to serve.
When a loved one is dying or has died, our defenses to all of the complicated aspects of our relationship with that person are often shaken. If we are lucky, we are less able to keep in place all the unconscious agreements with that person and we are afforded a time to explore those agreements and how they affect our ability to be honest with ourselves. To deepen this process, it can be helpful to use hypnosis, meditation or other altered state work because of their ability to further weaken the conscious defenses we have to death in order to more fully understand ourselves.
This part of the grieving process, this deeper exploration of the meaning of how death highlights these hidden places in our relationships, is often overlooked by the need to save face in front of family members or the urging by well-meaning friends to just get on with our lives. Even if we find we are able to explore these places, we rarely have the luxury of doing so with the person who is dying.
The pain of exposing these issues can be too overwhelming to someone who has already entered into the struggle between the inevitability of dying and the desire to live. However, if the person can perceive the enormous benefit of exploring these unconscious agreements with someone who is willing to help and with the help of tools such as hypnosis, meditation, the work with psychotropic plants and counseling, the dying process can become much less of a struggle. This is because the desire to live can often serve as a mask for the desire to resolve and understand the issues we have avoided before dying.
If one of the reasons we decide to incarnate is to make explicit as much of the self as possible, it is hard to die a “good death” when the process of revealing all we have tried to avoid has not been addressed as fully as possible. During life, especially one lived within the confines of the extremely material culture of the West, we tend to indulge in every activity possible to keep us from our task. This task is to fully explore all the aspects of the self we have set out to explore in this particular incarnation.
One of the reasons we avoid doing this is the fear of the contents of what Carl Jung calls “the shadow.” All of our activities and the nature of our lives, is of course, intimately connected with this part of ourselves which we would prefer to believe is not there at all. We can choose to undertake the process of flushing out the contents of this shadow side through the use of hypnosis or meditation without some pressing external event such as death acting as the trigger. But most people do not want to be drawn into this task because we don’t realize how important it is or that it is even a task to be undertaken at all. We may only sense how insecure we feel when we allow ourselves to pause in the construction of the edifice of the external personality. The fear of actually feeling the devastation of the disconnection with the self through the denial of the contents of the shadow is usually avoided until something like death asserts and unequivocally defines the extent of the disconnection.
So death has a way of showing us the futility of our efforts to create a self that is divorced from whatever we have relegated to the shadow, be it a sense of unworthiness, of unacceptability, or whatever. Death has the effect of shifting our priorities and changing the way we express ourselves in the world. The prospect of death can help us decide to integrate different parts of ourselves in a new way. Parts of ourselves that we may have forgotten, denied or suppressed may seek our attention. In the light of truth and honesty that death can illuminate, we can explore how we might learn how to include all the parts of ourselves in an open and direct interaction with life.
If, with the encouragement of the presence of death, people who are intimate with one another allow themselves to find they are living double lives with each other, they can integrate the two paths into a fully explicit relationship which releases both parties – to death or to life. In the face of the honesty of death, we often find that one life of the relationship is based on the direct interaction of the contents of the shadow and one life of the relationship is based on the interaction of the external, fabricated personalities. The latter is, as we have seen, predicated on the contents of the shadow anyway.
This exploration, in a way, just highlights the way in which the contents of the shadow have been bent, almost as light through a prism, to manifest in the forms of the external personality. As we come to understand the effect our shadow has on our expression and experience, tremendous growth and understanding can occur. Usually, this type of exploration needs to be done in hypnosis, meditation or another altered state of awareness because even in the compelling presence of death, fear and the defenses it tends to engender can still be active.
The understanding which arises from this process can come from not only the exploration of our relationship with others, but also from the ways in which these relationships highlight our connection with ourselves. This connection with ourselves is, in fact, the most important one, because this is the relationship which does survive death. This is why it is possible to undertake the exploration of the shadow within ourselves and the relationship with another, even if only one party of the relationship is ready or able to do this exploration. This is because all external relationships are really only the externalization of the relationship we have with ourselves.
If it is true that we take with us from one life to the next all the unresolved issues around our relationship with ourselves, it is important to understand the dynamics in which we reject ourselves. It is also important to understand exactly what it is about ourselves that we are rejecting. This information can be most readily highlighted in our external relationships with others and the unconscious agreements they are predicated upon.
