The Death Card, Spaghetti and Ghosts

The Death card is one of those scary Tarot cards that no one wants to see in their reading.  As one British writer put it, “This card usually sends the wind up people . . .”  

Death . . . eeeew!  Creepy.

We should talk about that . . .

I’ve attended a weekly bereavement support group since my life partner died.  We get together once a week – on Zoom, since Covid happened – discuss the grief process, check in with each other, and offer emotional support to members who are hurting.  At one of the meetings a new member whose husband had died a few weeks earlier asked, rather hesitantly, “Um . . . have any of you had any experiences with . . . like . . . ghosts?”

Every hand in the room went up.

Every single one of us had experienced strange messages or pictures of our loved ones inexplicably falling off of shelves or lights that flickered on and off when we mentioned the names of the people who had died or books that we hadn’t taken off of the shelf lying on the floor opened to passages that comforted us.  

Every single one of us.

And here’s an odd thing about that:  even though a LOT of people have these experiences, “normal people,” (and by, “normal,” I mean people who aren’t in the grief process) don’t want to hear about them.  Oh,they try to reassure the person who’s grieving that their dead person isn’t, somehow, dead. They’re well armed with the standard, trite phrases.

“I’m sure he’s right there with you.”

“She’s looking down on you from heaven.”

“You have a new guardian angel watching out for you now.”

Still, they really don’t want to hear about how the dead person is RIGHT THERE in your living room turning lights on and off and leaving books out for you to peruse.  Because, you know, that’s kind of spooky.  

And, yes, spooks ARE spooky.  When you’re cooking spaghetti and you get a flash of someone who’s dead sitting at the kitchen table, it does tend to pucker your pasta.  But it happens all the time.  Ask anyone in any grief group.  

So why don’t people want to talk about it?

Well, there’s probably a primal fear of the dead that’s hard wired into our bodies and minds.  The horror story genre is built straight out of that energy and authors like Stephen King know exactly how to evoke it and make the hair on our necks stand up.  

And, of course, there’s all of the religious crap that our culture embraces:  dead people are supposed to be in heaven eating pancakes with Jesus or they’re supposed to be in hell roasting marshmallows with Satan,  but they are NOT supposed to be reclining in their favorite barcalounger playing with the cat.

There’s also a certain amount of it that flows out of good old fashioned denial.  The more we focus on death, the more we have to acknowledge that someday we, too, are going to be dead and, by golly, that’s just plain depressing, doncha think?  We even have a word for people who want to talk about death, “too much,”:  morbid.  According to the Cambridge dictionary, that’s, “too interested in unpleasant subjects, esp. Death.”

(LOL – if you’re going to die – and you are – how can you be, “too,” interested in that?)

And there’s the strong atheist/empiricist current that flows through our culture.  If a phenomenon can’t be plopped onto a scale, weighed, dissected, and held with our hands, it doesn’t really exist, and you can’t weigh a ghost.  By that standard, or course, rainbows and emotions don’t exist, either.

I think, though, that there’s a further element involved here and that’s the day to day implications of ghosts.

A huge amount of human culture is built around this simple question:  what happens to us when we die?  HUGE.  All of our religions are really premised on that one idea: something happens to us after we die.  What is it?  Is it good?  Is it bad?  Is it horrible? How can we massage that outcome from this side?  How many Hail Mary’s do I have to say to end up in heaven instead of hell?  How much incense do I have to burn and how many incantations do I have to chant to have better karma?  

European art and  culture in the Middle Ages were almost entirely devoted to those questions.

Morbid, right?

Ghosts, in a very real sense, are where the rubber meets the road in religions and spirituality.  They are the interface between this world and whatever happens to us when we die.  They are a constantly repeated phenomenon that has occurred throughout all of human history.  The story of Jesus appearing to his disciples after he was crucified is, essentially, a ghost story, right?

If we really accept the fact that ghosts and ghostly phenomena do exist – and millions of perfectly rational people attest to that existence – then it shifts a lot of our thinking and our sense of being in this world.  

If the person we love HASN’T ceased to exist, if they are somehow still here in some other form, then grief doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?  It’s more like a dear friend deciding that they’re going to move to Europe.  It might make us sad.  We might miss them terribly.  But we don’t have to throw ourselves on the ground, sob, and rip our clothing.  They’re still here, but they’re over-there/here, instead of here/here.

