Today on the podcast, Mason chats with the incredibly humble and heart-centered Zenith Virago; Marriage celebrant, educator, facilitator, author, speaker, and Death Walker. Zenith was recently named 2021 Byron Shire Citizen of the Year, for the highly respected member of the shire she is, and for the devoted work she's been doing in the community over the past 20 years. In this incredibly moving conversation around death as a right of passage, transitional space, and courageous act, Zenith shares her gratitude for having death as her teacher and for the opportunity it's given her to practice presence. As a Deathwalker, Zenith brings a holistic experience to death, ceremony, and loss. Her death ceremony work is sacred, walking with those dying, and with the bereaved, co-creating spaces and supporting them in honouring their loved ones. This conversation is moving and real. Zenith flows between courageous and beautiful stories of death and loss, imparting wisdom and bringing a sense of normality to this gateway, so many of us fear.
- Zenith Virago
Mason and Zenith discuss:
- The acceptance of death.
- Why death is an inside job.
- Sleep as a practice for death.
- Crafting a ceremony for death.
- How facing death enhances life.
- The many ways we deal with loss.
- Dissolving the resistance of death.
- The phenomenon of terminal lucidity.
- How to support healthy bereavement.
- How to support children through death.
- The important practicalities around death.
- The advanced health care plan (The Natural Death Care Centre)
Who is Zenith Virago?
As a Deathwalker, Zenith is a respected pioneer & acknowledged expert in the fields of holistic death & dying. With over 20 years experience, she provides comfort, information and guidance to assist us through the natural and the sacred, the inner and outer journeying as we come to the transition at the end of our life.
With a lightness of being, compassion and integrity she accompanies many people and those that love them, through their final and ultimate experience. Her enthusiastic and empowering approach allow for a richer exploration, whilst assisting people to reclaim their legal rights and their own rites of passage.
Zenith has lived and swum in the deep ocean in Byron Bay since 1983 and feels it has been a rich and exciting life, Celebrating life and death, seeing her work as a privilege and an important part of her life’s journey, gives her a deep love and gratitude for the wonderful mystery of which we are all a part.
Amongst many other things, Zenith is a grandmother, a para-legal, and the founding member of the non-profit Natural Death Care Centre, and the co author of the Intimacy of Death and Dying. (Allen & Unwin 2009)
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Check Out The Transcript Here:
Hey, Zenith. Thank you for coming.
Zenith Virago: (00:02)
You're welcome. Thank you for the invitation.
Absolute pleasure. And it's nice to get an in person chat with you in our newly refurbished podcast. Doesn't it look slick?
Zenith Virago: (00:13)
It's very beautiful. It's very simple, very beautiful.
Well, it's still very bare grassroots, but I think I have so much different to me because I just had crap everywhere. So many books and things just lying around.
Zenith Virago: (00:32)
Simple is good because then you stay focused with the conversation, not distracted by other things, I would say.
I'm just going to pause here for a second... I'm really, and we'll come back to the Shire I know you've just been on tour.
Zenith Virago: (00:46)
Yeah. I've just done a series of workshops in Sydney and Melbourne, and that's been lots of fun. Deaths right up for everybody at the moment.
Death is right up in the face.
Zenith Virago: (00:55)
Obviously, in your work and I guess there's a reason why there's a few more women in here at Superfeast that I'm working with that are coming and doing your workshop. Dashana who has worked with us here for quite a while. Danny of course, but obviously there's a lot of resistance to death as always that comes up, but naturally there's a lot of people popping and realising, all right, I'm going to have to look at this in the face.
Zenith Virago: (01:27)
Yeah. It's absolutely not my experience that people are resistant because I spend most of my time talking to people about death and dying on the telephone, in the street, at the farmer's market, anywhere I go. I think, part of what my role has been in the Shire for the last 25 years has to bring a familiarity and normalness to death and ceremony and a range of other things. And because I'm out and about, it makes me very accessible. And so it's not like you've got to make an appointment. I'm often doing things like this well, on the radio when that's all there was. But now of course, million podcasts and it's great.
Zenith Virago: (02:16)
And I think actually radio or audio is the best medium because you can be driving your car, you can be sitting at home in the comfort of your own home and comfortable. So your emotional system, your nervous system is relaxed and then you listen to death and it's not so confronting because everything around you is supported.
Well, I think when I'm looking at your work and from the way that just meeting you, there's not a confronting tone around death. And everything that jumped out of me reading what you do had a very casual and approachable way of talking about dying well. And that's why it was nice.
Zenith Virago: (03:01)
Yeah. And really what I've spent most of my death work career doing is I'm just doing for others what I would want someone to do for me. So if I was a dying person, I would want someone who came along with no investment in trying to sell me anything, but was familiar with that journey, the practical journey, the legal journey, the emotional journey. And I would want to have a discussion with them and I would want them to lead it because I don't know where I'm going if you're dying and that's what happens. But often people think, well, they're dying we'll just let them lead the way. But it's already very challenging for them. They're facing up to the reality of leaving the people they love behind. They're looking at a physical decline. They're looking at going into an unknown there's a range of concerns they might have.
Zenith Virago: (03:56)
And so for them to have someone like me, who can accompany them in that journey with clear advice, and guidance, and humour, and lightness, and respect because I'm not dying. So I won't know what that's like until that's happening to me and the same for the families. So either because someone they love is dying or because someone has died suddenly. And so that's a very different set of circumstances when, especially if it's someone young and that they're killed in a car accident or they've killed themselves, or they've died by misadventure. Sometimes attempting to do something that seems relatively safe, but somehow or other they've died.
Zenith Virago: (04:45)
And so dealing with families in those situations I just know that when I walk into the door, something in them relaxes and deeply says, "Oh, thank God you've come." But they are managing themselves. So I'm not actually doing anything for them. I'm just showing up, but they are investing into me a trust and a respect that I'm going to be able to support them well, and I'm going to give them the information they need and a range of other things. And that together, that experience is going to be the best it can be.
