Asatru, Death, Heathen, Heathentry, Uncategorized

Death Counselling

Death Counselling

I was asked to write an article about death from a Heathen perspective.  There is rather a lot written about the esoteric nature of death, about the soul, our conception of mortality in heathenry, and much of it has been done by far more skilled authors and priests than myself.  I have little to contribute in those discussions beyond recommending the words of some others that I have found useful and worthy.

What I needed and did not find when it was my time to first deal with this particular aspect of priest craft, was the knowledge of how to counsel a Heathen who is dying.  There are most likely experts out there who have done this dozens of times.  Any who are reading this and either disagree with me, or have the ability to take it both further and deeper, please do so.  I would have benefitted at the beginning with even as little information as I can provide you now.  Such as I have learned, I will share.  Those heretofore silent experts may feel free to do their duty as well and provide better information, but what I have earned, I will share with you now.


The misconceptions that I had about dealing with the dying are legion.  Most of my experience hands on had been with traumatic deaths, casualties whose time to appreciate what was happening to them was either short on non-existent.  End of life care is a much different experience, and far more difficult than I was prepared for because it was decidedly non-linear.


What I mean by non-linear is simply this, in a traumatic injury situation, a person who perceives that their injuries are quite likely going to kill them undergoes a spectrum of responses as they struggle to deal with this realization.  The spectrum from denial to acceptance, defiance to ignorance, fear to fatalism is expressed, but generally only in one direction of change.  This is not the case in end of life care at all.


Heathen world view puts a great deal of emphasis on struggle, on meeting your challenges, on fighting.  To this date, most of my experience has been with men, and most of them military in background, so this particular predilection to view life as a struggle or battle has implications that bleed into all aspects of the death counselling process.


Fear is a strange beast in the slow onset of death.  Fear is not as constant and unchanging as I had expected, rather it is a slippery shapeshifter that is always in the room, but not always in the same form, and not always as a foe.


Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote in her seminal On Death and Dying ( about the five stages of dying. I am going to reiterate what she points out, because people generally tune it out, and then make avoidable and costly mistakes because of that.  These are not linear stages.  You or the person you are working with may or may not pass through all of them, if they do it will be in any sequence, and there is a great possibility ( a probability in my experience) that you will pass through some of the stages repeatedly, and with differing results.


Kubler-Ross defines the stages as denial, anger, bargaining, anticipatory grief and acceptance.  Presented in this order it makes a tidy map and implies that your job is to help a person transition through these stages from one end to the other and great the final passage out of life with quiet acceptance and dignity.  This may happen, but this is not actually a map, nor a plan.  These stages may or may not occur in this order, will frequently repeat, and will be experienced quite differently as your person passes through changes in both their physical state, and mental capacity.  I will not lie to you, if the death proceeds long enough, where the physical state supplies a maximum of pain, and the mental capacity is degraded far enough, the gains that had been made towards acceptance will be lost as the capacity to understand and accept is stripped away by the very process of dying.


Let us have a look at the phases, and how they relate to our own theology, world view, and tool set.  We are not given faith, the gods don’t actually come out and tell us what awaits us when our thread is cut, so we don’t have a whole lot of promises to give save this one;


Cattle die, kinsmen die

You too will die

One thing alone will not die

The fame of a good persons deeds


As far as emotional anchors go in the storm that attends the death of a human being who is aware of the oncoming end, this is a powerful tool not only for the care giver but for the one cared for.


Denial is the first stage described, but you will see some form of denial recur again and again.  It is not your job to crush their hope, what it is your job to do if asked to provide end of life care and support is to focus that hope on what they may still win, what may still be done.  Denial first comes as denial of the disease state that is the proximal cause of their death, whatever it may be.  This is the idea that the doctors made a mistake, and, as previously experienced, this is something they may survive.  As heathens we understand that it is within us to survive every battle, every foe, except our wyrd.  Against everything but our wyrd we can will, battle or cheat our way to victory.  We have literally lived our entire lives amassing a body of evidence that proves we cannot be killed, that everything can be survived, and after all, we can only be proved wrong once.  When you are facing your wyrd, the lifetime of experience surviving anything makes it easy to seek a reason that this is simply another in a long line of challenges you have surmounted, and one you can beat.  Understanding that it is their wyrd is hard, and requires support.  You do not shove this thought down their throat, you are not there to fight them over hope, but you are there to help them to find real targets for their hopes, real matters they may struggle towards.  You cannot promise them life, what you can do is work with them to define victory conditions for them that include death, but on their own terms.

