We Are Only Passing Through
Vignettes of Life, Death, and Practicing
Written by Maren Morgan
‘Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.
A fearful thing
to love, to hope, to dream, to be –
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
And a holy thing,
a holy thing
For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.
― Yehuda HaLevi
“It’s just part of the circle of life,” my father said, fresh tears brimming in his icy blue eyes, which seemed to brighten beneath his sorrows. His eyes are the same as mine — they become bluer with tears.
I nodded and turned back to her, uncertain. I tentatively approached her on the table. Even though I was grown at the time, I was still surprised by how cold her skin was. Grief and fear swelled in me. My Nana was gone. This was her body, yes, but she was no longer here. I heard the sniffles and whispers of my immediate and extended family around the alter her body was placed upon as I stared into her face. She looked peaceful, like she was only sleeping. I heard the shuffling of feet out the door. Are we leaving so soon? I lingered for just a moment, and kissed her on the cheek.
She had died a few days prior from a stroke. It was sudden and tragic, but we all had peace knowing that this is exactly how she wanted to go. She had watched her husband, my Grandpa, suffer for a very long time before passing less than six months before. She wanted to cross over, too, though none of us believed her when she said so. She was healthy as a horse and could have lived another ten years easily. But that wasn’t her plan. She wanted to be with him, and now she was. She comes to me in my dreams sometimes, and I weep with so much gratitude to see her again.
A friend had died that year, too, in a tragic accident. These deaths were my first real encounters with death. Or so I thought.
A few years before, as I trudged up the sandstone mountain, I watched my life flash before my eyes. Around every bend I saw myself getting closer to the end. I hiked silently as I helplessly watched myself age. A wedding, a birthday party, a funeral, a birth — all in a vignetted procession. I saw myself holding grandchildren. I saw my hair getting grey. By the time we reached the top, silent, resigned tears were falling from my face.
“I’m not ready to die, but I have no choice,” I said, wiping my tears and staring out into the desert vista before me. “I guess I just have to be okay with it.”
The acid had been really potent this time.
A year or two later, I stared deeply into the void that was my turkey sandwich. I was back in Moab, and our camp was set up in a dry riverbed. The ground was soft, luscious sand. My trip-mates were atop a small plateau nearby, collecting rocks. Someone told me to come with them so we could all be together. I think I must have looked lost.
I knew, though, that I was being led to my death.
“It’s too soon,” I thought. I looked around me at the overwhelming scenery. “But if I have to go, I’m happy it’s here.”
A few years after that, I dosed myself again. The sky was like cotton candy this time. “I have to call my parents,” I told my friends. “I have to go up that hill and call them and tell them I love them before I die.” I was convinced that atop some random hill I would miraculously find cell service. My friends were unperturbed.
“It’s okay, Maren. I promise you’re not dying.”
“You’re just on drugs. It’s all good.”
I saw it, though. I saw the car back at the campsite, and I saw heavenly valleys shoot up from the Earth around it. I knew I died in that car. I saw angels and rivers wash it away, and good God, there was so much color. I just knew there was no way that I was alive. I’d never seen anything like this before. I saw my life and I cried because it was so beautiful. I’d been on acid before — this was different.
We walked around the campsite. This time, joyous tears fell from my face.
“Heaven is so beautiful,” I said. “I’m so happy I get to be here with you guys.”
My friends, ever patient, just smiled and agreed. It was beautiful. As I came down around the campfire, I saw technicolor mandalas filling the sky as the sun set. One of my friends, again, reminded me that I was totally alive, and that by tomorrow I would no longer be on drugs and it would be easier to accept that fact. I nodded, though I was unconvinced. The sky had never looked so impossibly magnificent. Heaven was the only explanation for such beauty.
I felt at peace.
I didn’t have this language at the time, but I was practicing. I was practicing dying. Intuitively, and with so much wisdom, my body was initiating me into death, something which, at the time, I didn’t think would come to punctuate my life. When I would tell people about my forays into death on LSD, I would get wild, suspicious looks.