I might go into your energy and presence because I meet a lot of people and not to say that any one way of approaching it or being is better or worse, but I can definitely sense in you a non-intrusiveness, a non-assuming, a confidence, and a collaborative effort nonetheless. Some people come in and they hide their energy from me altogether until they know what I'm about nonetheless. But if I may go with the very local term of holding a space, I can definitely see you've maybe holding it for me but residing in a space.
Zenith Virago: (06:12)
Well, I'm just being me. But what I do have going is I'm very present. I've learned to be very present because my life experience teaches me that sometimes I'm only going to get something once, like the Dalai Lama, up a mountain, like Ramdas in Hawaii. And if I'm not present, I'm going to miss that moment. But I'm also going to miss the moment where I can take a chance and have a deeper experience because I'm not holding back. So I'm willing to take that risk or seize that moment. And it's like anything that you practise, the more you practise, the better at it you get. You might get a few come a Cropper, but generally it's a bit like telling the truth. The more you tell the truth the better at it you get, you understand how it works in your body, how it works for the other person. Apologies how that works for you and the other person, how it clears things up and you move right along.
Zenith Virago: (07:20)
But if you don't practise those things, you don't get good at them. And so fortunately death has really given me the opportunity to practise presence, because when you're sitting with someone who's dying and they don't have long to live, and they're looking at you to assist them in some way in that moment. I have to read really quickly what's the best I can offer to them. Because it's not like here's a catalogue tell me what you want. At that stage it's about honing in and using what little energy they've got left to the best of their advantage and not wasting time on superfluous shit. Because time and energy are precious for people who are dying. So I've had some incredible teachers in that field. But what I also see over and over again is how incredible capable people are.
Zenith Virago: (08:22)
And incredibly courageous they are, either as people who are dying or families who are accompanying that person. And so all I'm doing is walking with them, accompanying them on their journey, but dancing with each individual person in that group to be the best I can be for them and offer them what I would want if I was that person. So if I was a 10 year old kid, if I was a bereaved partner, if I was a teenage person whatever. And it's fun. So I wouldn't say I was holding space. I would say I'm being very present because in that work, I can't hold space for someone who's dying. I can co-create that moment with them because I'm bringing the skills and experience and the wisdom that I have to offer to them, but they are bringing their real life and death situation.
Zenith Virago: (09:28)
And to think that I might know what they're feeling will be very matronizing of me to do that. So together we're co-creating that experience and the same at the ceremony. So when people come to a ceremony to honour someone who's died and their own feelings about that person and their own life, then what's really important is that I bring my crafting of that ceremony, but they bring their deep love for that person, their emotional response. And we're in that dance together. It's all about giving and receiving. And so the concept is part of what I'm teaching in the training actually, is to dissolve that concept of holding space, because it gets exhausting and it's unsustainable to rather bring a respect to the other people involved and see that you're all journeying together. And that together you will co-create whatever is happening.
There's so many things I really love to dive into there. The one thing that, I think, we're diving right into the deep end. And first of all yeah that was like just... And that's I was saying, I was like, "For lack of a better word holding space, and that was beautiful-"
Zenith Virago: (10:55)
It's a perfect opportunity.
It's a beautiful opportunity. Because then you talking about whether it is someone who's holding space and walking this path or a practitioner, it does get exhausting when you hold that space and you hold the obligation for you to look and act a particular way rather than being authentic, but that's a skill. And as you said, you bring a skill.
Zenith Virago: (11:17)
Yeah. But, well, I bring... I do.
Zenith Virago: (11:21)
Thank you. But what I really bring is a familiarity and a willingness to go there. And I can't bring a beginner's mind anymore because I'm not a beginner, but I spend a lot of time with the people who are teaching me. Because they're teaching me what it actually means to die and how individual that is and how scary it can be for some people, how resistant they can be. But also how incredibly gracious they can be and courageous. And some people are even excited. As if they're embarking on a journey. So a few years ago, a guy we did... So 25 years ago we did a coffin making workshop here. And one of the guys made a coffin. There were six people and he made his own coffin. And I hadn't seen him for 20 years.
Zenith Virago: (12:23)
Anyway, I get a phone call from him and he says, "Zenith, Zenith, I've got my departure date." And I'm like, " What do you mean you've got your depart date?" He said, "I've got this disease and they've told me I've only got three months to live and I really want to get sorted." And I was like, "Okay, great." And so I have to meet people where they're at. And so I sat with him. He was so excited about that but his young children were not excited about that.
Zenith Virago: (12:56)
But anyway, we all got there together. Yeah.
I mean, that's like when you first hear about someone having an orgasmic birth and you go, "Hang on." Being excited about death for me, I can definitely see now after all that I've seen that that's completely... Like, I could imagine, I was thinking about my own death this morning, even before I was very aware of us doing this. And I was thinking about how many practical things would come up in my head. And then when I was reading your work about just doing the legals that I imagined would have the biggest impact, knowing that how worth it is, just prioritising getting all of the legals out of the way and all the practicals.
Zenith Virago: (13:45)
Yeah. Because it frees that energy out for living whilst you're dying. So this is what I would say quickly, everyone over 18 should have a will. Even if you've got nothing, it's a real hassle for people, especially if you don't have a partner or children, or you're estranged from your parents, then everybody should make a well, just buy the kit from the newsagent and follow those instructions because it's a real hassle for other people to tidy up your loose ends, if you should die suddenly. And if you're unwell or you're caring for someone who is dying, then you should look at filling in an advanced health care plan. And the other documents around that power of attorney.
Definitely, power of attorney. My mum, nine years ago, she had an aneurysm and just didn't have that part of power of attorney down. And now all of her finances are locked up in the trustee and guardian, and can't be invested and worked for because they won't let someone in her mental condition make a decision, huge.