Along with denial that the doctors have identified the threat, comes frequently the “miracle” clause, where by the person who is facing death will cling to anecdotal stories of miracle cures or misdiagnoses to open the phantom of a second door at the end of the road they are facing, one that leads miraculously to health, rather than the grave.  The emotional need for hope is one that is real, and your job is not to take hope away, but to guide them towards pinning their hopes on those things that are still possible, and focusing on those victory conditions; the set of conditions by which their control of their own passage out of life constitutes a win, an outcome of their finals struggle they can claim with pride.


The second stage described is anger.  In my experience (which I will be the first to admit is with a unique class of individuals to whom anger is as much a part as breathing), anger, hope and acceptance are three blades of the propeller driving them forward each day.  All three are present in some form at all times, with one dominant, one rising, and one falling.  Sometimes you get a steady predictable cycle, but as the physical and mental state changes, the sequence can reverse many times.

Anger is important. Anger is a power source.  Anger is to be cherished and cared for at the guttering flame of life, but as with any flame, directed properly it lights and warms, and directed poorly it scars and destroys.  Anger will be at the world, the doctors, the gods, YOU.  Remember, as the care giver or counsellor you are proximal and knowable, where as science, the medical system, the disease, fate, the gods are all far away, impersonal, uncaring, or inaccessible.  You are not.  You may expect to be the target of this anger many times.


Anger is not the enemy of acceptance, nor does it need to be the force that powers denial.  Anger is the natural result of the understanding, both of the current physical state, and the emotional acceptance of the end state (death) which is approaching.  Anger is the defender of life, you cannot flee from the sorts of death we deal with in this context, so that leaves only fight in the “fight or flight” mammalian tool box, and anger is the fuel and armory of the fight response.  Your role in this stage is to support anger that is not directed against people, but against their physical state and approaching end.  Anger at what is happening to them is valid.  Anger at what awaits them, and at the fear/despair they feel welling inside is also valid.  Be very careful not to be dismissive of feelings of the person you are caring for, it is neither just, nor helpful.


Bargaining is an interesting stage with Heathens.  We do not have within our world view a great deal of evidence for an afterlife.  There is conflicting information in the surviving lore about rebirth, not a lot of support for a general afterlife beyond Hel or the mound that accepts all of our dead, unless you happen to fall rather spectacularly in battle, which would put you outside the scope of our care at the end of life.  We do have an understanding that this world is it, we share it; both the living and the dead.  We understand that death can only take breath and pain from us, it can still our flesh, but it cannot touch our deeds or our words.  Death has remarkably little power for a heathen, as it cannot undo what you have done in life, cannot take from all of those you have affected that which you gave them in life.  Death is the period at the end of a sentence, the silence at the end of the song, but itself contributes nothing but the marking of the end of the passage.  Bargaining is the most important stage for us as care givers and counsellors.  This is where we look at the tafl board and define our victory conditions.

Life and Tafl are similar to chess in that there are two very clear opposing forces, and very different from chess in that both sides do not seek the same objective.  In chess, both sides seek to capture each other’s king.  If we were to look at end of life care in this model, both sides would be seeking to win by either taking the life, or preserving it.  Clearly chess is not a useful model here as all you can do is lose.  Tafl is a different game, and a much more interesting one for end of life care.  In Tafl, one group seeks to take the king, the other to get the king free of the board.  This is a useful model to use at end of life care, as both sides have different victory conditions.  Death is a given.  Losing is not.

Victory conditions can be defined by the person who is dying, and can be terribly important.  One last birthday, to die in your own bed, to simply not give up, to fight to the end, to see a grandchild or any other milestone can be used to define their victory condition; the achievement of which will constitute their victory over death.  We have to die, we do not have to lose.  Very real victory conditions are to see that your loved ones are looked after when you pass, to see that family legacies are passed on, to see that responsibilities are taken up by others that your death is not “letting others down”.  Death is very real, and so is victory.  Death has one universal definition, but victory does not.  You can work with your people to find their victory, and work to help them achieve it.  This is the single most Heathen friendly stage of dying, and where our world view provides very real and measurable benefits.  Get your person to establish meaningful victory conditions and help them to work towards them until death finally takes them.


Anticipatory Grief is hard, very hard.  This is part of the acceptance, for as much as denial/anger/bargaining are a cycle, so too is anticipatory grief and acceptance.