And, what exactly does, “here,” mean?  If someone’s dead, they’re supposed to be WAY, “over there.”  You know . . . in heaven or hell or zooming around the astral plane on a portable golden throne.  But if they’re sitting in your kitchen watching you cook spaghetti or they’re in the barcalounger playing with the cat, then they’re, “here.”  But they’re also, “there,” because . . . um . . . they’re dead.  Maybe the truth is closer to what some Native American tribes believe and the dead aren’t gone at all – they’re still walking around with us in another dimension that we just can’t see.

I don’t know the answers.  But I know it’s a conversation that we ought to be having and we ought to be having it outside of the confines of bereavement support groups and pastors offices.  If Uncle Bob is dead but he’s hanging out in the den watching television, that’s important.  Maybe instead of throwing white sage and holy water at him and telling him to, “go to the light,” we ought to just say, “Hey, Bob – what’s up?”

Maybe he’ll tell us.  

The Fool, The Buddha, and the Corona Virus

Some Tarot interpretations say that the bag or satchel that dangles from the end of the pole on The Fool card is his karma. That he is a new born soul dancing into life and the memories of his experiences and actions – both good and bad – are carried with him into his next incarnation in that little bag.

And that’s a good question for all of us as we face this very profound experience of a world wide pandemic: What will we carry with us when it’s finally over?

Shit happens. We all know that. A lot of the time we experience life less as the Captains of our Fates and more as the silver ball in an old fashioned pin ball machine. We aren’t thinking, we aren’t planning, we aren’t really conscious of what’s happening to us or why. We just keep hitting and being hit by those paddles, bouncing around from one place to the next until a bright, neon sign lights up and says, “GAME OVER.”

And then we’re dead.

Did it make any sense? Did our journey through all of the joys and pains, the triumphs and shit sandwiches actually MEAN anything? Or was it just a random series of events that left us bruised and battered and ultimately puzzled over why it all happened?

A large component in that equation is consciousness. Actually being aware of what’s happening to you right now, right this moment and actively SEEKING for meaning.

Let me give you an example from personal experience. My life partner, Carol, died a couple of years ago and eventually I joined a bereavement support group, also known as a Grief Group. Basically, it’s a small group of people who have lost a loved one and we sit down together once a week and talk about that experience. In other words, we’re trying to find some meaning, some understanding of what we’ve gone through and where we go from here.

One of the most positive things I’ve carried out of that group is the realization of how very much alike we all are in the face of something that is as monumentally dreadful as death. It doesn’t matter if you’re an 81 year old great grandmother or a 25 year old newly wed; death is experienced in much the same way. There are periods of shock, then numbing, then panic and horrible anxiety, overwhelming sadness, and the feeling of being totally lost in the world. There can be great nobility and growth in that process if you can somehow stay connected to your feelings and look for answers. What does it mean? Why did they die? Why am I still here? What am I supposed to do with my life now?

And, sadly, there are other people who experience very little growth and get no spiritual or emotional insights from the process. They throw themselves into a flurry of social activities right after the funeral and, when they have to be home, they turn the t.v. up as loud as it can go and stay on the phone as much as they can. They spend as little time as possible in that Sacred Silence that follows death and they think as little as possible about what it means. In a phrase, “they move on,” from the grieving period as fast as they can. If they’ve lost a husband or a wife, they remarry or re-partner within a year, as if their loved one was an interchangeable part rather than a precious human soul who intermingled with their life stream.

In other words, they don’t carry anything out of it.

Perhaps that’s a form of basic, animal wisdom. As the Buddha said, all sentient beings seek to be happy and to avoid suffering, so there’s nothing unusual about not wanting to hurt. But he also said that suffering is inevitable. No matter how much we might wish otherwise, we each have our portion of pain and how we deal with that suffering – IF we deal with that suffering – that moment in time is the anvil on which we forge our karma. It isn’t just what we go through – it’s how we consciously integrate what we go through. Did we learn anything from the experience? Did we grow and evolve as human beings? Did our compassion and ability to love others increase or diminish? Did we make what happened to us MEAN something in our lives?

So . . . here we sit in the midst of a major historical event. And none of want to be in it. I haven’t met one single person who has said, “Damn, this is exciting! I’m so glad I’m here to see this happen!” But, we’re still here, like it or not. A lot of people are going to die before this all over. Many more will lose people they love with all of their hearts and souls. There’s going to be suffering and we know that.