Zenith Virago: (14:53)
Yeah, it's terrible. And it's one of the best investments you can make for the wellbeing of people who care for you is to do those three pieces of paperwork and the other one... And if you're reluctant to do paperwork, then I would encourage people on our website I've put together a plan called the death care plan. It's $8 and you can download it from the Natural Death Care Centre website, but it's the document that assist you to then go on to complete those legal papers, because it covers all the preliminary things and the whole journey, and it's fun and it's informative and you can plan whatever you want with it. But those things are external things, but they are very important.
Zenith Virago: (15:47)
I cannot encourage people enough to fill in those forms. Anyway, but death is actually an inside job. So a bit like how you're talking about birth. So part of what my learning is is that sex is a really great practise for dying well. So every time you're engaged in a sexual activity, you can do it with yourself. But of course, it's much more fun with someone else. So you all know how the French call orgasm the little death [crosstalk 00:16:25].
Zenith Virago: (16:27)
So I gave a paper at the sex conference, which was if orgasm is the small death is death the total body orgasm. And I managed to convince everyone in the room that it was, because it's an expansive experience. So a bit like when you're engaged sexually, preferably with someone you love, but even if you're not in that degree of emotional connection but you're just having a great time together. Then the experience you're having is one of expansion. And especially if you are complementary to each other and sensitive to each other, then what you've got is when you're orgasming, you have that experience that you are outside of your skin and you are merging energetically with the other. And so you're losing that small awareness that we have of being in our own bodies.
Zenith Virago: (17:31)
And my understanding from lots of conversations, lots of research, lots of being with people is that that's what happens to that part of us that we believe leaves the body. So some people call it spirit. Some people call it soul, or essence, or consciousness. Some people don't believe in that, but the majority of people take comfort that something leaves the body. And so that practise of expanding out, a bit like when you sit at the beach and you just feel yourself poured out into the magnificence of the ocean and the horizon... I'm not a surfer, I'm a swimmer, but probably if you're a surfer, it's that feeling that you get when you're riding that wave, that you're bigger than your body. You're part of the wave, you're part of the ocean. And so those experiences, I think, are very useful practises for dying and death.
Zenith Virago: (18:31)
And sitting with people who are dying to bring that awareness into the room, whether you discuss it with them or not. But if you bring that expansion in, something in them will be expanding, they're coming and going and you may have it with your mom, I don't know because we haven't discussed that. But sometimes people energy when they're trapped in the body, sometimes you can feel it expanding out because it's not the mind. The mind may be messed up through a range of different things, but that energy, that consciousness is something else. And it can be trapped in a body, but it can still play.
That's been probably the most reassuring, like I'm going into that experience. Having that of being like, "All right, this is the last night, say goodbye or say goodbye actually when we're taking that decision." You don't have a decision anymore. She started showing signs of life, going through rehab, going through all of that, having [inaudible 00:19:44] for me. And you said, some people believe this and some people don't. I want to get to that for me at that time in my life, I was heavy in a place of belief and then a perception of my mom having that expansiveness and that playfulness, and perhaps a meaning of staying here, trapped if you've [inaudible 00:20:01].
And that's how I have seen it at times, for sure. Knowing that there's still a playfulness and interaction with the world, a purpose for her and a meaning for her. Yeah, it's been difficult going, "Has this person died? Who they were, how am I mourning that person?" Even like this year, I'm talking to her, talking to someone guiding me through I'm going, "I still don't think I've quite got it, whether I'm mourning the death of the woman and the mother that was and reevaluating and moving into another relationship." That's a different conversation, but-
Zenith Virago: (20:41)
And you' re probably doing it all because life and death is like parenting. It's multifaceted, you're doing a million things all at the same time, but we don't break them down into small things, but they're probably a few big things that you're doing there, like many confronting situations.
And luckily, as you said, death can be fun. And luckily even that situation does get fun sometimes. Now, when you're talking about people having beliefs, say maybe a spirit or an essence leaving the body, I was really curious, and this is what I was really thinking about. I was thinking about all the different beliefs I've had over the years about what happens after I die. Catholic school being really scared into believing particular things. I remember going home crying because my stepdad was going to go to hell because he believed in evolution. That was that was a tough one that took a few weeks to reconcile internally. And then a bit of time as an atheist to get-
Zenith Virago: (21:49)
Counterbalance. I remember travelling, I think it was Brazil when I was writing The God Delusion and having that experience moving into a community of say connecting more to spirit, to Taoism, to reincarnation the idea of so many different possibilities. And I was just reflecting on how at times I'd felt really connected to a truth in various shades, in various incarnations of my belief system, some I still felt quite present with and others had fallen away. But nonetheless, I was thinking about the role that they had played over time. Some of them just been fun like a Taoism belief really springing myself and then shooting off and exploring the universe. But I'm curious as to where the roles of in people's individual and unique beliefs where they come in, I imagine it was different for every experience of whether the beliefs are used, whether at some point you find that they dissolve [inaudible 00:22:58].
Zenith Virago: (22:58)
It's very individual and unique and you could make generalisations. But the simplest one I find is that most people take comfort in the concept that something leaves the body, that the body physically dies, but something lives on and they don't need to put a name to that. They don't need to understand it. Some people will, and they'll say it's a form or it's an energy, or they will come back as something, or there'll be all around. But really, I just think it's whatever gets you there. And we're all busy trying to live the best lives. We can work out the meaning of a human life and become the best person we can be. And now I'm in my sixties now, I'm 64. I've lived here for 35 years.
Zenith Virago: (24:00)
It's been an incredible life. And I can just see it's a very fortunate thing to live through all those stages of a life in a healthy mind, a healthy emotional system, a healthy body to live here in a community of diversity, but also the beauty of nature. And so many differing opinions and beliefs, and being able to access them, have conversations at dinner parties or on the street protest about what we believe in and what we don't. And really, we're all just trying to make sense of something. And I've been very fortunate to have death as a teacher at such a close proximity. And with such as I say, courageous and capable people who were very ordinary people. Really, we're all very ordinary people.
It's comforting that thought.
