The Unknown Companion

"There is a presence who walks the road of life with you. This presence accompanies your every moment. It shadows your every thought and feeling. On your own, or with others, it is always there with you. When you were born it came out of the womb with you, but with the excitement at your arrival, nobody noticed it. Though this presence surrounds you, you may still be blind to its companionship. The name of this presence is death."

                                                         (From: Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’Donohue, p. 199)


For many years, I have been intrigued by this passage by John O’Donohue. I find it comforting to think that life and death are deeply entwined with one another, surrounding me, and inside me. I have used the passage frequently as a prompt for writing, with people who are interested in exploring their personal relationship with their own deaths.

In January 2017, the Callanish team was invited to lead a workshop for forty-five people at Commonweal in Bolinas, California, (, the home of the Cancer Help Program under the leadership of Michael Lerner. The topic for exploration was for each of us to more deeply understand our lifelong companionship with death. The first part of the exploration was to write a letter to death.

Dear Death….this is what I want to say to you….Dear Death….this is how I feel about you…Dear Death…this is what I have held against you……Dear Death.

Participants were encouraged to write freely without pause.

Terri Mason who attended a cancer retreat at Commonweal after she was diagnosed with cancer ten years ago came to our death and dying workshop in January. She told me that she has been afraid of death since she was a young child.  

I was deeply touched by the intimacy in the ‘Dear Death’ letter that Terri wrote and then read aloud to the group, and I asked her if I could share her writing in my blog. She told me that during the writing process she had struggled to articulate what she wanted to write in her letter to death, until a voice inside her told her that death wanted to write the letter to her. This is what she wrote:

Letter from Death to Terri

Dear Terri,

I do hear you and I will speak in your language so you can hear me even if you can't understand.

It is true that I have always been your companion. I was so dear to you that when you were born, when you first came into light, you held your breath for as long as possible.

The pull of the living was strong, so strong you could feel it. You felt the pull of your mother's love, though she was drugged, and the pull of all who were in the room.

I let you go away from me into life because I knew you were loved. I did not want to let you go any more than you wanted to leave me. I knew you would return to me one day.

One day we will reclaim each other. I know how strongly you resist this. I know how you will cling to life because I know how you clung to me.

We will be together again.

When I asked Terri how she felt about the letter from death, she wrote this to me in an e-mail, “It was a big surprise and reassuring to read what death wrote to me. I know it has changed my relationship to death though I can't tell you exactly how.  I'm not trying to figure it out, just trying to live into it.”