This is because our external relationships with others often provide a mirror for our relationships with ourselves. Ideally, the task of exploring the potential information this mirror can provide can take place within our external relationships. However, it is rare that everyone who is party to a relationship is willing or able to explore the relationship at this level at the same time. This is especially true when all the fears we have of death are insistently present due to its impending approach.
As we have seen, if we are lucky, our defenses to this level of exploration are shaken with the imminence of death. But it is equally likely that we may decide to start reconstruction of our defenses in an effort to keep death and all that it reveals at bay. If someone chooses this latter course, there is nothing to do but wait until they are ready or until they feel safe enough to undertake the task. Unless we feel safe in undertaking this task it is not possible to explore honestly the contents of the relationship which have been held “underground” but which, as we have said before, are the actual basis of the relationship.
Even if the person who is dying is unable to undertake this task, or if the person we have a relationship with has already died, we can still explore this territory either alone, or, more likely, with the help of a skilled counselor. Naturally, I have found that hypnosis, particularly Depth Hypnosis, is an excellent vehicle to use in the exploration of this inner terrain. I have found that people who use this tool at the moment of bereavement or impending death are able to move quickly and effectively to understand and embrace the parts of themselves that death has forced them to review.
Sometimes, just watching the struggle that a loved one goes through in trying to maintain the false mask of the personality designed to hide the contents of the shadow in the face of death is all the encouragement we need to do this work before the time of our own death. Even if we allow the mechanisms of our false self to prevent us from having peace in life, we are generally willing to enter into an exploration of that which is driving the mechanism of the false self in order to at least attempt a peaceful death. The alternative is just too painful.
If we can meet the honesty of death with the honesty of the self, we may find that the struggle to let our loved one die is the same as our struggle to allow our false self to die. This involves embracing all the aspects of ourselves, including the shadow’s contents. The self longs to know itself in all its aspects – even those aspects which we feel we have to reject in ourselves.
We all have different reasons and circumstances which bring us to the decision to relegate certain aspects of the self to the shadow, and every person relegates different qualities of the self to the shadow. Generally speaking, however, these decisions are based on the assumption of the “unacceptableness” of those qualities, whether these qualities were initially unaccepted by the parent, schoolmates, or personalities in other parts of the psyche such as in past lives or dreams, we ourselves inevitably become the main arbiter of self-rejection.
By coming to terms with the nature of how we have rejected ourselves, we can become more open to the aspects of our relationship with our dying or dead loved one. In doing this inner work we can open ourselves to the integration of the unconscious aspects of our relationship to the other.
The struggle of the individual to die or our struggle to let that person die, can be alleviated as the dissonance between the two levels of reality within the relationship is resolved. So even if the person who is dying is unable to fully participate in this process, we can bring the help of our own realizations gained from our own inner exploration to their dying process. This is also true in relation to someone who has already died; by undertaking this path of inner understanding, we can release our loved one to death fully and honestly. The reconciliation of the contents of the shadow both within ourselves and within our relationships with our dying or dead loved ones through the understanding of the nature of that which we have kept hidden is a gift we can give ourselves and each other.
But even when we are unable or unwilling to explore ourselves and our relationships at this deep level in order to die as consciously as possible, the grace of death and its utter acceptance of who we are wherever we are in our self-understanding is a constant lesson. My work with the dying through the Zen Hospice Project has helped me see how the dynamics I have described above either play out or remain unaddressed in many different situations. It has also given me a glimpse of the possibilities contained within death and the importance of being able to meet them as fully and consciously as possible.
It was a surprise to me to realize that most of the people who are at the hospice – both those who were dying and those who are close to them – have little or no interest in doing the work described above, which would help death be as peaceful as possible. Most of the patients spend a lot of time smoking. One patient spent his entire monthly allowance on three cartons of cigarettes, although it was clear to everyone, and must have been clear to him, that he would not live long enough to smoke all of them. He did try, though, and he spent his last days coughing and smoking, his skin turning gray and his eyes sinking ever more deeply into their sockets. Others spend a lot of time watching TV, but not really paying attention to it. Few of them read. Most just sit and stare into space.
Many of the patients are in a lot of pain and receive morphine, which kills the pain, but does not allow them many of the options pain-free people have in choosing how they spend their time. So even if they were to choose to undertake resolution in their relationship and with others, the drugs often preclude such choices. Some who are not on heavy pain medication are agitated, but are reluctant to look into the root causes of their agitation.