Zenith Virago: (25:04)
Yeah. And people's beliefs do support them. And it's amazing what people believe because sometimes years ago I was in Lismore and went to see this family. This guy, and he was a biker, he had the whole front yard covered with bikes and rusty things. And I would consider them to be a very ordinary Lismore family and they could be anywhere, but they were in Lismore and the guy was dying. He was a young guy, probably around 40. And I was quite young myself. And I feel that if people have only got enough energy, then I just ask them one question, because I think it's the most useful question for them, for me, and for the people that are going to live on after they die, which is what do you think will happen when you die? And it's a great question because people's answers sometimes are predictable. Sometimes people don't know, but often they'll give you something. And that guy said something like, "Oh, I think I'm going to come back as a butterfly." And no one in the room saw that coming and at the ceremony-
That's the opposite sound of a motor bike.
Zenith Virago: (26:30)
That's right. And it was something so incredible. And at the ceremony when I did that funeral for him, and I said that when I was with him, when he was dying and I asked this, and this was his reply you could see the ripple of the effect of that answer on all the people that were there on the women and on these hardcore guys. And I saw them with their wrap around dark glasses and their lips trembling like when the bottom lip... When people are crying, but they're not going to give into it because they're trying desperately to hold themselves together. So it can be a very surprising answer.
I think when I was saying before about just reading your energy, just off our first meeting and thinking, I feel like there's something unassuming about you. I guess, when you're in that setting where you've got... You can't assume anything because you've probably heard the most out there answers or not out there just.
Zenith Virago: (27:37)
Fortunately, I spend a lot of my time in wonder and in joy and in wonder. And I think part of that is our own natural predispositions, some people spend their time in different emotions. But I think like children often enjoy pure joy. Joy spontaneously arising, you can't make it happen. But I just find people fascinating. I find the world so fascinating. Of course, there's terrible things happening every day. But what I try to do is come neutral. I come present, I come neutral. And so I walk into that room into that bedside or into that family. And I don't think it's either good or bad. I just come. I assume nothing, exactly. Because some people are glad that someone's dying because they're relieved that their suffering is over, or they've never liked that person, that person has been a pain in the ass all their life, cruel to them, abused them and they're dying.
Zenith Virago: (28:46)
And they're glad that person's suffering. So if I come in and say, "Oh, so terrible." They're not going to tell me what they really feel. So if I come in neutral and they can read that energy, that I'm not all over them like, "Oh, poor you, poor you." Then you get further with people and people are more willing to sit and share with you how they really feel, which of course is what you want, because then you can work together to co-create the moment or the death or the ceremony, whatever. And as I say people I just... And I'm responding so I'm bringing presence, neutrality, kindness. I don't work with compassion because I don't really understand that is, but we all know what kindness feels like. Unless you're a Buddhist and you really get compassion. Great. But for me, I know when I'm kind to someone how that feels for me and what that looks like.
Zenith Virago: (29:56)
But I also know when someone's kind to me, even if it's something very simple, like picking up something that I've dropped or holding the door open, or going out of their way to show me somewhere when I'm lost. And it happens to me a lot now people carry my bags for me because I'm old and young men will often say, "Let me carry that for you." And also my dive tanks, that's the first time I experienced it as a diver, when this young guy said, "Let me take your tanks." I was like, "Why is he taking my tank?" [inaudible 00:30:30] it's because I'm old and he's being kind. And from there I respond to whoever or whatever is in front of me. And that way I'm not in what I was planning to say or what I thought the situation would be. I'm just right there like with you, we're just right here in this conversation. I don't worry about it before I walk in apart from getting here on time and that's it. And then it would just have its own energy. It will have its own life and death.
I think this next question is potentially one that's quite cliche when talking about death, but I feel an innocence about me wanting to go ask it anyway. Just the obvious one I feel. And I've talked about what happens with beliefs when one is approaching death. And is there a consistency of what comes up in their reflection on their life? Do you find again, it's across the board of people going to moments of gratitude to regrets? What are the common regrets? If so, is there any theme or?
Zenith Virago: (31:45)
Not for me, but there are other people who have published books and research on that. So there's classic five regrets of the dying, all of which are completely remediable while you're alive. Like spending more time with friends doing what you love, things like that, not working so hard. And then there are other people who have a checklist approach to that experience, but that's not my experience. And of course, I'm working with people... I'm not like a social worker who goes from bed to bed where they're trapped and I'm accosting them. I only come when people invite me. So they either invite me to come to the hospital or they invite me to come to their home or they invite me into a conversation in the street or on a podcast or whatever. But I just generally find people will die how they've lived.
Zenith Virago: (32:47)
So if people are open and curious and expansive, they will generally continue that. And if they're private and fearful and non-communicative, then they'll generally continue that. But one of the incredible things to know is that there's a condition called terminal lucidity, which means for people who have had dementia, people who've been in a coma. People who have been sleeping a lot because their body is closing down and they're getting ready to die... Like a woman, I was sharing this, and she told me that it happened to her husband. She said he had throat cancer and his voice had almost disappeared.
Zenith Virago: (33:41)
And so what can happen is that in the last few hours that they can come back. So even if they've had dementia for years, or like this guy's voice that had been high and squeaky suddenly came back... He was a truck driver, a deep truck drivers resonance, or people who have been sleeping and don't have much energy. People can sit up, hold a whole conversation, like a perfectly normal person or perfectly sane person, if they've had dementia, engage with people and then lay back down and die. And a lot of people have that experience. It's a very well-documented phenomenon that happens.
Do you find that's present even when there's a large amount of drugs involved?
Zenith Virago: (34:34)
Zenith Virago: (34:37)
The same as when people... So you've got people like Anita Moorjani who came here for the Uplift Festival and she wrote a book Dying To Be Me, I think it was. And so she had a very seriously well-documented stage four cancer died, was given morphine. Had this whole experience out there either in the mystery, in the universe, in whatever realm you want to put a name to. Had a whole experience with her dead father came back into her body, is alive and the cancer cured itself. And that's a miracle, I would say. There just doesn't seem to be any other explanation to that. And one of the questions I asked her was that a lot of people here in this Shire in particular, but I think elsewhere are wanting to have what they term a conscious death, which means they want to be present. They don't want to take drugs because they want to be present and she said, "They gave me morphine and I still had that experience." Maybe the morphine assisted it. I don't know. But I think it's very difficult to have a conscious death when you're in incredible pain.