Anticipatory grief is not something that will occur only once, it is something that will hit them again and again as they accept the inevitability and imminence of their own death.  To accept these things is to accept the loss of everyone and everything they love.  The emotional impact of this, the loss of all they love, is terrifying, and the courage to face this in no way lessens the pain.  Here your job is really important, and potentially costly.  You are there to witness their grief, to be with them while they grieve, to accept they will never hold their loved ones again, that they will never walk out onto the balcony and watch the sunrise again, never pass the horn at Yule, or hear their grandchild tell of their first goal or last report card.  This is real, true, and not to be dismissed and trivialized.  This is not for you to offer perspective or try to get them to see the positives.  This is for them to feel, and you to be with them through.

This is hard.  This hurts.  This is frequently uglier than the fear or anger.


Acceptance is the last stage of dying, and because we like to think of this as being the state with which the people in our care face the end.  We cannot know.  Accept this, and try to limit the lies you tell yourself, as you limit the lies you tell those you care for.


As the physical and mental state deteriorates, the anticipatory grief/acceptance cycle may run several times, and with results that vary widely and terrifyingly.  It is really important as caregivers and counsellors that we do not judge; as a person’s capacity diminishes, their ability to understand what is happening diminishes as well, and what was previously placed into context and accepted can be again strange and terrifying.

Acceptance when seen has a terrible and compelling beauty to it.  I can understand why we have a goddess Hel, and why she bears for us two faces.  In the early stages of dying we see the dark face of Hel, the blue-bloat terror face of death’s ugly reality.  When your person passes from anticipatory grief into acceptance, you can see the physical letting go of tension, not the crushing of defeat, but the loss of fear.  This is the bright face of the goddess, this is the merciful face.  This is the release from pain, the release from fear.  Hel is the goddess of the unbroken promise; the end of all pain and struggle, freedom from every bond.  Acceptance is those times when the dying see the fair face of Hel, not the dark.  Both faces are equally true and present, but the moment when the dying see the fair face of Hel is one of power and presence if you witness it.

These are not stages you pass through in order, necessarily.  They may occupy minutes or weeks, depending on the person and time.  They are exhausting for both you and the person you are aiding through the journey.  This is their journey, you are present to assist, but in the end, they make the final steps alone, and it is ours to make sure this constitutes no defeat for them, but a victory they can claim before their ancestors, and that their decedents may face openly.


On corpses.  They are no longer people.  It is a strange thing to stand beside what was once a person known to you, and know without a shadow of a doubt that they are gone.  What is left is smaller, somehow.  Lessened in some non-material fashion even as materially it undergoes changes you need to be prepared for.  The pallor and rigor are natural and not to be feared, they are not the “coming of death” but what is left behind when life has passed.  Death is not a thing, life is a thing.  Death is the awareness that a necessary part of the person is no longer there.  The disturbing awareness that something is “not right” about a body is visceral and natural, as we see the physical shape that should contain life, but no longer does and on some level the cues that tell us this cause us to react.


I have known a lot of corpses, and they don’t bother me, but others have very deep issues with the bodies of the newly dead.  There is no judgment attached to which reaction is yours, but be aware that the fact you have been working with this person on their end of life does not actually prepare you for your own reactions sitting next to a corpse that once housed one of your own.  You must give yourself the freedom to react as a person, not as your idealized view of what a caregiver “should be”.  You can get used to anything, but some things are a lot less fun to acclimatize to.


It may seem like you are making no progress at all.  It may seem like you are actually “going backwards” as the physical and mental abilities decline and the stage that they are expressing moves back from the level they had achieved previously.  As I said earlier, and as Kubler-Ross points out, these are not neat linear stages you pass through in order ending with dignified death, but a list of stages you may find your person experiencing some or all of, frequently cycling through repeatedly.


The last thing you have to accept is that if you are capable of this duty, you have the ability that successful soldiers do of “put it in a box, deal with it later”.  This is a good skill, this is only a skill and not an immunity.  You will need to allow yourself once the duty is done time to process.  If you are doing this duty often, you will have to take responsibility for caring for yourself, and being aware of when the load of what you have not processed is beginning to impact your ability to function.  You are no good to anyone if you break under a load you could have let someone else take up.  Take the time needed to process, death is not something we were raised to accept as part of life as our ancestors were, and it takes more out of us to deal with it on an emotional level.  For the record, those who are simply not bothered by it at all cannot help you emotionally process this, or anything, as it literally does not invoke in them any reaction at all.  In dealing with the physical needs of the seriously injured or dying this is an advantage, but makes them largely blind to the emotional steps required to deal with a loss you do feel, or deal with the reality of your own impending death.