I have spent some time at the bedside of actively dying patients who have spent their last days smoking or watching TV. The grace of death is still extended to them even without the work on understanding themselves and their relationships. As I sit in the room and watch their chests heave and their eyes roll, I feel very privileged to be there with them because of the utter acceptance death has of every person.
The grace of death lies partially in the fact that people are their most authentic selves as they are dying – with all of their pain and worry and fear. Often at the very end, all of the masquerade of the false self is stripped away and there is just the breath and the spirit in the room. The presence of spirit and energy which makes itself so well known to me at these times tells me that although the work of understanding and accepting the self at the deepest levels may not be done by many, the utter acceptance of the entire individual, shadow and all, is death’s greatest gift. Often, even though the person has not come to peace with their life, death offers a clear and honest peace, accepting the person at whatever place they have arrived at through their living.
I remember Michael, who was brought in agitated and terrified from a tenement hotel room. He had not eaten, bathed, or moved for weeks before he was found. Because he could no longer speak, I had no way to communicate with him through words. I imagine he had not been able to do a lot of clear-minded self-exploration in those last weeks, and as a junkie, it is unlikely that he had spent much time in understanding his inner world before that. He was so close to death that there were no veils between himself and his addiction and that which lay beyond it. At the very end, even the terror and agitation faded away as death extended its unequivocal acceptance of him. It occurred to me as I sat with his body afterwards that his death had accepted all of the parts of himself that he had tried to reject through addiction and neglect in his life. I wonder how his experience of his death would have been different had he had the opportunity to do the work in order to consciously understand the significance of this fact.
I also remember John, whose body and face was horribly twisted as a result of a stroke. He spoke with difficulty and was always full of stories of how he was going to sue the guy who had “done this to me.” His bitterness was almost illustrated in the contortions of his body. As he died, his limbs became limber and straight and long and smooth, as his rejection of his life faded into death’s acceptance of him. Again, death had accepted someone and all the ways he had twisted away from his true nature. It would have been wonderful if he had been present enough with his authentic self to fully comprehend and accept the magnitude of this grace of acceptance.
I also remember Juan, who had been sure he would cure himself of his cancer and was furious when he realized he had been deluding himself. He died a painful, self-involved death, agonizing with every breath because of the anger he had at God for not saving him. When he was still well enough to step out of the delusions of rescue, he had not taken the opportunity to see what it was within himself he felt he needed to be rescued from. I wonder if he had been able to stop distracting himself from peering into the shadow by putting his energy into an impossible rescue if his death could have been easier. He rejected death as strongly as he rejected himself. Yet death was, again, all-accepting.
For those who are left behind, the possibility of resolving at least some of the issues of their relationship with the person who has died as well as how this relationship reflects on their relationship with themselves opens and closes without many of them taking the opportunity to embark on the deeper exploration contained within the presence of death.
Even if we are willing to explore the contents of that which we have disconnected from, we often do not know how to begin. There is little in western culture that would support and guide us should we choose this path. Without the help of hypnosis, meditation or some other powerful path to the self, we wind up putting the exploration of the shadow on hold until some cataclysmic event like the death of a loved one or the realization of the imminence of our own death makes a dent in the mirage of our life.
Life is so short. We must enter into every experience completely – including the experience of our pain in confronting that which we have relegated to the shadow. There is no hiding from it, and if we cannot face it in life with our faculties more available to us, our deaths can become nightmares. Or worse, our deaths can become a moment of grace we are unable to accept and embrace because we have not been able to accept ourselves. If death truly is a passage from one level of consciousness to another, just as birth is a passage into this level of consciousness, we must use our life to prepare as best we can for each transition.
The goal of this work is the goal of all of the self-transformative work we do in Depth Hypnosis: to make all the parts of the self explicit and fully expressed. The parts of ourselves which we do not allow to be expressed fully can often be found in the unconscious agreements we have with others. Ultimately, they can also be found in the unconscious agreement with ourselves to keep parts of ourselves hidden. In the absence of any compelling force, such as death, to do otherwise, unconscious agreements take on a life of their own and rob us of the freedom of authentic expression.
The choices that people have to make when they are given a terminal diagnosis are wrenching. The loss of a loved one or the immanent loss of a loved one is the most difficult experience many of us pass through. And it is just in that moment of the raw experience of pain that we have the easiest access to that pain we carry within ourselves and the best opportunity to resolve and integrate that which we relegate to the shadow with the full experience of the self. If we can allow ourselves the kindness to explore our relationships with others and ourselves we may be able to accept ourselves with the same grace that death grants us.