“That sounds like such a bad trip!”
“Oh my God, that’s so scary!”
“I’m never doing drugs with you, that’s for sure!”
“No, no, no,” I would try to tell them, cheerfully. “I accepted it every time! Even though it was scary for moments, I always accepted my death at the end.”
I was unconvincing. People would still look at me like I was crazy for viewing these experiences as positive and profound, but they really were. The embrace of death, I had learned, led to peace.
I died again in the bathtub one day, in the dark, thrashing and screaming — an upwelling of pain so unbearable, I truly thought I might die.
This is the nigredo, I said into the darkness.
Nigredo, nigredo, nigredo: like a prayer.
I was composting, putrefying. I was waiting for the worms. I was dying. I was dying so I could be reborn.
Why don’t we hold funerals for our passing selves? Is it enough that we sometimes feel, between sips of tea, or in moments of silence, that we are not the same as we once were? Shouldn’t we give ourselves more space to grieve and rejoice at the passing on of life and the rebirth that comes with it? Shouldn’t we name it? Shouldn’t we worship it?
Perhaps it’s because we shrink away from the moments after death, when the flies begin to swarm and the maggots begin to chew. We look away from the process, the fermenting that occurs when we let part of ourselves die to make room for the next incarnation. Maybe we hide: we seek solitude. We think, no one wants to see this. We stare at ourselves in the mirror and see the pulsing of millions of black beetles eating at our flesh, breaking us down into the next iteration of life. We wait until we’re reborn to reemerge.
Is that our fear today? We watch the news and see mass death, mass extinction, destruction, and flame. The void of social media, where we’re all grasping desperately for relevance, for people to see us as living and breathing, though we all ceaselessly march toward death as surely as the 10,000 generations of ancestors before us did. We’re but moments of consciousness, incarnating into the world only so briefly, and then reintegrated back into the cosmic pool of everythingness.
We know we’re going to die, but what comes after us, after we’ve moved on? What conversations will never be had again? Will we ever know what happened to our children after we pass on? Do we get to watch from above, and if so, for how long? Would we even want to see all that we’re missing?
Parts of us die when people we love die. It is a bittersweet initiation. My friend Jörgen told me, before I was set to kill my first sheep, and before making the journey home from Sweden to be there for my beloved Grama’s passing, “Every death is an opportunity.” My mother had called me the night before, telling me the death rattles had begun. The next train to Stockholm was at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I prayed she would wait for me. We spend our entire lives waiting for moments like this, but few actually consciously prepare for it. “Who do you want to be in that room?” Jörgen asked me.
The sheep was old. She was a beautiful ewe with kind eyes. She hadn’t lambed in a few years, and soon her teeth would start falling out, leading to a painful and uncomfortable life before ultimately starving. She was still strong, though, healthy. In the wild, she would have lived a bit longer, perhaps, but not much longer.
It was so quick, a surge of violent energy and then stillness, her blood nourishing the soil around her as her life transformed into something different. A young lamb came up and nuzzled against me as I looked down at the ewe, stroking her face gently, grateful tears running down my cheeks. I watched as her eyes changed, like the light that animated them slowly dimmed out. She was gone, and I cried. Filled with profound, life-altering gratitude, I kissed her face and said, “thank you, thank you, thank you.”
3 days later, I was kissing Grama’s face and saying the very same thing.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
She had waited to die until my mother and I fell asleep. A private person, she needed to pass on her own, something I didn’t understand at the time — my intuition completely rocked by the grief of watching her die in front of me. She was still warm when I found her. She was cold by the time we were done dressing her, but this time I wasn’t afraid. I removed her necklaces and placed them around my neck. We put her in a beautiful yellow house dress, which I had picked out for my mother as a child. We painted her nails and did her makeup. I couldn’t watch when they took her away, even though I knew she wasn’t in that body anymore. She was somewhere else in the house. I could feel her.