That's a good point.
Zenith Virago: (36:09)
So each person has to make those decisions or their advanced health care plan person will be making those decisions for them. But it's a very difficult experience to watch someone die in incredible pain and suffering. It's not something that has to happen in this day and age, except for if you're on the side of the road and someone's died in an accident and their body's damaged or something like that. But if they're in hospital, they should be getting great pain relief and those symptoms should be addressed.
That's a good consideration from when there can be so much in being a purist. It's just worth tossing out.
Zenith Virago: (37:04)
And as I said right at the beginning that you won't know what decisions you're going to make until you are in that situation yourself. But it's very good to think about them. Have discussions with family, with partners, with friends, people who might have to make those decisions for you. And because it's much easier to follow someone's wishes or their instructions than try to make a life or death decision without any input for someone else.
Yeah. I remember having to do that with... I'm pretty sure we were having to do that with like my mum's organs back then. And I remember being like, "Well, this is a lot of pressure." Because again, I was in that stage where I was like, "Organs have consciousness." My mum's consciousness going into another body i wasn't that comfortable. And then I had a dream that night that she was in that Egyptian Pharaoh era and I was like, "Okay, cool. Maybe that's the sign that she can get embalmed."
Zenith Virago: (38:09)
And did you donate the organs?
Well she lived and so [crosstalk 00:38:14].
Zenith Virago: (38:14)
But where did you get with your decision?
I said, yes, of course I would donate the... And that was because I was such an anti establishment hating on the medical system stage of my life back then, but then having a big healing process of... Well, I didn't know whether it was a healing process, I'm still tossing up of how much is a very... I don't think I've ever really spoken about this in public.
And just having that feeling going, "Is this appropriate to be intervening to this extent where we're taking off half of her skull to stop the swelling from going down into the spinal cord." And so nonetheless, I was grateful to the medical system for keeping her alive. And she's now been to my wedding, her being able to interact, laugh, still be herself. So of course there's an overwhelming gratitude and that's where I sit in the majority, but then there's a part of me philosophically, that's like, "Where should we be intervening that much?"
Zenith Virago: (39:08)
That's right. But that's part of being human-
This isn't a... yeah.
Zenith Virago: (39:12)
And having those incredible rich and confronting decisions to make, because they're uniquely yours that you have to be in that position as a son to make those decisions. And you can only make them based on your experience of the person with good, clear, legal advice and with your own heart. And whether you make those from a place of generosity and kindness and bigness and expensiveness, or you make them from a place of contraction and fear or both.
And that was where I got mum's kindness... Or both. And that's probably where of course, I had to tell myself a story of mum having this Egyptian lineage at the time in order to just go... Right now, it's the kind thing to do. And probably, I know that the consciousness will live on, but I'm creating a bit of a story that I don't know is actually true in having her organs. Basically I'm like, "Of course my mum would want to help contribute to life. And the people that would..." And that's where I got to a very practical place. I wasn't a very practical person back then, which did help me.
Zenith Virago: (40:29)
And that's why if you get to live a long life and you get to live through all those stages and you learn and grow, hopefully, you're not the same as you were five years ago or 10 years ago. And if you're lucky, you live a rich life and it confronts those beliefs that you hold and you either stick with them or you change them. And they expand and grow and it's an incredible being a human being.
Absolutely is an incredible thing, at least coming back to that realisation periodically or more so, and more so as you go through each little loop around the seasons. I think about death a lot, but in a superficial way, just as a marker, I mean really enjoying thinking into a somewhat more intimate-
Zenith Virago: (41:21)
But we all know that once we become parents, suddenly it gets very real. Because I can say to a class of people, "How do you feel about dying? Who feels okay?" And maybe two thirds of them depending will raise their hands. And then I say, "Those who've got their hands raised just now who feels okay about their children dying or their grandchildren or their nieces and nephews?" And it's very few people that still have their hand held at the end of that question. Because we can be okay about ourselves or we can be okay about someone who's older or whatever, but we're not so good with children and particularly our own children because parents would give their life to save that child. And again, that's one of those incredible things about human beings. We're so courageous, so selfless and so heroic when it comes to big situations. And so we never know how we're going to behave until we're in those. And you're saying that with your mom you had to really make some big calls there.
Yeah, it was definitely character building and very revealing in life in general because I've been thinking, I've been in the health world and have a health and wellness business. And I'm also someone that likes being quite subversive. And so on the other side of this I have this big problem with the word health itself because it's in opposition to something because naturally we have healthy and unhealthy. And so that's just my little internal questions that keep me spiralling towards where, and all I can feel is where it's spiralling me towards is death at this moment. Not any faster or slower, but so much of wisdom traditions, or many ancient traditions orient themselves around walking a path that's sustainable and preparing yourself for death the entire time. How do you feel about that? Do you relate to that? Is death such a... Because sometimes I'm like, "Well, that's such an..." Constantly looking at death.
Zenith Virago: (43:40)
Yeah. But deaths Omnipresent. It can happen at any time. It can happen. You can slip down the stairs, you can have a car accident, you can be in bed and someone can ram your house. There's so many possibilities in every single moment. And we can have close shaves and we all know how we feel when we have a near miss or close shave, something like that. But one of the great things for me is I think that when you fully go there and say, "Yep, I'm going to die. I don't know when that's going to be. It could be today. It could be tomorrow." And you dissolve that resistance. Like my life's fantastic, I don't particularly want to die. But I know that because I've explored it so deeply. I'm so comfortable. I'm in it every day.
