Danna D. Schmidt

Master Life-Cycle Celebrant®

Ordained Wedding Officiant

Funerals/Memorials Specialist

The Great Wheel

Ferris Wheel

Looking up at La Grande Roue de Paris (April 2016)

How to make sense of death and make peace with life in the midst of the mystery
and inevitable suffering that death brings?

That is the question on my mind today as I consider five family deaths and a multiplicity of lesser joys and sorrows, losses and threshold crossings in as many months.

Worldviews abound, as do plausible attempts to answer this great Mystery. Atheists might speak of a kind of randomness to the universe. Monotheists would insist God wills it and has a master plan. Tibetan Buddhists lean to the concept of Bhavacakra to explain notions of being and becoming. Hedonists don’t even want to think about an end to the good times. And well-meaners and the plethora of what I call platitudesters are quick to speak of fate and karma as a way of asserting that it, in all its past, present, future glory, is meant to be.

Our great dis-ease-ment as humans is that we don’t get to know what it is all about. And so we hypothesize ~ we make stuff up. And we take solace in anchoring ourselves around guiding belief systems as a way to find peace and ease. 

I believe our respective meaning searches demand creativity, providing these innovative ponderings prove to be helpful and fluid constructs (translation: the polar opposite of fundamentalism). As such, I have my own mixed bag of beliefs about why birth? and why death?, which has been, by turns, both a comforting and useless array of apothecaries, and which, to my credit, is always growing and ever-changing. After I delivered our stillborn daughter, Shelby, in April 1995 just five months into the pregnancy following complications of acute cystic hygroma (which is common for Turner’s Syndrome fetuses), I was inundated with a chorus of loved ones singing songs both reasonable and unreasonable. From ‘it’s OK – you can try again’ to ‘God needed a new angel’ to ‘maybe it’s for the best given that she was a syndrome baby,’ to a host of other inane comments. Curt and I quickly learned to tune it all out, smile, and feign appreciation with a nod of our heads to all these mostly well-intentioned responses.

It was a crash-course for me on the inner edge of 30, in learning just how awkward people can get when tragedy knocks unannounced. When I look back, the responses that I have come to most appreciate and cherish are from the friends and family who dared face the fragility of the moment with silent compassion and an honesty born from admitting that they had no easy words nor answers nor floral substitutes. Their gift was simply fierce presence and witnessing in the form of a constant absorbent shoulder and a 24/7 ear.

Twenty one years later, and my meaning/peace quest continues. Every once in a welcome while, however, an intriguing idea stops me in my tracks. Case in point, I offer a low bow of gratitude to fellow celebrant and death midwife, Sarah Kerr of Soul Passages in Calgary, for her lovely Wheel of Life analogy that she speaks to in this recent blog post. I am all about metaphor and big, hairy audacious ideas (as in, what’s the meta for?) and I lean in long and luminous to earth-based teachings, so it’s little surprise her tale of this Great Wheel, which gives nod to both Buddhist and indigenous beliefs, holds huge appeal for me. Sarah likens our great turning on earth to one half of a wheel which she posits to be as if placed overtop a river, with death and the afterlife forming the other half of the wheel atop the far shore across the riverbank.

Everything about this concept – from the cogs to the elemental ebb and flow of water, earth and air; to its yin/yang puzzle formation, to the realm of beings on both sides rhythmically helping to turn the wheel – is exquisite and compelling imagery for me. And what I especially adore about this Great Wheel theory is that it makes plenty of room for my own adaptations and tendencies to mix metaphors. For instance, I think now of Ferris wheels and wonder if that, too, isn’t an apt visual for the continual pauses and circumnavigations of life and death’s great turning ~ tethering earth to sky, and pairing embarking and disembarking passengers in an ever-tandem and circular journey?

Yet alas, to borrow from T.S. Eliot, I see that at the end of all this thinking out loud exploring is for me to arrive where I started above, and know the place for the first time…which is to say, querying how to make sense of death and make peace with life in the midst of it all. And vice versa. I don’t profess to have any definitive answers, except to assert in ceremonialist fashion, that of course there’s an app for that (hint: personalized ritual and ceremony), and so along those lines, I have woven Sarah’s great wheel motif into my own eclectic basket of imaginings, earth medicine and ritual tools.

Of meaning and death, however, I prefer to lend “live and die well” teacher Stephen Jenkinson, author of Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, the last word and testament. In asking what meaning we are to find in death, he challenges us to ask the more pertinent question. “What if the story,” he asks, “is that meaning is not found at all – that it’s made?”

What if?, indeed. Provocative questions like this have me wanting to churn life’s wheel with a splash more vim and vigor, an extra shake of rhyme, perhaps a tad less reason than I might otherwise prescribe, and above all, with an extra sprinkling of creative meaning-making to adorn the whole sacred, merry-go-round affair with the added zest life is really demanding of us.

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