“Every death is an opportunity.” My entire life had led up to this moment with my Grama, and though I tried to be the person in the room that I wanted to be, I wasn’t. I was scared, I was exhausted, I was angry, I was frustrated, and I was panicked. I tried to remain as calm as I could, but she held on for so long and I feared she was suffering. It was agonizing to watch her suffer after so many years of her being ready to go. She had told us she didn’t want to be alone, so we stayed with her as long as we could. She just kept hanging on. We didn’t know what to do, staying up all night with her for two nights. We didn’t know that falling asleep, my mother in the room with her, not alone but not being watched, would be the key to setting her free.
I remember looking out the window and seeing a bumblebee pollinating flowers in my mother’s garden. It was absolutely incomprehensible to me. My entire world had been completely upended, my heart ripped out and missing, and yet this insect was buzzing around as if nothing had happened and I couldn’t understand how that was possible— for life to just go on. Things felt like that for a while after that.
I learned more in that experience than any other experience of my life. Death is indeed an opportunity, an opportunity to fail and learn and grow. It’s an opportunity to learn that regret is not avoidable, that there will always be things you wish you would’ve said. There will always be questions you can never ask again. It’s an opportunity to learn compassion for yourself and others. It’s an opportunity to wail so loudly the moon might even hear you. It’s an opportunity to feel the most human emotions we have, those which mirror each other and do not exist without one another: love, and grief. It’s an initiation into life unlike anything else.
A week ago yesterday she left her body and took her place back in the cosmic everythingness of the universe. I still feel her with me, hanging her soft, bony hand in the crook of my neck. She was so little in those final months, and I had become so much taller than her. Holding her hands during the hours she was making the trek to leave her body will always be one of the greatest honors of my life. Her muttering "I love you" again and again, knowing how much we needed to hear it —making sure we'd never forget the truth of those words. And finding her, still warm, as she had waited for my mother and I to fall asleep to finally walk through that dark corridor into the light, will be a memory I'll never forget. The way her pain was all gone. Her worry had disappeared. Her body, turning cold, was only a vessel all along. Relief combined with agony overtook me as we cleaned and dressed her body. Gratitude as I painted her perfect nails. Impending exasperation– what language do you speak now? I asked her. Will you be patient while I learn? And she replied with a gentle hand on my neck.
And now she is everywhere. Now God has a face.
I love you forever and ever Grama.
I cried, and cried, and cried and still cry. Love is not something that fades, it only opens you heart for bigger and more beautiful love, and with it, bigger and more beautiful grief.
I have a lot of gratitude for loss and the grief that comes from it. Grief animates how I walk through the world and informs what I pay attention to, which is often suffering. Suffering of people, cultures, the land, and the sorrow that brings to all of us, whether we are conscious of it at all. Even if we don’t name it, there is too much grief to hold most of the time. Even when it rips me open and spills my guts on the ground, I’m grateful that I can still feel — that my ability to care hasn’t been stolen from me. It’s a privilege to be a witness.
I think we fear death because we don’t understand that the edge of us, to steal from Nora Bateson, is endless. We fear death because we don’t give our lives back to the land. We’ve invented an alternate reality for ourselves, where our bodies no longer nourish the web of life. I think that hurts us in ways we hardly understand. It perpetuates mythologies of separateness and alienation.
We think we are individuals — separate from one another and the beings, living and non-living that exist around us. We isolate ourselves from the connection inherent from being born on this planet because that’s how the culture has been built around us— somehow it feels strange to be a human being right now. We aren’t born into alienation, we grow into it as the culture beats us down and separates us from our birthright of connection to be cogs in some global industrial apparatus that doesn’t make sense to us.
Altered states can help us remember.
And I, like a liquid,
like a flock of sheep,
not an individual
(not at all)
Who am I?
how can it be that
I am everything
Where do I end
and the rest of the world begins?
Or do I begin at the beginning
in a timeless land with no end?
We are no different than the land. We’re always shifting: dying and being reborn again. When an animal dies, the beings around it organize in a terrible and beautiful dance to reintegrate the body back into the land. Where there is death, there is fecundity. Where there is blood and bone, there is life. Yet we fear it. We fear the carcass in the forest, though it provided so much nourishment to the beings it touches.