Zenith Virago: (44:35)
It's so familiar for me that I... You can dissolve that resistance. And so then it frees up that energy for living. And I was very fortunate years ago to work with this other young guy who was dying, who was very ordinary, who didn't believe in spirit, he was a butcher. He just really cared that the family he was leaving behind would be okay, but he always knew he was going to die young. And he was 42, something like that. And up until then, I had worked with people who were dying without fear. And that's a wonderful thing. They're just there, they're not afraid, they're not bringing it on, but they're not afraid. But the thing about this guy, Phillip, was his name, is that he was dying with a grace and that grace manifested itself in his care for his family, extended family and for people.
Zenith Virago: (45:46)
And he was just so, I suppose the simplest way to say is, at peace. But he was more than at peace. At peace just doesn't do it justice to the energy that he had happening for him. As I say, he was a very ordinary guy. And when I went to say goodbye to him he said, "Oh mate, thanks for, coming. You've really changed my life this afternoon." And I said, "Mate you have really changed mine. And because you changed mine, you're going to impact a lot of people." Because one of the things I've learned is, So once you see someone dying without fear, it's a way to go. But if you're lucky enough to be with someone who's dying with grace, there is no other way to go. And so for people like me, I think, "Well, that's how I'm going to be. That's what I'm working towards." And I'm working towards that every minute.
Zenith Virago: (46:46)
So that if I die now my friends will be fine with that. My children, my grandchildren, everybody would say, "Wow, she really lived that life. She would have been prepared for that. She's comfortable. She spent a whole life teaching us about death. Now we have to step up to that mark and be sad and feel it, that loss, but not be sad for her." And no one should be saying I died too soon at my funeral, no one because it's impossible. And so the language around it is really tricky when people perpetuate concepts like, "Oh, they've died too soon." How can you die too soon? You're just dying. That's a neutral approach. They've just died. It's neither too soon or too late. It just is. And many of us would be dead already without medical intervention, without good pharmaceutical care. Lots of children used to die before they were five from one thing or another.
Yeah. It's an interesting thing at my mom's funeral would be like, "She died too late."
Zenith Virago: (47:58)
Yeah. Or she lived too, too long.
She lived too long, but we loved having her here for that extra 20, 30 years. That's when we talk about tonic herbs, we talk about just the beyond that philosophical elements, the Taoist organ system, what emotions come up with each organ through each season, what you can work on. So on and so forth, keep it lifestyle based. Don't go into anything specific. But the whole idea is to become more of yourself or a better person, whatever better means. I often say less of an asshole than... And that's one of our catchphrases is less assholes more [reishi 00:48:40]. Because sometimes it's not on my mission statement, but honestly, sometimes I think the only thing I can really... Because I'm such a person that goes, "Why am I doing this again? What's the point of all this again?"
And quite often where I land is just so that people are just as cool as possible when they die and I think the herbs can help with that. And so I feel like that's why I really enjoy this conversation. I'm really enjoying this because I definitely have not talked to anybody with your presence or experience or skill set in this. And I think especially based on what I've heard is more along that generic way of going and getting the survey of people who are in hospice and hearing those common five, which I think are very natural regrets to be having. But of course there's going to be nuance there.
Zenith Virago: (49:38)
Yeah. But I think your really facing death really enhances life. Because it's like when you get in bed at the end of every day and you become one with the mattress especially if your life's full [inaudible 00:49:59] young parents, but running a business. But just with the excitement of being alive and living in such a beautiful place like this, then I've spent most of my adult life falling into bed thinking, what a fucking great day that's been. And sleep is also a great practise for death because we just surrender to sleep into the unknown and assume, well, we don't even assume we just deeply trust somewhere we're going to wake up in the morning and life's going to carry on. But that's not the case.
It's not the case. I think about that a lot. I don't want to judge it, but way too much when I lay down at night for my whole life. As long as I can remember, I've had a fear of sleep and it's not so.
Zenith Virago: (50:54)
No, and it's common. And what often happens if you've had some experience as a child. And so I just spoke at the Seniors Festival this morning in Byron.
Cool I heard about that on Bay FM.
Zenith Virago: (51:07)
Yeah. And there was a woman there saying, "What should we tell the children? Our grandchildren were..." Whatever. And I was saying, "Well, basically you tell them the truth. And you tell them that with a respect for the age that they are, and for their connection to that person and for their learning about life and death." But generally children they'll thrive in that experience. They will take it and then they'll go off and play because they're very present. They're very in the moment and they don't know how they're supposed to behave. And it's been an incredible thing to witness here. So many families, so incredibly honest and trusting in their children's inner capacity to cope with that situation.
Zenith Virago: (51:55)
So we have open coffins and home vigils here a lot, where the body is at home up to five days after death. And the whole community might come through or the other school kids might come through. If it's a small child and kids are very capable and that whole protectionist approach. So religion, the funeral industry, the medical industry, they all are very protectionist to people like us who are just ordinary people. And then we become protectionist to children because we want to protect them. But it's a total disservice. So it's like when people have a dog and the dog dies and they get rid of the dog's body and they say, "Oh, the dog ran away or they've gone to a new home." That's so fucked up to do that to children, because nothing in the energy that they're reading is making sense then and adults are lying.
Zenith Virago: (52:59)
You are lying to children. And everyone does it obviously about the big things like the tooth fairy and Santa Claus and the Easter bunny, that's a different thing. But when it comes to really important things like death, it is just so important to be honest with the children, because they have an incredible capacity and they are growing that. And if you deny them that experience as children, or you lie to them by saying, "Oh, they've gone..." And this is a common one which is what some people will say who have that situation that you're in is that when they were kids, someone died and someone told them they went to sleep and didn't wake up. And so those kids are terrified to go to sleep. And it's such a simple thing without realising the incredible impact that that can have.
Never thought of that, yeah. Of course.
Zenith Virago: (53:59)
Yeah. And also children are completely egocentric to their capacity and life experience so far. So what they also need to know is that a person's death or illness has absolutely nothing to do with them. They have not caused it. They've not contributed to it in any way, and they cannot cure it. So sometimes children will try and make a pact with something, with a god, with something like we all pray when the chips are down. Even if we don't believe in God, if you are hanging onto that cliff it's like, "Please, let someone come and save me." So kids do that as well. But it's no good watching them make a deal like, "Oh, if you let mommy live, I'll be a good girl or I'll be a good boy." And then mommy dies. And then they feel they were good enough.
