transpersonal living thinking and living beyond the self

Losing Dad: A Transpersonal Account of Death

By Amber R. Balk, Ph.D.

Two months ago my father died. And while death and dying is one of my specialties, the experience brought me into one of my favorite topics in a whole new way. I’ve experienced death in many personal ways, but this was distinctly different.

I first received the news of my father’s heart attack when I awoke on September 8, 2015. Still groggy, I reached for my phone and found several missed calls and messages awaiting. My heart pounded as I listened to my voicemail. My mother saying something had happened to Dad. My brother explaining it further. He had collapsed. Fallen on his face. Barely resuscitated. No one could say exactly what was going on. I instantly began shaking—a full-body shake that took over beyond my control. A strange cry escaped my lips as the image of a huge fallen tree came into my mental awareness. I felt the gravity of the fall. I felt the scramble of small animals.

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Hours later I was on a ruthlessly turbulent plane bound for Oklahoma. I felt distinctly pulled into a huge current; something cosmic, enormous, dark/light, and numinous. It seemed to flow out into deep space. I imagined seeing my father running alongside the plane before take-off—he was young, athletic, and ecstatically happy. He followed along and laughed when I was afraid of the bumps. How had I become so fearful, he asked? The whole thing was surreal and mind-boggling.

The next few days I sat at my dad’s side in the hospital, often holding his hand. He was unconscious. I tried to feel into his energy—where was he? He felt very far away. I kept remembering his bypass surgery the previous February. Once he had been stabilized after surgery, I had timidly entered his hospital room (interestingly the exact same room I now sat with him). It was frightening to see my strong father look so helpless. He was drugged with painkillers and had tubes and wires everywhere. He wiggled his fingers, and I put my hand in his. He promptly squeezed it tightly, with more strength than most healthy grown men. I jumped, immediately concerned for his surely strained chest muscles, and exclaimed, “DAD!!” He grinned. Tough guy, always a jokester. And now 7 months later, hours passed at his bedside and I wondered if he would return to squeeze my hand again. But this time, he couldn’t.

Interesting things have happened since his death. One major thing is that my left arm and hand, which held him for hours, went numb and tingly. It has taken intense physical therapy, meditation, acupuncture, and reflection to bring balance back and make meaning of this. In some ways, I think it is because I’m still waiting for him to squeeze my hand. In other ways, I think it is because I’ve received something so great from him that it’s taken much time and effort to fully get it, and it is painful to integrate such an immense amount of energy and insight.

I’ve been processing my father’s death for quite some time, way before his actual death. He’d been in poor health for years. Knowing this and facing it coincided with my doctoral research on death and dying, and much of my personal process revolved around accepting that someday my dad would die. What I did NOT anticipate was the way it would affect my sense of self.

One aspect of death and dying that I am particularly interested in pertains to death as an altered state of consciousness. This not only applies for the individual who is dying, but for those who are intimately connected with that person—close family and friends. My experiences with death encounters have shown me that I AM CHANGED SIMPLY BY BEING PRESENT FOR ANOTHER’S DEATH. Typically, I experience this as an expansiveness, an awareness of paradox, and an awareness of increased synchronicity. Synchronicity, like death, is another one of my great loves. Carl Jung coined the term synchronicity in his monography, Synchronicity: An Acasual Connecting Principle (1960). Generally, a synchronicity is when two or more events coincide in a way that brings deep meaning for the individuals who notice. I have written on synchronicity elsewhere (Synchronicity As Psychospiritual Practice), and while I don’t want this piece to center around synchronicity, it is important to emphasize this particular aspect of the experience of death.

In addition to the above brief (and very simplistic) definition, Jung described synchronicity as a signpost that unconscious material is being brought forth into consciousness. Many have heard of Jung’s scarab story of synchronicity: Jung had worked with a patient for some time without much progress, which he attributed to the patient’s psychological rigidity and a highly reductionistic perspective on life. He needed a miracle to happen—something so “irrational” (Jung, 1960, p. 23) that it would shift the patient into a more expansive and receptive place, and he knew the necessary event was beyond him to produce. He would have to wait. Then, the patient dreamed of receiving a gift of a golden scarab, and while the dream was shared in session with Jung, there was clicking at the window. Jung went to the window, and in flew a golden scarbaeid beetle. He handed it over to the patient, saying, “Here’s your scarab.”

TigerHsArtArtwork: Tiger House Art

The event signified a massive shift in the patient’s psychospiritual development; it was a synchronistic event powerful enough to shift the patient in a compensatory manner, from rigidly reductionistic, to more flexible and embracing of mystery. Most people who hear this story focus on the fantastic coincidence of the dream shared simultaneously with the physical manifestation of a similar golden scarab while actually in session with Jung. (Yes, that’s fantastic!) Or others focus on the massive psychic shift that occurred for the client after such a dramatic occurrence. All of this is important. AND what is typically missed or overlooked is that the scarab is an ancient symbol of death and rebirth, as it is connected with the ancient Egyptian god Khepri (Jung, 1960), represented as a scarab beetle who aids the sun’s final stage of nightly underworld journey and its rebirth into the next day for another cycle. The individuals that catch this significant detail still often miss yet another, one that Jung himself recurrently noted: synchronicity commonly occurs around death. Symbolically, the scarab patient was dying and being reborn. In Jung’s monograph, the majority of examples he provides for synchronicity are connected in some way to death and dying.