Right now, millions of us are locked away in our houses and apartments, waiting for the storm to blow through, hoping we won’t be one of the people who are swept out into eternity by this goddamned virus. I guarantee you that many of us are spending this time with the television turned up as loud as it will go, constantly on the phone, constantly on the internet, constantly trying to be too busy to think or feel. They can’t wait to, “move on,” and, “get back to normal.”

In other words, they won’t carry anything out of it.

Right now, we are ALL fools dancing on the edge of a cliff. We can take the time to sit down and meditate, to read, to journal, to REALLY talk with people we love, or . . . we can turn up the volume on the t.v. If there’s one thing we should all know right now it’s that life is precious, time is precious. We can fill that little bag The Fool carries with some new found wisdom, compassion, and meaning. We can actually ask what all of this means, why we’re here, and what we’re supposed to do next.

Or not.

The Four of Cups, The Five of Cups, and Finding Gratitude in Painful Times

There are a lot of people out there right now talking and writing about how to create abundance.  One of the things that they all agree upon is the need for gratitude as a part of the process of manifestation.  

Whether you’re working with angels and spirit guides or an agnostic trying to get the hang of the Law of Attraction, all of the teachers and financial gurus will tell you to start with a grateful heart.  If you’ve only got a few bucks in your pocket, be grateful for them before you try to manifest more. If you want to have stronger, more positive people in your life, start by telling the people who are already in your life how much you appreciate them.

But sometimes we get stuck and it’s really hard to pull up that attitude of gratitude.  It could be that we’ve had some sort of a terrible loss. It could be that our lives are going through one of those phases where everything just sucks and we finally have to say, “Jesus, why is this shit happening to me?”  Or it could be that it’s just one of those times when we need to feel sorry for ourselves a while.

Gratitude is an emotion, just like love, hatred and anger, so it’s appropriate that the two cards in the Tarot deck that deal with a lack of gratitude are in the suit of emotions – the Cups.

In the Four of Cups we see a man sitting on the ground, arms crossed in defensiveness or rejection, staring at three cups standing on the ground before him.  A fourth cup is appearing out of thin air but he doesn’t even see it. The Three of Cups is, of course, a card of celebration and happiness so we can conjecture that the cups he’s staring at represent the loss of some major source of happiness in his life.  Perhaps he’s broken up with a lover or he’s been fired from a job that he really liked. In any case, he’s so focused on the past that he’s not perceiving the new opportunity, the cup floating in the air.

Contrast that with the Five of Cups.  This is a card of MAJOR, life changing loss and deep, deep grief.  He’s dressed in the black cloak of mourning and the wine from the three cups is spilled upon the ground, gone forever.  And, again, he’s so focused on his loss that he can’t even see that he has two cups left which are quite full. An example might be a man or woman who can’t focus on their children because they are too deep in grief over a spouse who has died.  She has literally turned her back on happiness for the time being.

So, knowing that gratitude can be a major factor in manifesting an abundant, spiritually satisfying life, how do you even GET to it when all you can feel is a sense of loss?  Sometimes cognitive and spiritual reframing is the answer.

In the case of the Four of Cups – the loss of a relationship or a job – try to see that cup that’s hanging in the air.  Ask yourself WHY it happened. Is it clearing the way for a deeper relationship or a better job? What employment or relationship skills did you learn by going through this?  How is this going to make you a better or a stronger person in the future?

You can even take it to a deeper level of analysis if you like.  Is this some kind of a script from a childhood trauma that you’re playing over and over again?  Are you subconsciously manifesting lovers who will reject you or make you miserable? Are you seeking out jobs or bosses who won’t appreciate you?  Can you bring that to full consciousness and turn it around? Can you feel grateful for the growth?

In the case of the Five of Cups, it’s a much rougher road.  It’s hard to find anything positive about someone you love dying.  True, deep grief is devastating. It can actually make us physically ill and sometimes it drives us to a despair that’s so deep we can’t imagine it will ever end or we’ll ever smile again.

Yet, it can cause a major and ultimately beneficial shift in our perspectives.  If we are at all honest with ourselves it will drive us to real and permanent reevaluations of our lives.  It causes us to ask what in the hell it’s all about. Is there really life on the other side? Did my loved one survive in some form?  Are there spiritual beings? If she was taken and I was left behind, what am I supposed to be doing with my life now? Surely I have some life purpose that’s higher than watching television and eating junk food.