Zenith Virago: (54:57)
They might've done something naughty or something. So some of the consequences of death, especially around children are so important. And because what they read is everyone's upset. Something's not right, but no one's telling them what it is. And so they will think it's about them that's a very common thing. And you really want to avoid that happening at all costs, even if it's a grandparent and that grandchild has a close connection to them. It's part of a grandparent's role... Like I'm a grandparent myself now, to teach the grandchildren what it means to die and what death is about in preparation for when their parents will die. They're starting to build that resilience, build that awareness. And if you're lucky you have a dog that dies so that you can learn about it through an animal or a guinea pig or anything.
It makes so much sense. I'm going through my own little... I definitely remember not just grandma and grandpa just weren't there anymore. And they've got a little bit of a story about why that's the case. And yeah. And when mum was about to die I remember I wasn't praying to God or spirit or anything like that, it was definitely a proclamation. I'm going to do this, let's keep her here. And I'm going to make the miracle happen. And it was beautiful, but it was delusional. And then four years later when I couldn't make it happen, I started to crumble in.
Zenith Virago: (56:40)
But that's love, that's love in action. That's true your for your mom know, manifesting into desperation and an approach the best way you can. And it's also about keeping yourself together in a situation that's heartbreaking and terribly distressing and unfamiliar, and suddenly you become responsible for making decisions about someone else's life. It's hard enough making decisions about your own life. So things like that. And you really need great support in those times and good counsel, but what a lot of people say, they don't want to interfere. They think well, you should make that decision. [inaudible 00:57:25] like this. And people are terrified instead of stepping in. Whereas, it's a bold person. And part of what people need to do is grow courage to do with death and be bold if you're in any doubt, be bold.
Love it all by the way. I'm going to let you go soon. Before I hear about any other additional information you can tell us about workshops and other offerings and other resources, because I definitely want everyone to be able to get their hands on that. I'm curious, we've talked a lot about that preparation and going and being with people who are in the process of dying, but of course, in the ceremony after there is, I imagine... How do you prepare? Because you're speaking at people's death ceremonies, you said.
Zenith Virago: (58:21)
Yeah. So if I meet them, it's lovely if you get to meet them while they're alive. And usually they're interesting people who say, "I'd like to meet you if you're going to do the ceremony for me." But also because it's comforting for the family. So usually I say, "I never met so-and-so while they were alive." Or, "I never met them, but I've seen them around town." If that's the case, whatever the truth of that situation is. But if I did meet them while they were dying, then I just say, "And some of you may know that I went to see so-and-so when they were dying." And then I can speak to them a tiny bit as a person in that situation. And I asked them this question, and this was their answer, and it's incredibly comforting, but often I'm working with ceremonies for people who've died suddenly where I've never met them.
Zenith Virago: (59:21)
I'm never going to get the chance to meet them. I generally go and see their body at the funeral directors. So I have a physical awareness of who that person is. And then I'm working with the circumstances of the death and who they were, but I'm never speaking deeply about someone I've never met, or I don't know, that's for the family and friends. So part of what I'm teaching is about how the structure and content of the ceremony and the subtle layer that's at play during that ceremony. And in fact, I gave it to a woman this morning in 10 minutes the pearl of that knowledge, so that she could do something for someone who died a while ago and they didn't do any ceremony. And she said their whole family are adrift because of that. But a good ceremony can save you 12 months of therapy because you are calling in the divine, you're [missing 01:00:24] with the mystery and the magic you're in the not knowing.
Zenith Virago: (01:00:28)
And you're in that liminal space between death and the disposal of the body. So it's the last time generally that that person's physical body is there either in an open coffin or a closed coffin. And sometimes now you'll be in a situation where the person has been cremated and the ashes are there, but in sudden death... So that's more when it's an expected death and it's gone on for a time. But I would really encourage people if it's a sudden death to do that ceremony with the body there, it's very helpful and very healing. It may be very confronting, but like most challenging things when you face up to something and you put yourself into that challenge, the sense of accomplishment, and what you learned from that afterwards are exhilarating. It may not be exhilarating in that circumstance, but it's certainly beneficial. And it's been an incredible learning and I very rarely use the word privilege because it's overused in this term.
Zenith Virago: (01:01:45)
But it's been an incredible privilege to offer ceremony, a well-crafted ceremony as a rite of passage for the dead person in their journey towards disposal and disintegration, either in the ground or in the cremator. And as a rite of passage for the family or the friends, letting that person physically go and stepping back into their lives at the end of that ceremony, without that person physically in their lives. And because I live in a community where I'm either marrying or burying everybody, then I see those people. I see those people at the supermarket. I see them in the street parade for the Milan Festival. I see them at the cinema. I see them at a party. And I say, "How are you?" And they say, "I'm good." Because our connection is forged in the intensity of their death.
Zenith Virago: (01:02:50)
And so we have to go there. But what I see is how you can't change the circumstances of the death. Once it's occurred, you can work towards it. But the benefit of this getting a really great, meaningful, and appropriate ceremony and understanding its purpose as a rite of passage means that when you think back, you say, "Oh God, it was terrible when so-and-so died, but wow, we had the best fucking ceremony for them." And that can go a long way to compensate on an emotional acceptance and on a healthy journey of bereavement in that moment of loss.
Just the simple open casket distinction. I've never experienced it in my life. And it seems, in my mind, I'm like, yeah, it's something that's old-fashioned or used in TV and movies, because it's the only way to get a good bit of a comedy into a funeral scene.
Zenith Virago: (01:04:03)
Thought of that.
