“Swing low sweet chariot,
comin’ for to carry me home.”
Ancient societies the world over had an understanding of the role played by helpers at the time of death. In Greek these characters are known as psychopomps, literally “guide of souls”. Psychopomps could be deities, angels, totem animals, deceased relatives, as well as living humans (e.g. shamans). A famous example of pa psychopomp in Western mythology is Charon, the boatman, who ferries deceased souls to the realm of the dead.
In this article I want to suggest the idea that children function as psychopomps to their parents. I will do so with reference to my experience of being a dad to a now nearly two year old daughter and how she has performed a psychopompic role in my life.
Children are guides to the souls of their parents. Specifically they walk into and reveal the deadened zones of a parent’s soul. Children are here to reveal the unburied death, the trauma, of a parent (or parents). Trauma is like a deceased soul that has not yet crossed over to the realm of the afterlife. Such souls haunt this world. They do not belong any longer here and yet have not yet traveled to whether they do belong, i.e. the place of rest.
Trauma functions in a person’s life in much the same way haunting their existence. A psychopomp is there to move deceased souls along from this world to a place of rest. Children then are not psychopomps in the traditional meaning of working to ferry a deceased soul to the afterlife. They are psychopomps to the living souls of their parents. The parents carry within their souls much that is dead (and yet unburied). By exploring the lives of children though the lens of psychopomp literature we gain (I believe) a much greater appreciation for the soul wisdom of children.
A psychopomp (in the traditional sense) will often have to convince the deceased soul that it is in fact dead. Such a soul may be lost or confused as to its current state, e.g. from death in a violent, instantaneous manner. The psychopomp must earn the trust of the deceased soul. The psychopomp in some way needs to convince the soul that it is in fact in a postmortem state. Perhaps the psychopomp asks the deceased soul to really look at itself or to try to touch itself. Perhaps the psychopomp knows this soul personally and can attest to information of its death.
In a parallel manner children are here to point out to the parents their own ungrieved deaths and traumas. Most parents are living in a state of bewilderment and ignorance regarding their own traumas and triggers–just like deceased souls who do not realize they are dead. From the point of view of their incarnate souls, children are here (among many other reasons) to press the buttons of their parents. They are here to trigger the dormant soul viruses of the parent’s being, to reveal the alienation of the parent’s soul. They are here to walk in the garden of their parent’s soul and point out where there’s decay, corruption, and death. Children will continue to do this in the hope that their parents will realize their pain and come to acknowledge it.
If this first point of contact and trust is established between a soul and a psychopomp, then the next stage commences. Psychopomps can only guide souls to the threshold of transformation. Psychopomps will carry a deceased soul to the edge of a body of water, a doorway, or the top of a mountain. From there the soul must choose to take the final step. The psychopomp can only reassure, cajole, and pray that the soul chooses to take thar next step. The choice forever resides with the deceased soul. The psychopomp cannot override their freedom; the psychopomp cannot do the work for the deceased.
In a similar way, children can only trigger parents into the traumas and the unprocessed death in their souls. Children can only bring their parents to the threshold of the transformation of their being. Children, as psychopomps, cannot take the step of facing their trauma and soul illness. Only a parent can do that.
Psychopomps are not responsible for the death of the soul’s they work with. Psychopomps serve to make the dead self-aware and then from there to indicate the means of properly crossing over into the light.
Sadly our world does not acknowledge this sacred role served by children. Children trigger the traumatization of their parents, they reveal the sickness of their souls, ultimately as an act of healing. Children reveal such soul pain in order that it might be healed.
In practice, however, this makes children radically vulnerable. Tragically the response too often to the child triggering the brokenness and woundedness of the parent is not to be graciously thanked but for the child to be wounded in turn. In the worst of cases this lead to abuse: physical, mental, verbal, emotional, sexual, etc. The parent unconsciously reacts out of their unhealed places and seeks only to shut the child down, in order that their pain may never be revealed or triggered again. From this violent response children learn to suppress their pain, to lash out at others when in pain, to silence anyone who threatens their psychic stability, and to fear the realms of the dead. They then grow up in such a soul sick world and eventually pass those lessons on to the next generation.
