My mother died late at night, on 5 August 2022. My brothers and I sent out death announcement cards, as is the custom in the Netherlands. We also put an announcement in the papers. However, the thing is: I have lived abroad for 33 years, so those actions were not going to reach my own global community. I wrote a Facebook post, which was so well received that someone suggested, tentatively, I keep writing (if I could stretch to it). These posts also became a precious record for myself. I have decided to turn them into a blog. The pieces appear in chronological order and have not been edited since.
7 August 2022
Yesterday at 3 PM the church bells tolled for my mother, here in the Dutch village of Nieuwe Niedorp. My brothers and I stood together in the sunshine and listened.
By means of this post I would like to let you all know that my mother died on Friday August 5th, at 10.30 in the evening. My brothers and I were all with her.
She had been in and out of hospital since February and I would like to extend a heartfelt "thank you" again to all of you who prayed for her on several occasions. She would have celebrated her 84th birthday, had she lived another 11 days.
My mother was not afraid of death. In fact she had a lifelong curiosity about dying, the continuation of consciousness after Death and the “geography” of the Afterlife. Her deathbed lasted an entire week. One morning, while she was still conscious, I told her that the Ancestors were already gathering to embrace her. She tried to sit up in bed (she could not sit any longer, in fact she could barely move her limbs at all) and said: “Where are they? I can’t see them yet!”
I said: “Not yet, because you are not yet dead. But very soon now you will see them, when you arrive in the Land of the Ancestors. I can see them, they are definitely here!” She said: “OK!” and fell into a deep sleep from the exertion.
It was true. The Ancestors were already in the room. All week they stayed close and offered me insights into why she died the prolonged way she did, and guidance on what her needs were after she could no longer tell us.
There are many things I could tell you about my mother but today I will choose just one thing: my mother always saw the good in any person and in most situations. Where others might rage at the restrictions and indignities of being bedridden, she told us daily that she was so fortunate to already be surrounded by angels while still alive (the exceptional nursing staff in her assisted living accommodation). When her lifelong best friend told her that she was “going to rage at God for letting her die and use some uncouth language”, my mother said: “Cool it, or I will demote you from Archangel Ans (the friend’s name) to just a regular angel!”
My brothers and I have decided that she will make her final journey from home and not spend any time in a funeral parlour. She will not spend any time alone either. I am camping out here, until the funeral on Thursday. I helped with laying her out: washing her, dressing her, choosing the colours for her make-up and lifting her into her coffin. (My mother loved feeling beautiful and she has always deplored my lack of vanity. It drove her mad that I was not the kind of daughter you could dress like a pretty doll!)
After those sacred tasks were completed, Archangel Ans visited again and said: “I swear she is smiling at us from her coffin!” I don’t think she is, she is smiling at us from the Embrace of the Ancestors.
Photo credit for the picture heading this blog: Stephan Berendsen
9 August 2022
OF KEEPING VIGIL AND THE CONFESSIONAL
It has been suggested that I (continue to) write candidly about my mother’s death because in our culture the topic of death is shrouded in so much fear and ignorance. We have lost the sacred art of tending to the dead and we often leave this to undertakers. When Death comes calling it disempowers us. We do not realise the wide scope of choices we have, or indeed the sacred tools and powers we have. If you don’t like candid posts about death – stop reading now please!
My mother will be buried on Thursday morning, here in the village churchyard. Tomorrow afternoon grave diggers will open our family grave and she will join my father. I am not going to leave my mother alone for one minute until she is in the safe embrace of Mother Earth and with my father, or else I would go and watch the grave diggers, talk to them and thank them.
As part of my shamanic training I once had to dig my own grave and was buried alive for one night (obviously with breathing room! I am still here!) I remain deeply grateful for this initiation. I lost my fear of all things grave-related. I heard the heartbeat of Mother Earth and could see just one star through my breathing hole. I even had company: one small spider was dangling on a thread just above my nose all night. I became so fond of that spider and thanked her for her company.
When I was born my mother nearly died. My father was in a state of utter panic. In childhood he had been told that babies who die before they are baptised, can’t enter Heaven (so their souls end up in Purgatory). I was a perfectly healthy baby but in his holy terror my father believed that Mother and Baby were both about to die, so he begged the village priest for an emergency baptism to secure my place in Heaven. This was done, with my (maternal) grandmother standing in for my mother and holding me. (I am going through old photo albums in the evenings, there are pictures).