That's the only way I've really thought about it, and I can see why as a society-
Zenith Virago: (01:04:10)
It's very beneficial, but it's also that way for me when I am the celebrant or the person facilitating that ceremony, because sometimes there isn't anything to celebrate, it's just very sad. But if I am that person, then the way that you offer that up to people is crucial. So I'm never grinding them deeper into their, or deeper into their trauma. I'm trying to come neutral. Of course, I'm acknowledging everything, but it's not my role to make it worse and it's not my role to piss anybody off. So I'm having to dance with sometimes 400 people there without knowing who they are or what they feel, but just offering something that is of benefit to every individual and as a collective group, but having an open coffin, if people don't want to come, they won't. But even generally, I see that people who might be reluctant at the beginning of that ceremony will generally come when there's time later to come to that coffin. But it's really helpful to see a dead body. And especially if that's someone that you care for.
Yeah. Because otherwise it's taboo, you can't see them. Don't look at them, don't think-
Zenith Virago: (01:05:43)
Well, it's an unknown. And then you can really mind fuck with that. Whereas you see them, you can see they're dead. You know what death looks like. You can feel your emotions fully because of that situation is what it is. And also that will depend on how they died and who they are to you. But if you are a young person and you saw that person last in the fullness of life it can be really hard to get your head around, what is death? What does it actually mean? And it is the big question after what is the meaning of life? But what you've got clearly is a dead body. And if that's someone that you care for, it's great to be able to say goodbye and feel all those emotions that you feel for that person. And then it's what you believe in. So as I said, at the beginning, most people take comfort in the belief that something leaves the body.
Very quickly. Have you ever read the series... It's a Sci-fi series called Ender's Game?
Zenith Virago: (01:06:54)
Of course, I haven't.
The first book is a travesty. Don't worry, but the second and third one, he becomes, I can't remember the term, but he becomes a death talker and he's hired. And he travels around a now human populated universe, and has been called in for very special or unique situations of death to... I think about this quite often as well. And you're the first person I've met and I'm like, "Wow, that's what you do." And I often just thought about, that's been such a significant role to talk to people, have 400 people in front of you and yet be able to create a sense of closure or connection or connection to the reality all in one.
Zenith Virago: (01:07:41)
Closure is crap that concept.
Yeah. All right. That's out I'm learning a lot, no holding space, no closure.
Zenith Virago: (01:07:48)
And no giving permission.
Give them permission to mourn you mean or something like that?
Zenith Virago: (01:07:54)
No concept. Because people often say that to me, "Oh, you're giving them permission to die." And I'm like, "No they're dying, no one needs permission to die." But the other thing I probably would take this opportunity to say and it's about language and it maybe confronting for some, but I think it's very helpful for others. So the word suicide is very well used on a cultural level, in the media, in conversation when someone kills themselves and a lot of the language around suicide... So suicide means, Sui means oneself, and cide means to kill.
Zenith Virago: (01:08:41)
So you've got homicide, matricide, infanticide, genocide, ecocide all the cides all about killing. So what you're actually saying when you say the word suicide is that they've killed themselves. You're just saying it in a different language. But the phrase commit suicide is from when it was a crime to attempt to kill yourself or to attempt suicide. And if you succeeded, then you were dead and that was the end of it. And other people's suffering began. But if you failed, then you will be arrested and tried and sometimes put in prison for attempting to commit suicide.
Under suicide watch.
Zenith Virago: (01:09:26)
Yeah. And this is in Victorian times and things like that. But so when you're saying that phrase, you are perpetuating a concept that is a criminal action and now the latest phrase is death by suicide, but suicide doesn't kill you. People kill themselves. Whether they do that with a regret or they do it... But they make a choice and they make an action. And this will be very confronting for some people, especially if someone you love has killed themselves. But about 12 years ago, I started to stop using that phrase and started to use the phrase that they ended their own life.
Zenith Virago: (01:10:15)
So sometimes I still use that phrase, but most of the time I use the phrase that they killed themselves in conversation. If I'm asking someone about someone who's died like that. And the reason I feel it's important is because I see that it assists people in their healing because once you really get what has happened, it's a bit like being an alcoholic. Once you can own that you're an alcoholic, you can address it and work with it and hopefully overcome that situation. And so when families can really look at that situation and say... Or friends that that person killed themselves, then whether you agree with it or not, you're just bringing respect and a recognition to that action. That is what they've done. And somewhere in that, it starts to grow something in you that moves towards an easier healing and an easier living with that situation.
Everything you're talking about, looking at the body saying what it is ending your own life. It brings you into reality, that's what we're talking about right?
Zenith Virago: (01:11:31)
Yeah. But also it makes for healthier bereavement. So it allows you to live with that loss of that person in your life and with their death. Yeah.
Loved it, what a way to end a Tuesday, I really appreciate you coming in.
Zenith Virago: (01:11:55)
You're welcome, thank you for the invitation.
Yeah. No absolute pleasure. I'm looking forward to it. We've got Farley and Jen going along to your next workshop.
Zenith Virago: (01:12:05)
Yeah. Which is in may and that's full already. So I put on a third one then in September.
And that's not full?
Zenith Virago: (01:12:12)
That's not full. Yeah.
Okay. Well, let's get that one booked out. Where do people find out about that one?
Zenith Virago: (01:12:18)
It was always important to me when I started this work that people had an implicit trust. So I created a not-for-profit and that not-for-profit is now a charity and it's called the Natural Death Care Centre. So the Natural Death Care Centre has a website. It's that dot org and all the information is there. There's also a free information sheet for people. Lots of information. And when I generally say to people is it will either sing to you or it won't. If you want to learn something that you have to find the person that's a teacher for you. And so I'm not everyone's cup of tea. I'm not. And what it says on that website will either sing to you or it won't. But I travel all over Australia and I teach. I generally, come on invitation if people invite me to come, I come, I put it on and we take it from there.
That's good to know. I'm so excited to have introduced you to the Superfeast community and to have met you.
Zenith Virago: (01:13:27)
Thank you, yeah. It's been a joy an absolute joy.
Yeah. Likewise. All right. See you later, everybody. Thanks for tuning in. Love you all.