It’s winter, and there’s a cold wind coming off the river. My friend Shell and I are on a walk. We have been friends for many years, and going on walks is often a way for her to open up about personal issues. I’ve always invited the opportunity to provide a healing voice and presence, but never push an issue. Walking with her is always enjoyable, she is good company, whatever we talk or don’t talk about.
As we walk by the river, I decide it will be better change course and head toward the small canyon of Kaposia creek to avoid the biting wind. As we approach the ravine, we walk through a long tunnel that had recently been completed beneath the road. Kaposia Creek is familiar territory, my old stomping ground before I moved, and I am pleased to be back. I mentally acknowledge my feelings for the area.
Shell seems out of sorts. I wonder if she has anticipated that I might try to draw her out regarding her last weekend’s activity. She flew to Arizona in order to visit her close friend in hospice. She knew he was dying, and planned to see him one last time. He was like a step-dad to her at a critical time in her life. I decide to go ahead and bring up the subject.
“He had cancer, right? He must have been on heavy doses of morphine. Did he know you were there when you went to visit?”
She replies: “He died before I got there.” It turned out that she had heard of his death while waiting for her flight at the Minneapolis Airport. He died before she even left the state, and realized at that point that she wouldn’t be able to see him before he died as she had hoped and planned. The trip was, at the very least, a cognitive dissonance mounting on the grief of her loss. She wanted to process that it had been worthwhile to fly to Arizona, but clearly it was not what she hoped. He was privately cremated as per his wishes. There was not a funeral – not even a memorial.
As we’re walking, she had just completed telling me about the family’s wish not to memorialize him in any way, and I’m thinking about how that must have retarded the grief process. I intuit that the family had done nothing whatsoever, even informally, to memorialize, process, or discuss the situation. She concurs that this is true. The family was not sophisticated enough to initiate any sort of informal ceremony or related discussion on their own. I feel her unresolved grief and helplessness regarding the trip. She is open and vulnerable.
Then she tells me, “I saw him. When I got there, to Arizona. I saw him in the airport.”
“You’re saying that you saw your recently deceased friend in the airport.”
“Yes, it was him. I looked over and saw him. It was clearly him.”
I ask: “What was he doing? What was his expression?”
“Nothing special, no expression.”
“What happened as you approached him?”
She says: “It was someone else. But it was him earlier. I saw him.” I sense she is worried that I do not believe her.
I say: “I’m not discounting that. I know that you saw him.” I do know. Shell is a keen observer, not the type who would likely misinterpret her surroundings. I explain what feels intuitively important for us to explore: “I was trying to focus on the moment when the shift occurred and he became someone else – the person who was there in consensus reality.”
Just then, I hear and feel a loud swishing noise behind me – accelerating sound, like in the movies when a supernatural being is sweeping in – loud and clear. I spin around quickly, shamanically, to confront it. I ground myself by expanding my perception to include all the trees simultaneously.
“It’s him,” I say automatically. “He’s concerned about you, but also confused.” I stand strong, and say: “He’s gone.” Then I pause. “Shell, you don’t want to become attached to his ghost. Do you understand me? It wouldn’t be good for either of you.”
Shell murmurs that she understands. Then I say, “It’s because of the way things went and because of who you are, so open, that you saw him in the airport. It’s because the two of us are together that this visitation just occurred.” We continue walking and I ask her if she wants to do a sweat lodge ceremony with me in order to grieve and say a proper goodbye. She gently declines.
I’ve worked with Shell shamanically in the past, which she has always appreciated. But she’s had no formal training.
I decide she needs to gather her own Power, because the moment is ripe. I ask her what her favorite animal is, to say her first impulse. She says a dog. I ask her to describe the dog and then picture that dog following her. I want something shamanic between her and a ghost trail of unresolved grief. She tells me she’s picturing the dog following her. I can feel it. I call my power animal. I can see it in my mind’s eye walking just behind us. Then, with that same eye, I can also see my two Lhasa Apso dogs that I used to walk with on this very trail in this very park. They have both since died, and it feels like we’re all having a reunion. We have become a pack, a procession, a ritual that acknowledges the past, while at the same time preserving the integrity of the present. Shell has been given the chance to express herself, and now has become more solid. We are, all of us, all walking together: Power, the present, and the dear departed. I can see a circle, a bubble surrounding us in my shamanic mind. The world has shifted back into place, and it is good. Memory – past, present, and future – may now interact without a ghostly loss of boundaries.
I follow up with Shell about a week or so after the walk, asking if any more shamanic work could be done, making a few possible suggestions. Shell tells me that there is nothing left to be done, that she feels good about the situation, and thanks me for our special walk together.
I feel no need to know exactly how this situation achieved harmony. I don’t feel a need to go chasing after his ghost, uninvited, to make sure he is placed according to the teachings of shamanic practice or any specific spiritual belief or tradition. I want to be ethical, maintain integrity, by respecting that Shell felt the situation was resolved. In any case, I trust the process of engaging Power and in observing outcomes without the need for a debriefing. Intuitively, I feel good about the outcome.