It’s like a ball of yarn that’s come completely unraveled and you have figure out how to roll it back up.  Or a jig saw puzzle where you have all of the pieces but you’ve lost the picture of the assembled puzzle. All you can do is start at the edges and try to put life back together in a way that makes sense.  Eventually, though, it adds a much greater depth and meaning to life.

Gradually, horribly slowly, we do begin to recover from grief if we choose to go on living.  And, yes, it gives us a sense of gratitude for life and for the love we experienced with the person we lost that’s more profound than we could have ever imagined.

Gratitude can always be discovered.  Sometimes we just have to look for it a little harder.

The Death Card – Signs, Symbols and Candles Burning Bright

“Mortality is not kind, and do not let anyone tell you it is; if there is such a thing as wisdom, and I have serious doubts about its presence in my own life, it lies in the acceptance of the human condition and perhaps the knowledge that those who have passed on are still with us, out there in the mist, showing us the way, sometimes uttering a word of caution from the shadows, sometimes visiting us in our sleep, as bright as a candle burning in a basement with no windows.”

James Lee Burke – “Robicheaux”

I love that sentence, not just for the incredible poetry of Southern writing, but especially for the last part:  “as bright as a candle burning in a basement with no windows.”

If someone you loved intensely dies you know that feeling of being in a basement too well.  Suddenly they’re . . . gone. All of their magic, all of their thoughts, their words, their touches and glances, have disappeared forever.

No matter what your spiritual beliefs may be – and I personally believe very strongly in an afterlife – the physical body, the material presence of the person you loved is gone.

There is, I think, a natural reaching out which most of us do after a death.  Trying to somehow contact the other person, to imagine them and how they are. Are they confused and disoriented?  Are they blissful and satisfied? Are they finally out of the pain that they were in and experiencing peace? There’s just that burning need to touch them, to feel their spirit one more time.

Religious people will tell you that they’re in heaven having pancakes with Jesus and, by golly, they have REAL maple syrup in heaven, not Mrs. Butterworth’s.  Spiritual people will tell you that they’re on, “the other side,” and dancing on rainbows or cruising through the astral plane. Psychic mediums may be able to give you very detailed descriptions like, “She’s in the garden and she’s wearing a white lace dress and your dog Skipper who died twenty years ago is there with her.”

And it’s all very comforting and sweet, all of those well intentioned words and Hallmark cards, but what we really want is to be able to see our loved ones for ourselves.  Instead, it’s like we’re, “in a basement with no windows.” We can’t see up and we can’t see out. We can’t see them.

If you actually talk to people who are grieving a death you’ll find an amazing number of them HAVE felt or seen some sort of a contact from their loved ones.  Maybe a pair of earrings suddenly appear on a bedside table, or a long lost note from them falls out of a book, or the lights flicker on and off whenever the dead come to mind.  There are signs and signals from them and, yet, we can’t quite get through to them. No matter much we miss or desire that contact we just can’t touch them.

It feels, of course, like a great big Cosmic Door has been slammed shut.  We’re on one side and they’re on the other. We may hear a faint murmur of their voices but we can’t get past the door.

Oddly, though, Death can be the start of a journey that will take you to much greater heights than you could have ever imagined.  Getting through that goddamned door can become a Quest.

The Sioux tribes believe that people who are grieving over Death are closer to Spirit World than normal humans.  That the veil between the two worlds is thinner for them, that the Spirits hear them more clearly, and that their prayers have greater powers. Certainly deep grief feels that way.  It’s as if you exist in a world apart from ordinary life and you see and feel things that others who are aren’t grieving can’t see and feel.

In other words, people who are close to Death – either their own or a loved one – are existing in a Sacred Space.  There is no other time when we are more likely to ask the right questions and get the right answers than when we are in the presence of Death.

Death leaves clues and symbols for us that point to a higher, Spiritual realm. What we do with them is up to us.  We don’t have to understand them at first, we just need to acknowledge that they’re real.  Yes, those earrings DID appear out of nowhere. Yes, it IS odd that a note from my husband fell out of a book just as I was thinking of him.  Yes, the lights DO flicker on and off for no reason when I talk about my dead child.

And, yes, it’s entirely possible that our departed loved ones are still here, “as bright as a candle burning in a basement with no windows.”