Asatru, Heathen, Pagan

Stealing Victory From the Dead



I had a co-worker today who came to me in the verge of tears because she is losing a friend to dementia, and is having to accept charge of him, and his affairs, as his ability to care for himself slips away, and he slides from the vital life she shared with him, towards a death that promises to strip him of dignity, ability, and even sentience before the merciful embrace of Hel takes him to the mound, and his ancestors.   While he yet owns his mind, at least for periods, he is taking pains to let those he loves know what he has provided for them with his passing.  From failing hands, he offers a last gift to those he loves, before all power to aid those he cares about, or even recognize them, is stripped from him.

Out of love for the man, she strives to refuse his gifts.  At the end, when all power, and even command of himself is lost, when life promises to strip from him everything a life of hard work has forged for him in body, mind, and material, he has the courage to accept death, and a terrifying ugly form of it, and not accept defeat.  Facing the worst fate I can contemplate, he has chosen to not let that be his defeat, for death is the unbroken promise, the price of every life given.  He has chosen the victory that he will stirve for, to give to those people that he would have been there for in life such gifts as will make a difference in their very real challenges ahead, as he would do, were his hands still strong flesh linked to cunning mind and loving heart.  Hands will be forever still, mind will be lost long before the heart stops, but the love and cunning can both survive the grave, and aid those they love through the bequests they make when love and cunning were both his to command.

Death need not be loss, if through your death your gifts can bring aid and comfort to those you cherish.  Death will bring your victory, unless your gifts are rejected.  Only then will death equal defeat, only then can the last act of failing hands be made futile.  Reject that gift, and you steal victory from the dead, let the dying eyes see only their final failure, that they go to the grave with helpless tears rather than the light of victory burning in their eyes.

There are a few things you can’t turn off when you have been a soldier, and when you are a priest.  Oddly enough, the former is more important than the latter as far as understanding, but the latter is needed to explain to civilians the truths we hold about death, and victory.

Not everyone has people in their life that they love, whose presence becomes a pillar of your life, one of those emotional touchstones you hold as the bedrock of your world.  These are the people you trust, the people who, even if you don’t see them for long periods, hold places in your memory that are central to your understanding of yourself.  If there is no person like that in your life, you may stop reading, for nothing I say will affect you, and your passage through this life will be untroubled by the passing of others, even as you will be unblessed by their presence.

For those who have such bonds, those who have forged such friendships as will last a lifetime, hear this soldier’s truth; a lifetime is not forever.  But it can be.

Havamal tell us (verse 78)

Cattle die, kinsmen die

You too will die

One thing alone will not die

The fame of a good man’s deeds

We all die. Those we love will die.  Accept it, embrace it for the truth that it is, for accepting it makes life precious, and the time shared with those you value then becomes more precious by accepting that it is finite.  Denial of a person’s death is acceptable when they are dead, as your unwillingness to deal with the loss hurts none but yourself.  Denial that a person is going to die when they themselves have accepted it can hurt the ones we love.  People are always going on about how the Vikings sought death in battle; hogwash. Our ancestors sought victory and wealth from battle, not death.  Death happened, and they didn’t get worked up about avoiding death, any more than they got worked up about avoiding dawn or sunset; such things simply happen at the appointed hour, and there is no reason to waste energy crying about the fall of night, or the rise of the sun when you have so much else to do, and a finite amount of time to do it in.

Those who face the imminent possibility of their own death are left with their relationships, and their duty.  If I am to die, have I honoured all of those who have been a gift and a blessing to me?  A gift for a gift is our way, and when the grave is a very real and imminent possibility, the time to settle accounts has come.  There will be those people who have been valuable to us in our lives, whose presence has been important to us.  Death will come; there is nothing you can do about that, save dicker about the hour of the appointment, and even that is frequently beyond our power.  Victory, now victory and death have an odd relationship.  Victory does not equal life, nor failure death, unless you make it so.

Hamaval tells us (Verse 41)

Friends shall gladden each other with arms and garments,
As each for himself can see;
Gift-givers’ friendships are longest found,
If fair their fates may be.

