Even death speaks to us if we know how to listen


Last year several people came to me for cultural coaching. They made a deep impression on me. I was able to see the changes in their energy level or in their attitude toward life immediately.

Miss Sarah Hillier is the first example. Her daughter Melanie called me to make the appointment for her mother, and she sounded afraid that her mother was on the verge of suicide. They were at a crossroads with their intentions and conviction about her grieving the loss of her husband Bernard.

As Miss Sarah shared these thoughts with me, I could see her head lifting higher and higher with each word. I encouraged her to trace her life with Bernard in a journal and speak to him as she moved through her days. I shared the African way of being in the spiritual world and the physical world at the same time.

We also talked about how the system of the ancestors works in the African perception of life, the circular nature of the relationship between the living and the physically dead. We reviewed the practices our parents and grandparents used to handle death.

They always knew death was coming. They were much more aligned with the forces in creation than we are today. They didn’t have this deep fear of being alone or this deep sense of abandonment that plagues us.

We are the first generation to live as if our spiritual heritage begins and ends with one lifetime. This reminder helped Miss Sarah to acknowledge that Bernard had indeed consulted and prepared her for his departure. They lived the plan for years, and they anticipated each day as if it was the last day of life.

To map her wellness, she began to trace her family lineage; she put in place many activities to celebrate a new phase in her life. She included Bernard in all of her memories and all the living that she still had to do for both of them.

In her words, without meeting with an Elder, “I don’t know where I would be right now. I wanted to leave this life after Bernard died. I couldn’t see myself beyond his life and certainly not beyond his death.”

“When the Elder said to me, ‘Talk to Bernard,’ I looked at her as if I was hearing a ghost. I wanted to talk to him; as a matter of fact, I talked to him all the time. I thought if I told anyone they would think I was crazy with a capital ‘C.’ The Elder was telling me to do what I was already doing and called it normal.

“After meeting with her over several months, I began to understand. I felt like a veil had been lifted from my eyes. I began to take care of my spiritual and physical business.

“For example, the property that Bernard and I lived in for many years was too much for me to take care of alone. I didn’t want to always ask my children to help me. I thought I should sell it. I asked Bernard the question, ‘Should I sell?’ He also said yes, and I did.

“I thought before the session with the Elder that it was wrong and my children would look hard upon me if I sold their dad’s house. I saw that it was also my home and I should finish out my lifetime in a way that made both Bernard and me happy. He always wanted me to be at peace and happy.

“I will look back to assure Bernard that he lived in a way to give me a good life and I am enjoying it. I know from accepting myself and my people’s old ways that I can relax, walk, and just ‘be.’ Thanks to the people of my old beloved community, I can see and enjoy life and learn from the messages in death.”

Hotep be at Peace, be at rest! Thank you for accepting me as an Elder among you.


Elder Atum Azzahir is executive director of the Cultural Wellness Center and elder consultant in African ways of knowing. She welcomes reader responses to atum@ppcwc.org.