My father had a similar panic on the day before his wedding. Roman Catholic Churches had stopped offering the Confessional. My father went on a mad quest to find a priest, any priest, willing to hear the Confessional. He wanted his soul to be pure before he married my mother.
While my mother was on her deathbed I was here and kept vigil 24/7 (and I still do!) A large number of people were passing through the house at all hours (the words day and night no longer had meaning). You don’t normally have profound conversations with strangers at 3.25 AM (or I try not to anyway, unless I am on an intercontinental night flight!)
As the days rolled I had conversations with so many people: health care assistants, palliative care nurses, the young woman who helped me lay her out, the man who delivered the coffin, old family friends who come calling etc.
It got to a point, especially "in the dead of" night, where I realised that people “miss the Confessional” in a sense. People who carry a heavy load need to unburden themselves with someone who listens deeply, without passing judgment. So I pop a question here and there, and then I just listen. And show I am willing to listen some more. The most extraordinary stories were shared (in confidence obviously, I am not reproducing them here).
Palliative care nurses told me why they choose their profession and what the most challenging aspects are. Some nurses are former refugees who have arrived in the Netherlands from warzones, carrying deep personal trauma but also deeply held cultural convictions about the needs and rights of the dying.
My mother was a good listener. People loved visiting her because they knew they could trust her with their struggles and secrets. In listening to the people tending to her, I feel that I honour her, and I am learning far more than I ever could at any university.
8 August 2022
We are planning my mother’s funeral. Any church funeral involves the efforts and dedication of a surprising number of people. My mother was a (retired) member of the church choir and one of her final wishes was for the choir to sing her “on her way”, just as she had sung at the funerals of many people in her community. So my brothers and I had a meeting about choosing church music.
Asked for musical preferences for the service, my middle brother (who is a John Lennon fan) said: “Well… appreciation for classical music or church music is an acquired taste… like sailing or camping… it is something you learn in your family of origin, or not. And I did not. We weren’t that kind of family!”
I suppressed a giggle and poked him in the ribs: “Erm… funny you should say that because I did acquire a great love for church music and classical music in childhood. I must have grown up in a different family from you?!” So there was one of those funny looks between us.
As well as singing in various church choirs, my mother was the church organist. Upon arrival here, I soon located her collection of sheet music. While she was dying (during the rare hours that there were no visitors in the house) I played my way through her favourite pieces (with a strong focus on JS Bach). Obviously we don’t have a church organ here, but my youngest brother had bought her a keyboard.
It is said (and the palliative care nurses reminded me) that hearing is the last of the senses to go. And though my Mum became rather deaf in recent years I also know we hear with our entire body, including our heart (not to mention the “otherworld soul ears” we grow as we leave our bodies). We are vibrational beings.
My mother had a very ambivalent relationship with the church organ (not with singing, singing was pure joy for her). As a very young child (from age 6-7 years) she was trained as a church organist against her will (this was her parents' decision). She suffered from tremendous stage fright, which never left her. Everyone who loved her told her to forget about being the church organist (it made her sick every service, funeral or wedding!) But she always said: “What you do for the Church, you do for God and the community!” And of course church organists are far and few between these days. It is not a popular instrument to learn.
My child self absolutely ached for music lessons. My mother said: “No, I am NOT inflicting that on you!!” We had a small electric organ at home, so I taught myself to read music using my mother’s sheet music. Next I taught myself to play chords using my mother’s psalm books. I just fiddled around until it sounded the way music sounds in church. Elderly friends of my parents would drop in (in their absence) and ask me to play for them for an hour so they could reflect or mourn in peace.
Next I started composing my own music. I even wrote pieces for my mother. She never played them but caved in and organized church organ lessons for me, so I learned to play “properly”. As a teenager I switched to playing violin. My parents said: “No way are we buying you a violin!!” so I used every cent in my child savings account to buy one!
Playing all those church pieces for my mother last week, I relived so many memories. I still wish she had just said NO to being the church organist, as an adult. Within days of arriving in Amsterdam as an 18 year old art student I was asked to play the organ in various churches in the City and I always said NO! I never did. (My father told the Nuns and the Nuns told the Priests, that I could play).