But here’s the thing: IT MAKES PERFECT SENSE FOR DEATH AND SYNCHRONICITY TO GO HAND-IN-HAND. (And maybe that makes my tingling hand a perfect reminder of my father’s death. I could add even more layers of synchronistic significance to this, but want to stay focused on the topic here…) Synchronicity serves to bring that which is unconscious (beyond awareness) to consciousness (awareness). As Jung (1960) and others (in particular, I am referring to Aziz, 1990) have suggested, death is the conscious mind’s ultimate union with what lies beyond our personal egos. This is inherently transpersonal (beyond the personal). In fact, after contemplating, studying, and researching death for many years, I came to the conclusion that synchronicities are tiny deaths in that each occurrence of synchronicity is an opportunity to gain greater access to our larger selves (Balk, 2015). (And yes, I am aware that the French expression for orgasm is “le petit mort” or “the little death,” and this only makes my point more salient. Sexual union can also be transpersonal and provides an opportunity to access awareness beyond our normal selves. For more on transpersonal sex, see Jenny Wade’s Transcendent Sex: When Lovemaking Opens the Veil.) Thus, synchronicity = le petit mort, and sometimes synchronicities are just as satisfying as a great orgasm. Yet, I digress.

Death Mandala

Artwork: Morgan Mandala Manley

Raymond Moody has written about shared death experiences—when individuals who are close to the dying, emotionally and/or physically, experience transpersonal aspects as a person dies. (Check out this link to hear Moody speak on shared death experiences—especially medical personnel’s shared death experiences with patients: Raymond Moody on Shared Death Experiences). Some people report seeing the person leave the body, witnessing the person’s life review, or feeling that reality is temporarily altered while the death is occurring. I certainly think shared death experiences are valid transpersonal experiences.

However, the shared death experience I had with my father’s passing was more personal and subtle. I realized in the coming days that I could see how each of us (Dad’s family and friends) upheld certain understandings of who and how he was in life. It was clear that we each gained an immense sense of ourselves through our relating to and knowing of this man. His death felt distinctly like a punctuation; our life together was done. Over. Complete. He is gone from our lives, and what is left is our memories of him, which are vast.

I find myself contemplating many questions. Did we really know this man? Did I see him clearly? These questions left me with a sense that our lives are largely lived for ourselves. It sounds selfish and maybe narcissistic, but I think it’s like that (unless immense conscious effort is made otherwise). We know ourselves through others. This significant Other in my life has moved along. And now I am tasked with healing the wound that opened at his passing. I feel as though I am a spider weaving the web that is my life, and a bird flew through, breaking my web. Web repair is in order. That’s the work of this side. I have no idea what it’s like on Dad’s end of things. Did he merge with the cosmos? Did his drop of consciousness flow into a massive sea of consciousness? Did he move on to other worlds, like the Christian heaven, which he believed in? Will he be reborn?

While I have opinions and a felt-sense of things, I have no solid idea of what happens after death. But I do know my arm aches and tingles, and it reminds me of what I have and have not received in my life—this is a huge theme for me to contemplate recently, amplified by the recent processing associated with my father’s death; unconscious → conscious. And I know that I can feel the earthquaking of my inner self wondering if I am prepared to uphold my sense of self without my father. My father told so many stories that revealed how he viewed me—his stories of my determination, perseverance, my drive. Through my early life, he served as my supporter, reflecting my strengths and encouraging me to reach. Does it serve me to continue upholding myself in the ways he viewed me? Sometimes he was a negative influence. After all, he was living his own human drama, and his view was as skewed as any of ours.

As usual, it’s a process. A tree has fallen in the jungle that is my mind. My father’s death has ushered in an opportunity for much within my unconscious to be brought forward into consciousness. Synchronicities abound. My dreams are stirred. My hand tingles. Part of me died along with my dad; an old me died, and through surviving his death, I am reborn. It’s a transpersonal shared death process, and when I’m not steamrolled by it, I think it’s rather cool.

 ~ BOUNTIFUL GRATITUDE for each and every BREATH, for every BIRTH and DEATH, and for the EVER-UNFOLDING Mystery. ~

For you, Dad. With so much love~ Amber

Amber and Dad

Me & My Father~2011    Newt A. Jenkins (1949-2015)

 

References

Aziz, Robert. (1990). C. G. Jung’s psychology of religion and synchronicity. New York, NY: State University of New York Press.

Balk, Amber. (2015). Doing death differently: An integrative-holotropic community action research project (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Database. (UMI No. 3709202)

Jung, Carl. (1960). Synchronicity: An acausal connecting principle. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Moody, Raymond. (2012). Paranormal: My life in pursuit of the afterlife. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Wade, Jenny. (2004). Transcendent sex: When lovemaking opens the veil. New York, NY: Paraview.

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