Each generation of children is attempting to initiate their parents into the truth of soul healing, to guide them into and through (and out the other end) of the realm of the dead. Too often however it simply becomes a cycle of traumatization and abuse passed from generation to generation.
When a couple says they are thinking about whether or not to have children this is the kind of information they should be given. They should know going in that having a child is welcoming a psychopomp into their home, who will inevitably find their soul illness and will awaken it. The psychopomp child will find their trauma patterning and will trigger it.
If parents are sufficiently prepared in how to resolve traumatic patterning when triggered, if they are taught how to heal the illness of their souls, then they can gladly welcome the arrival of this psychopomp into their lives. The arrival of the child psychopomp marks a potential source of profound transformation for them. If however they are not prepared for such a scenario, chances are very probable they will react badly and the child will suffer as a result.
My daughter Sage has served as a psychopomp in my life. I have written elsewhere about the experience of her birth and how she (through her birth) taught me how to befriend terror and panic as allies. This was the first form of her work as a psychopomp. Her birth brought me to meet the energies of Terror and Panic. It was up to me then to cross over and learn to welcome them as forms of medicine.
The second round of her work as a psychopomp began during her birth. Sage’s birth lasted over the course of several days. On the second evening of the birth my wife Chloe began moaning and growling to move through the birth process. As she continued to groan, with a rhythmic almost chant-like quality, I began to feel odd. I stepped out of the birth and went into the bedroom and found myself starting to feel cloudy and unwell. I pulled the covers over my head and unconsciously took up a fetal posture. I mercifully fell asleep rather quickly.
As the rest of the birth continued–including the story I covered in my earlier piece of the moments of birth itself and the immediate days afterwards–I largely put this strange experience out of my mind. I did mention this weird experience to a friend who works with people in healing their birth traumas and she suggested that I may have experienced a flashback to my own birth.
I remember feeling a certain inner knowing when she said it. A voice that said, “She’s right.”
But nothing more really came out of it for some time. I was more focused on what had occurred with the Terror and Panic and my new life as a father.
Somewhere about 10-12 months later, Chloe and I tried various experiments of me being the one to help Sage fall asleep. Sage was used to breastfeeding and Chloe being the only one who could settle her for sleep. This setup however was very hard on Chloe. She began to experience sleep deprivation.
So we tried a few times of me helping Sage to sleep. Sometimes it worked without a problem. Other times however it did not. Sage would become inconsolable, screaming for her mama. I tried walking her in her stroller. A couple of times she fell asleep thankfully.
But on a few occasions even that didn’t work. And during those times I began to feel that odd experience rising again. I would do everything I could to stay centered and grounded. It felt like a Herculean task at the time. And then afterward I would have various breakdowns–vomiting, tears, and/or shaking. As painful as this is to admit, a couple of times I actually hit myself quite hard. I smacked myself in the forehead repeatedly. Once banging my head against the wall (not in her presence). It was not strong enough to do damage to me but there was a purpose to it. The pain brought me to a physical level of experience whereas otherwise I was dissociative. Second it felt like the only power I had in a powerless situation. At least I was able to do something, something that, even for a brief moment or two, made the suffering stop.
Each time this occurred I was pushing myself to last longer but also each time the effects were more painful and intense. This pattern culminated in an experience about three months ago. Again I was trying to help Sage fall asleep, she was unable to do so and began crying.
I stayed with her like this (pushing my boundaries) for about 20 minutes. At a certain point, I broke. I tapped out. I had Chloe come in and take over.
I came out to the living room and the entire room began to spin. I felt like I was in a tornado or caught in rough waters being tossed about. I got very nauseous but fortunately managed to prevent myself from puking.