Sometimes it’s hard to acknowledge how these altered states are more clear and accurate than our unaltered, ego-driven existences. When I thought I was dead and I was in heaven, I wasn’t wrong at all. Heaven is here even though it’s impossible. The ineffable magic of the world around us is in such stark contrast to the devastation being wreaked upon it, but yet it lives on and we all have a role to play in its continued ability to live on.
When I feel the grief and watch the news and feel like everything is too much too much too much, I ask myself, is this our collective nigredo? This story of extraction, competition, and individualism is tired and dying. Even the parts that we benefit from feel cheap and meaningless. It feels like this vision of the world is being composted: its lessons integrated into new trajectories, dying so that more life can be reborn.
I am learning to die in the time of great dying. I am learning the art of rebirth. I am grateful for the practice I’ve had thus far.
I am learning, Grama. Every day I am learning.
In, out; in, out; in, out. The breath doesn’t come easily at first. You have to force it. It burns down your throat and makes your chest feel very tight.
Suddenly my body feels out of control. I’m lifting off of the floor as I breathe. In, out. In, out. I can do this— I’ve done it before. I breathe through the discomfort, feeling the energy of the people laying around me and the music cheering me on through this breath-work ceremony. I remember why I’m here and the questions I have.
What does stability mean? What does safety mean? I conjure the image of a large oak tree. I imagine myself with roots so deep. What does it mean to be grounded? I see a mountain with snow dusted peaks. These things embody the rootedness I’m grasping for.
The breath is feeling more natural now. I don’t have to force it anymore.
Suddenly an image comes to my mind, and with it, a question lands on the tip of my tongue, melting into my mouth like a snowflake. I can’t grasp the words so I watch. I see an avalanche, a rockslide, a wildfire. I see the mountain being formed over millions of years, the plate tectonics shifting slowly and in great bursts of energy. I see erosion sped up over millennia, terraforming the landscape, creating arches, canyons, and valleys. I see that Earth is alive. This is sturdiness?
People begin to scream around me, letting out earthquakes and lightning strikes. The air is erupting around me.
I came here seeking groundedness. I came here to invite in the capacity to hold space and stories, like a massive oak tree or Mount Olympus.
Where does a tree begin and end? Is a tree still a tree when it becomes a mountain? What about me? Am I still me when I become the tree? As I breathe I can’t see the difference between me and the mountain and the tree. We look to nature for this wisdom but we are nature, too.
Remember this, remember this, I think.
We forget because our lives are so short and we don’t see how the death of the spinach or the sheep is reborn in us — we don’t see it that way. We wrap everything in plastic and forget this is a cycle as old as time, but even plastic breaks down sometime. Everything is breaking down and everything is being reborn.
We practice dying when we understand that entropy doesn’t exist, not really— not the way we think. That which can only exist in a vacuum does not exist at all, as even in the deepest reaches of space there is matter: there is relationship. The death denying delusion is that the end of me as I know myself is the end of everything. Life is not a beginning, nor is death an end. These are merely stages of cycles, small orbits within larger orbits. I am merely the story of one woman in a sea of billions of people, in an ocean of trillions upon trillions of lifeforms, living and dead and yet to be born: a consciousness which will ultimately be converted to carbon and converted into life yet again on a timescale that is incomprehensible to me.
I see myself as an individual but the paradox is that individuation can only happen in community. A tree is only a tree when connected to everything that’s around it: the squirrel that makes its home in the hollowed out places, the ants that eat from its leaves, the mycelium that connects its roots to the shrubs and grasses that surround it. A mountain is only a mountain because of wind, water, and fire, and similarly, those elements cannot exist without their opposites. Everything is relationships. Everything is relating. All are relatives. If I am actually an individual I am nothing — even in death I am not nothing. Even in death I am relationships. The other paradox is that in death I am creating space for life — death without life without death is nothingness.