Oh and Panis angelicus is Latin for "Bread of Angels" or "Angelic Bread":
Thus Angels' Bread is made
the Bread of man today:
the Living Bread from Heaven …
It is the penultimate stanza of the hymn "Sacris solemniis" written by Saint Thomas Aquinas for the feast of Corpus Christi as part of a complete liturgy of the feast, including prayers for the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours. (For the few of you who read this far!)
PS Shown in the picture are the choir parts, not the version for the organist!
PPS But even today, if someone offered me an empty church, I would go play, there is nothing like the voice of a church organ rolling around an old church like waves of the ocean...
10 August 2022
A STATE OF GRACE
This is post #4 in a series of candid posts about death, in the days following the death of my mother. Please make a careful decision about reading or scrolling past.
Yesterday evening I had the honour of closing my mother’s coffin. This was my own decision because it was time. I did it with a prayer, a small ceremony and the consent of my brothers (who were not present). We are experiencing tropical weather in the Netherlands.
I got a phone call from the priest/celebrant this morning: will I open the coffin up again when my three sons arrive just before midnight, just they can see Grandma one more time? The answer is ABSOLUTELY NOT! They travelled to the Netherlands in May especially to say goodbye to Oma/Grandma, it is done. There is another (obvious) reason, which I am not even going spell out here. They will be pall-bearers in black suits tomorrow, that is enough to handle for my three sons. (And yes, all this has been discussed with them and they were given choices).
Every day brings a word or concept I am reflecting on for hours. I am back in the arms of Roman Catholic Church for a little while, because that was my mother’s faith. Today’s word is GRACE.
Let me emphasize that I am going “shamanic modernist/practitioner of ancestral healing work” here. I am diverting from the way the RC Church teaches the concept (which I will explain at the end of this post).
In my own perception (which you don’t need to share or agree with) Grace is a Divine gift or blessing which lights up a situation from within, in a completely unexpected way. It re-weaves something and collects dropped stitches. You cannot demand it or make it happen, but it will happen when people give their all and forgive/reconcile/set aside differences of opinion, or show generosity of spirit in any other way (profound compassion or acts of selflessness are other examples). Divinity enters and changes things forever. I see this all the time in ancestral healing sessions, where people (sometimes entire families) gather with a sacred intention to heal and make incredibly brave spiritual journeys to achieve that.
As a (now) non-Christian who was immersed in RC teachings for 18 years I also believe that this is what Jesus meant when he said:
“For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” (Mat 18:20 )
People keep asking me: how are you? Are you really OK keeping vigil alone for days and nights on end? Aren’t you lonely? Aren’t you frightened? How are your brothers doing?
I keep giving worldly (by my standards) answers such as: "Actually I am fine, we are working as an amazing team and this is deeply sacred time for all of us, liminal time between the worlds. I am blessed to have so much time to perform death rituals and (my own) Office of the Dead. After all these are the last (physical) things I can do for my mother, in her own home."
People then say: Hmm… OK then, I guess you yourself know best… (but they don’t seem convinced). Honestly, I am Dutch, I say it as it is!!
However, let me answer in a different way: I feel that we are in a State of Grace. These are days of Dire Beauty, but the beauty is undeniable and so is the healing force, the tender fingers of Divinity touching everything. Something greater than ourselves unites us in the name of my mother and that lights up the extended family. It travels to the very roots of our family tree and reaches the Ancestors.
So we are very sad and acutely aware that grief comes and goes in waves. Of course there are tears! We talk about this very openly all the time. But on another level we are OK. We really are. Medically speaking (in terms of the Death Declaration) this was an "expected death".
In my case this mindset is a lot to do with the fact that my Father preceded her and died 13 years ago. That was completely unexpected. I was (and we all were) 13 years younger. I now realise I spent the entire time in (degrees of) denial: hoping for miracles, not wanting to be told about the entire sequence of events, feeling like my head and heart were going to explode or that I might just faint, fearing I could not stand up in Church and deliver the eulogy etc. My Father taught me a lot about dying and how to die. Most of all he taught me that Death is inevitable and must be faced on those terms, with dignity and unconditional love.
