How death changes the Death card
First published on Little Red Tarot on August 10, 2018 as a part of my twice-monthly Heal & Harm column. Heal & Harm is a no-bullshit column by Sabrina Scott. Released every two weeks to honour the full and new moons, the column affirms the old as hell phrase “a witch who can’t harm can’t heal,” and oscillates between summoning good vibes and releasing pain.
Back in April I wrote about the Death card.
I still stand by everything I said there – obviously, of course – and I’ve had an interesting experience since then that has deeply enriched my understanding of this card.
I’ve worked with spirits since I was a child. I went to my first séance when I was eight. In my work I regularly work with the dead, allowing connections and messages to come from those who have passed to those who are still living. I’ve been intimate with the intricacies of death for a long time.
Or so I thought.
I’m not saying my past experience was wrong or bad – it was only, as all of us always are – ever partial; and though today my understanding today has shifted in space, has moved – I remain partial, my understanding is still incomplete (and will always be so, no matter my continued gathering of moments and happenings).
In June an old friend died.
This is the first time the death of a human being has ever really moved me. He was under 30, and died in an accident, completely unexpected and random, horrific and tragic, on the other side of the world. This process initiated me into another aspect of the Death card, one that I had not thought about very much before: how it is a change and transformation that is often (though not always) completely unprecedented. It can blind-side us, even when we expect it.
It is – sometimes – a transformation, a change of state, that wouldn’t have come into being if any one tiny little thing had happened differently. The death of the present moment, of a part of yourself, of a friend, lover, of a relationship – sometimes these deaths have nothing to do with anything at all. Sometimes they are just random, devoid of any rhyme or reason.
Sometimes there’s an explanation to it and sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes death is just death.
The person is gone. Why? Not sure. No one knows. No fault of their own. Sometimes it’s a simple slip, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes there’s no deeper meaning. Sometimes it’s just chaos. Sometimes it’s the universe being the universe, giving and taking as it will and as it does. Beholden to no one.
Sometimes the Death card is real and sometimes it’s symbolic. Sometimes both. Thinking about the reality of death – the sudden shock of losing someone – is very different from how I tend to read this card. Usually I think mostly in metaphors. I think about transformation, change, shift, rebirth. I think about liminality, about moving on from one state of being and doing to another; these changes often energetic, emotional, mental.
But with physical death the body has no immediate and discernible rebirth. You may be able to contact the person in spirit or find someone else to do it for you, but otherwise their obvious material form is no more. It’s gone. You’ll never be able to talk shit or share beers again. You’ll never be able to commiserate about each others’ dating lives or see their new art. They’re just gone, and it happens in a snap.
Everything changes without warning, like a slap in the face. Instantly. But the slap doesn’t wake you up; it doesn’t seem real until a few days later, a week later, when maybe your jaw hurts a bit and your skin shows a slight bruise. It seems real once you cry. It seems real once you see everyone else cry. Once someone holds you. Once you see all those people you haven’t seen since undergrad. Once someone pours a whiskey libation on the concrete floor of his favourite bar’s outdoor patio. When someone else pours beer. When someone else who hasn’t smoked in ages asks for a cigarette. It seems more and more real when you see the memorial tattoos, the impromptu wake, another impromptu wake, the endless eulogies posted on social media. The drawings and portraits and sharing of photos, of videos.
How do we incorporate these very visceral, physical, and deeply material experiences of literal death into the Death card when its presence greets us in a reading?
I do sometimes observe an over-reliance on platitudes when people talk about the Death card in tarot. Everything will be ok (yes it will be)! This card is fuckin awesome and one of my favourites (it’s true)! Even though it kinda sucks right now don’t worry (not allowed)!
But I’m thinking more and more about how to also include that breathing underwater, this-is-not-real feeling that is often the first moments we meet death, that shocking liminal space between here and there and nowhere. I want to include those crucial hours and days and months before new realities settle in and make homes of the spaces inside us, before new ways of life emerge in response to the shifting and settling and re-settling of vital organs after surgical extraction.
I would never distill my friend’s passing into some kinda posi-washing “wow, this is a great opportunity to learn more about the tarot” bullshit, but if I am being truthful, that is a small part of what is happening for me. I think about his passing almost every day, as I am sure many of us do who have lost people we cared about. Every experience we have shapes our interpretation of the cards. In encountering (maybe for the first time, maybe this has been a frequent rendezvous) literal death rather than figurative death, and thinking about it through tarot, a language we may know well or are maybe just learning, we can try to make sense of it all, to distill this completely uncontrollable and undistillable state of being and knowing and feeling, this full-body-full-soul encounter. And that, too, is a wisdom and an insight we can share, a wisdom we can reflect back at others to remind them that they know it too, they too have felt this in their bones.