But are paradoxes even real? A paradox connotes that two ends of a polarity can exist at once, which connotes linearity, when in truth, the farther the chasm between polarities, the closer they become, connecting on the other side of somewhere we don’t fully understand. Would it not be truer to say that all possibilities are in orbit across all timelines and potentialities? Is it not truer to say that in the expanse of the everything, there is somehow unity?
It’s so simple and yet somehow so complex. The universe is cyclic. The human body is cyclic. We are built within a human body, born, aged in the outside world, and then we die, are eaten and then reborn into the bodies which we nourish. A woman’s womb is cyclic. How could things not be happening in a web of circles? We rotate around the Sun which rotates around the Milky Way, orbiting within the Virgo Supercluster, which orbits within the Pisces Supercluster, which orbits within Laniakea, which rotates around the Great Attractor. Laniakea, meaning “immense heaven” — Good Lord, is it a gift to be the human animal with words like that. Earth is rushing 1,000 kilometers per second towards the Great Attractor, an anomaly that the human animal may never fully understand. The human animal may never fully understand itself and our lifetimes are so short and by the time we understand ourselves we die and the only thing we have is stories and what are we so afraid of? Why can’t we speak honestly about this?
A deep terror passed through my body as I realized I’m only passing through this world, waiting for the worms to come eat my flesh and shit me out and turn me into soil— I panic. Everyone, me, all of the breathing beings around me, the walls encasing me, all would crumble into dust in time, all just filaments of a grander story, one that goes on and on with and without all of us forever. My heart was racing and I could see this cycle unfold deep in my chest. One day this bright pumping organ would be meat— I would be meat and dust and oh my god, oh my god, oh my god the human life is so short and I will die, everyone I love will die, that’s the only certainty — Death is the only certainty and what are we doing? Are we all just waiting to die?
No, no, no.
I could feel each heartbeat send pulses of life through my chest down my legs into my fingers. What magical electricity animates this being? What alchemy built this body, bit-by-bit in my mother’s womb? When one line ends another begins when one line ends another begins and everything is ending and beginning and ending and beginning and that is good that is good that is good that is exactly how it should be.
What is my role in this story of creation?
A calm washed over me and laughter erupted uncontrollably from my chest. I couldn’t help it. I worried the people around me would think I was laughing at them, but I wasn’t, not really, but I kind of was laughing at them. I was laughing at me, I was laughing at all of us — every human on Earth who has ever existed. I was laughing at all things that worry about that so-called end. Humans, humans, humans. We’re so precious and confused so I laughed with Death. Tears came out too, but happy tears and I felt so much love for humanity. This universe is so absurd and perhaps humans are the most absurd of all. So young, so desperate to not laugh with Death: so terrified of what comes next when we are already made of everything that ever was and ever will be.
I am my Grama and my Nana and my grandfathers and all of my ancestors and I am the sheep and the friends that I will bury and the beings I will kill — I am part of the same story as all of it and being alive is not the same as living. That’s what we forget when we don’t laugh with Death. We forget life, we forget and we forgo a good life and don’t ask ourselves what is a good death. “Every death is an opportunity,” yes — but only if we take the time to know it. We must practice. We must practice. Practice seeing the filaments, the patterns, the connections, the relationships, the composting, the rebirth. Practice waiting for the worms.
“Everything led up to me and everything I was would lead beyond me there was this great chain and I was a link in it.” — Paul Kingsnorth, Beast
I was a link in it, I was a link in it, I was a link in it. That’s my role.
We are only passing through and that is fine.
Thank you for coming on this very personal journey with me. I would like to invite anyone who is interested to join A Millennial’s Guide to Saving the World for December’s bookclub, where I will be facilitating a discussion on Die Wise by Stephen Jenkinson. You will join a WhatsApp group where we can discuss the book as we read, which will then culminate in a Zoom meeting at the end of the month (date TBD). I really look forward to reading this book and understanding death beyond intuition and tripping out. Click below to join. I hope to see you there!
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