I am the Big Sister. Now my mother has left us, I stand between my children and Death, but also between my brothers and Death. And of course Death does not play by any human rule book. We all know that. But still, as long as I live, this is a sacred responsibility I now take upon myself. I am only following what years of doing ancestral healing work has taught me.
The two explanations of Roman Catholic doctrine and tradition I promised are below:
The Roman Catholic doctrine is that we are born sinful, but when we are baptised in the church, we have our sins washed away and enter into a state of grace. That means that if we were to die after being baptised, we would be OK with God. Baptism is not seen as permanently removing your sin, however. As you continue to sin, you can drop out of a state of grace and be under God’s judgement once more. You return to a state of grace by going to confession, doing whatever penance is necessary, and then regularly taking part in the mass. All of these are seen as sacraments; all of them are ways in which you receive grace from the storehouse Jesus won through the priests and the sacraments. Just before you die, ideally you would receive the last rites (seen as another sacrament) which would return you to a state of grace before you stand before God. (Source)
THE OFFICE OF THE DEAD
The Office of the Dead or Office for the Dead (in Latin, Officium Defunctorum) is a prayer cycle of the Canonical Hours in the Catholic Church, Anglican Church and Lutheran Church, said for the repose of the soul of a decedent. (Source)
11 August 2022
Today is the day of my mother's funeral.
By last night some dark humour had set in to help three exhausted siblings cope. As I have stayed in my mother's house all this time, my younger brother said: "Let's just make sure we don't bury the wrong inhabitant... Or both inhabitants of this house!"
I arrived with a small backpack in a state of emergency and don't have an elaborate or perfect outfit for today. I did throw a black dress in there but my shoes are hiking boots from Sweden.
Told my middle brother:" I may look a bit unorthodox... " Brother: "Imelda, you have never looked normal for one day in your entire life. Why worry about it at this late hour?!"
Me: "I will take that as a compliment. We got this far and I am not starting an argument now!" Brother looks sheepish and bites this tongue.
Anyway, a question came from some of you: if you wish to honour my mother's final journey in any way, please do. She was a people-person and deeply touched when anyone prayed for her. She herself had a Prayer Candle and daily prayer practice. Her favourite colour was deep red, she adored plants and flowers (" her green children"). Thank you if can - no worries at all if you can't. The funeral is at 11 AM Netherlands Time (CEST), which is 10 AM UK time.
Oh and her favourite animal was a frog!
16 August 2022
THE FIRST BIRTHDAY WITHOUT HER
Today would have been my mother's 84th birthday.
Our youngest son asked me last week, on the day after her funeral:
"You are now a Mother, but you no longer have a Mother. How are you going to do that?"
I will leave that question with all of you today, without sharing my answer to my son.
Yesterday I had a powerful dream: I was swimming with a black whale. She told me that she was Grief. She would embrace me and then give me little flicks with her flipper, to encourage me to swim on my own again. But she never left my side.
I know I wrote an entire series of FB posts in the Netherlands, while my mother was still above ground and I was still keeping Vigil. However, I am in London now and back in the Cave of the Bone Mother until further notice, doing grief work and painting. I am catching up on sleep and also catching up on emails very slowly, only a few a day.
My intention is to return to social media when I feel ready. This will probably be a patchy process, I will come and go.
Love to you all today, with immense appreciation for the support I continue to receive as this process unfolds.
PS In the comments of this post some people asked me if I was willing to share the answer I had given my son. Here it is:
The answer I gave my son is not secret. I told him that after 55 years of having a Mother I have learned to be a Mother to my children and myself, both. That my mother (his Oma/Grandma) lives on within me as an Inner Mother. That losing a parent is an initiation most human beings live through in their lifetime. That handled right, it can be the making of us, as mature compassionate individuals. (When it comes at the wrong time, or under the wrong circumstances it can be the complete undoing of us). That we cannot live without being in a on-going relationship with Death. That (grand) parents dying is an inevitable part of the great Cycle of Life. That when a parent dies, we step closer to Death ourselves and also to one day, maybe, teaching others through the way die ourselves. That I will continue to stand between him (+ his brothers) and Death for as long as I humanly can. That is there is no reason to think, right now, I will die soon, accidents or disasters excepted. That being a Mother is the thing I most wanted in this lifetime and the same thing was true for my own mother. That the day he was born was one of the happiest of my entire life, because I became a mother three times over. I thanked him for choosing me as his mother. After that he nodded, smiled and went off to do something else...