Those who accept they will not be there to share their words, their laughter, their comradeship with you once they have passed understand that this loss is both theirs and yours.  There is naught they can do about that, for we will all be initiates into the mysteries of death in our time.  They can, however give you gifts from that which they have earned, a wealth that serves them now only as they may use it to serve those who remain.  Their life is ending, but their duty is not, nor is their love.

Those who love them not, will take the wealth offered without a single care, in this case, those who deserve it least are most likely to accept it well.  Those who love them best mistake accepting their final gifts as choosing their gold over their love, their goods over their lives.  This is, honestly, self serving twaddle.

With deepest respect and love, honestly I want to slap the shit out of every single one of you who speaks this.  They are not dying because you will take the collection of books you used to swap back and forth and spend hours arguing over.  They are not dying because you accept the big screen TV you used to watch cheesy movies on and heckle.  They are dying because everything that lives, dies.


You do not have the moral right to do this, but you have the ability to do this.  You have the ability to make your fear, your unwillingness to accept the death they CANNOT prevent, into an act that they will know is a failure, because you have turned what they are trying to make a victory, by seeking to give to those they leave behind gifts that will make them stronger, into a defeat.

If you, through your weakness, let them know that their death will cause you terrible pain, and that nothing they can give to you can possibly make up for what you are taking from them when you die, you are making their death an attack against you.

You have stolen the victory they tried to carve from their own death, and replaced it with the knowledge that they die a failure; their last act upon this earth inflicting terrible pain upon those they love.

With deepest respect and love, honestly I want to slap the shit out of every single one of you who speaks this.  You do not have the right to make the death of another human being about you.  This is about them.  They are going to die, that is not in your power, or in theirs to prevent.  They do not have to fail, that is in their power, and in yours.  We accept many things from those we love when they pass.  We accept the duties and burdens out of love, as it speaks in the poem Flanders Fields

To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

We accept duty, but not gifts, we accept burdens, but not those things that will make those burdens easier to bear.  We will let those who pass let us take up their struggle, but will somehow not let them give you a gift in return for that gift.

A gift for a gift is our way, because that is how healthy relationships are formed.  World accepting religion is what we style ourselves; well death is a part of the world, as is the fact that the death of an individual does not change the sun coming up in the morning, the bills still needing to be paid, kids still needing to be fed, and the ten thousand demands of daily life for those that remain.  If their hands cannot be there to aid anymore, the work of those hand can be; if you accept it.

The time for your loss is the funeral, and the grieving process that follows it.  Funerals are not for the dead, they are for the living.  Hel is the unbroken promise, the freedom from pain, from weakness, from disease and age.  The dead are beyond need, and funerals are thus for the living, for those they left behind.  It is meet now that tears be offered, that rage be offered that one you loved was taken from you, it is now that fears be spoken of what that loss will mean to each.  This is right, and good, and part of the healing, even as the tears shed are offerings to the honoured dead.  This is the time and place to begin, and such a beginning can enable you to remember them in life, and remember the gifts they gave to you by being in your life.

They dead are only lost if you permit them to be.  Death cannot change a single word spoken, a single laugh shared, or take from you one single thing that they shared from you in life.  All that they were, still exists, and will burn as bright in your memory as you dare to keep it.

Do not confuse accepting death of a loved one, with being OK with losing them.  These are only connected if you are foolish enough to permit it.  Soldiers live with death, we accept it as the cost of doing business.  We get used to losing friends and family early, and get used to making sure our duties will get done if we are not going to be there to take care of it.  Accept this truth from us, the giving of gifts is a sacred thing, as is the accepting of them.  When you are offered a gift from failing hands, you accept it, and you make it clear that the gift will be valued.

I really don’t care what the gift is, even if it is utterly unneeded as a physical thing, the giving is a material expression of a relationship that is valued, a way of looking at the responsibilities you have in life, and your own pending death and saying “This you may not have, this you may not take from me, this I have the power to do for those I love”.

Death cannot take that victory, but you can throw it away.  Do not.  Love enough to accept the gifts as the honour they are, and give the gift in return of showing them that their victory is assured, that they have brightened their friends and families with this gift, that death can take from them only their life, not their victory.

When they have passed; come together to deal with your loss.  While they are passing, accept from their hands their gifts, and allow them to take from this life one last victory, and bind their love to those lives that continue.  Get this right, and the dead will never be lost to you.  Get this right, and death will hold no power over you, or those you love.  But don’t wait too long to learn it, because life gives us fewer chances than we would like, and wyrd weaves as it will.  You do not get a second chance.