Normally if things get a bit “spinny” for me (which is very very rare for the record) I would first look to my immediate environment and gain grounding from it. The walls, the floors, the ceiling, doors, whatever. But that was impossible in this case as the entire room was caught in the whirlwind. I tried the trees just outside our window. Still too spinny. I couldn’t get a foothold. I was only able to connect energetically with an enormous tree three blocks from our house. The energetic tornado I was caught in had a three block radius! I was only marginally able to cling to the tree for brief moments.
In the midst of the whirl (which lasted about 30-45 minutes I think), I remembered all the way back to the first experience, the second night of Sage’s birth.
I internally stated that I consented to this experience. I let go of my tenuous clinging to the tree and rather than being simply thrown about by the winds I began to have the briefest experience of flying, of being carried along by the winds and riding the current. There was amazingly a profound feeling of Bliss at the core of the experience for those fleeting few moments of surrendered flight.
But it didn’t last long. I mostly was caught in the whirl. Eventually the winds calmed down and it took me another hour or more to really get back to a baseline bodily consciousness. I went to sleep and woke the next day knowing I had agreed to be worked by some process.
It was very clear that I was having my birth trauma triggered. Sage was my psychopomp for a second time. It took the intensity of her screams for me to finally come into direct contact with the energies of my birth trauma, so profoundly hidden (and rightly so) up until that point.
I didn’t know how I was going to work with the birth trauma or rather how it was going to work me. But work me it did.
Two days later I sat down to meditate and I was sent into a process that involved me psychically undergoing again my own birth. This time however from a conscious healing state. I experienced four major such meditative-healing-psychic episodes over the course of 4 weeks (one a week).
The four experiences corresponded to transpersonal psychologist Stan Grof’s work on the perinatal matrices: existence in the womb, onset of birth waves, the birth canal, and entry into the world. For Grof each of those 4 matrices has a corresponding characteristic state or experience: oceanic bliss, cosmic engulfment and no exit, death/rebirth struggle, and death/rebirth experience.
I won’t go into all the details. Simply to say that by the end of the process I can now sit with Sage in her crying, even in meltdowns, and I don’t feel the charge building up signaling the oncoming of a dissociative or traumatic experience. It’s not always a super pleasant experience of course. I definitely have the regular amount of moments of wanting it to be over or losing my patience but there’s no clocking out and certainly no spinning. It’s also worth mentioning that since I’ve gone through this process she has less of these crying episodes and I’m able to be with her as she falls asleep–just as once the deceased soul chooses to cross over into the light, then the psychopomp’s work is done. There’s no need for her to trigger me in that way anymore, so she ceased doing so.
As a consequence and grace of this process I was able to re-own aspects of my birth. In particular I’m now able and willing to publicly (and without shaking) describe myself as having been abandoned at birth by my (birth) mother. Whereas in the past I would describe myself as adopted, this process allowed to own (and yet not be held by) the proper framing of abandonment at birth.
Yet again Sage, psychopomp, had brought me into a realm of trauma and death and because I was willing to walk through the doorway, I ended up far more healed.
I sense perhaps now a third round of psychopompic work might be taking place. I’m not sure but a new layer seems to be emerging in relationship to Sage. I’m unclear where this is headed, but I’m quite certain she will once more lead me to the realm of some some psychic death I’m carrying and I will again be faced with the choice of whether I will leap into the unknown.
Children are psychopomps. Children are many other things besides certainly. The role of psychopomp is not the defining characteristic of children’s lives of course, but I have yet to meet any parents for whom their children have not located their triggers and pushed them. If this role is so common we need to formally acknowledge and be on the lookout for it. Whenever your child begins pushing buttons in you that when you reflect on them are pointing to deep unhealed parts of your being, then assume your child is acting as a psychopomp. Thank them for it, let them guide you into the heart of it, and then yourself choose to walk into the light.