20 August 2022
WHERE MY RIBS BECOME BELUGA WHALES
(This post follows on from earlier candid posts about experiencing my mother's recent death very consciously. Please decide whether you wish to read more or scroll on as it could trigger some people).
Yesterday our youngest son asked: "Mum, have you made a visit to the Land of the Ancestors yet, to see how Oma (Grandma) is settling in?" I said no, not yet. I was there a lot while she was dying, to see how they were preparing to welcome her home and also to receive 24/7 guidance on what needed to be done in the Land of the Living for her to pass with peace of mind, cradled in unconditional love.
When someone dies, some spiritual belief systems say there is a time of limbo, of "being between". I feel very strongly (and teach all my students) that we should not pull on those who have recently died. Truly letting them go, means not doing that. Just like the same son, who asked the question, will start university up north next month and we are not going to call and visit constantly to see how he is doing. We are going to give him the space to step away from family life in London and create his own life in Durham.
The opposite thing is true too: many cultures have elaborate and very specific rituals to appease the Ancestors and ensure the deceased person makes a full transition, because it is not healthy for "the deceased to pull on the living".
So that is my take on that (and you don't need to agree). What I AM doing is paying close attention to my dreams and using painting as a means of actively working with those dreams. Currently all my dreams are of dismemberment (being taken apart) and my physical body dissolving.
Yesterday I dreamed that I had died and that I looked down at my own skeleton, from the sockets in my skull. This was not sinister in any way, it was miraculous because I observed how my ribs were turning into beluga whales and swimming away. I have felt this before in other dreams. That physical matter does not belong to us. It is only on loan to us from Mother Earth for our lifespan. And when our time comes, the physical building blocks of our body experience joy at being set free and being allowed to shapeshift into something else.
In the dream I looked down and thought: I am grieving but I am also crying tears of joy because I get to swim with Beluga Whales. My tears (of grief and joy both) are a gift from the Ocean. For me working on this painting (the first one in a larger series) brings deep healing.
As always I look forward to reading your comments and hearing about your experiences. Have a precious and beautiful day!
22 August 2022
MY WHALE MOTHERS
I am back in the Cave of the Bone Mother, a miraculous place of healing and emotional flow. Some of you may remember the series of paintings I made last year, when several people close to me died unexpectedly. Here is the link:
Right now I am back there but I find myself swimming in a cosmic ocean of amniotic fluid. Whales keep me company at all hours of the day.
There is a black whale (she has told me her name is Grief) who swims with me and gives me small flicks with her flipper to encourage me to keep on swimming.
But there is a while whale as well: a beluga whale I call My White Mother. She keeps teaching me how Death and (Re) Birth are twins, they dance forever hand in hand.
The songs of those whales carry me into sleep and they only go quiet when the dawn chorus starts.
I also had a powerful dream about birds yesterday, which I will share another day (I still need to paint the vision).
Amniotic fluid cradles and sustains life, it is the Ocean inside a pregnant woman. But the whales teach me that this ocean also enables a great dissolving.
This is a vulnerable admission but the whales are helping me reflect on all the ways I had hardened my heart during this lifetime, in situations of unbearable pain. They tell me that I am stronger now and that the only way to live fully (with a wide open heart) is to allow those shells to pop and dissolve. Many of them already "popped" in the Netherlands but more are cracking and dissolving now.
What it brings? An immense love for Life and for all human beings, all life forms (human and other). An immense love especially for all the people who ever hurt me, because I now see it was never about me. It was about them and I feel compassion for them, gratitude for the things they taught me. I take time to relive the fond memories and cherish them. And I myself of course I hurt others in turn, especially those I love dearly.
I am not sure whether I am making any sense but I hope I am. Soon I will travel to Sweden to teach a 6-day module about Death, Dying and the Great Psycho Pomps of the Old Norse Traditions. But I know that these whales will swim there with me and watch over me.
On-line School: Pregnant Hag Teachings