Reason No. 9: The Awe of Death with Stephen Jenkinson



About Stephen Jenkinson

Stephen teaches internationally and is the creator and principal instructor of the Orphan Wisdom School, co-founded the school with his wife Nathalie Roy in 2010, convening semi-annually in Deacon, Ontario, and in northern Europe. Among Stephen’s many works, we can find “Die Wise” and “Come of Age”. And there is also a significant documentary titled Grief Walker about him, focusing on what he terms our culture’s death phobia. He’s also the developer of the method of orphan wisdom, which, among other things, pushes against death phobia to promote acceptance of death and to participate emotionally in one’s death as we do in other big life events. His work partly draws on his extensive experience with dying people and their families.

More about Stephen Jenkinson and Orphan Wisdom:


Photo by Heather Poolock



Shai Tubali: Hello everyone.  In this episode of 1000 Reasons for Feeling Awe, I am extremely honored to have the opportunity to focus on one aspect, one dimension of awe, with author and teacher Stephen Jenkinson. Among Stephen’s many works, we can find “Die Wise” and “Come of Age”. And there is also a significant documentary titled Grief Walker about him, focusing on what he terms our culture’s death phobia. He’s also the developer of the method of orphan wisdom, which, among other things, pushes against death phobia to promote acceptance of death and to participate emotionally in one’s death as we do in other big life events. His work partly draws on his extensive experience with dying people and their families. 

As a former program director in a major Canadian hospital and a former assistant professor in a prominent Canadian medical school, I am wondering, of course, if our theme today will be the awe of death. But I will not assume. I will ask directly. Of course.  I personally cannot think of anything that is a greater source of awe than death, both in a terrifying sense and as an unfathomable mystery. So welcome, Stephen. 

Stephen Jenkinson: Thank you very much, and thank you for the kind introduction. 

Shai Tubali: Thank you so much. So, would you please share with us what your chosen reason for feeling awe this is? And of course, we will need to understand what all this means to you and why you’ve selected this particular reason. But what would be the starting point of our conversation? 

Stephen Jenkinson: Well, maybe the history of the word I don’t know if this has come up with your other guests, but it seems to be a fairly important detail. So I’ll elaborate a little bit on the etymology. So, you could say that the etymology of a word generally carries four fifths of what’s there in the etymology that is not there in common use. And you could think of it as a kelp, a piece of kelp. And the top 3 feet of the piece of kelp are lying on the surface of the sea. And that’s the part that you see. That’s the part of the word that’s in common use and that people imagine that they’re aware of. And then there’s 70 feet going down to the bottom. That’s the history of the word over time. 

And then the roots in the sand, of course, are the distant origins of the word. So with that in mind, if we look at the top 3 feet of the word awe, how it’s typically used today, and how I imagined it was intended to be used in the material you sent me in preparation for this, for example, the notion that it’s a feeling, like, what else could it be, apparently? So in the last, I don’t know, some hundreds of years, the word awe has become a synonym for something more or less positive, more or less uplifting, more or less compelling, and more or less enabling this kind of thing. But if you investigate the word with any depth at all, You realize that’s a very recent incarnation of the word, and it’s not clear that it’s anything more than a reaction against awe. 

That’s what the contemporary meaning of awe seems to me to be: an attempt to domesticate what awe actually is. Yeah.  So from my understanding, awe is not how you feel about things. Awe is the indwelling power, consequence, and character of the thing that you’re talking about, not you. It’s awe-inspiring. It’s awesome. And of course, it’s amazing. And all of these words suggest that there’s consequences for the beholder, and there’s consequences for the recipient. The much older meaning of awe by far and away is something in the order of desperate, overwhelming, unnerving, fraught with frailty and fearfulness. All of this kind of stuff This is mostly winnowed away from the word today. 

But its old origins are something that we should, I think, pay a lot of attention to because it’s whispering to us that we have no obligation to turn awful things in this world into another occasion for single-note celebration. It doesn’t seem to be what it’s for. Awe seems to be there in the world to give the world a chance to survive our regard for it or our lack of regard for it. In other words, you could imagine that awe, as it exists in the world, as a deified power, if you will, seems to be there to push back against the overwhelming success of humans in the world. 

And it’s a very interesting thing to note that the more successful humans have become in the world in the last three or so hundred years, this very word has lost its detonation power and turned into a kind of high five, a kind of emotional and spiritual generic and not very consequential affirmation. So when younger people tend to say, they tend to use the words awesome as a synonym for great, fantastic, loved it, this kind of thing. And you can hear the inclination to turn the word into something that behaves well, when in actual fact, awe doesn’t behave well at all. And it’s not a very good house guest. 

Shai Tubali: Your introduction has definitely aroused many questions in me, so I will start. First of all, in what sense do you distinguish the one who feels from that, from the source of awe, from the object of awe? Okay.  Because awe seems to be a sort of meeting point between a subject and an object, Or am I wrong to assume that? 

Stephen Jenkinson: No, I think that’s fair. The word I would use to characterize it is the emanation of awe, the incarnation of awe. Yeah.  I think that’s what you’re alluding to. That’s certainly what I would mean by it as well. You could say that the consequence of being on the receiving end of an awful encounter is a sense of being overwhelmed and standing in the crosshairs. I’ll give you a very simple example. I think I was driving some time ago, maybe 10-12 years ago. My son was a teenager at the time, or maybe younger; maybe he was eight or nine years old and, apropos, nothing at all. He suddenly said to me, “I love storms.” I said, really? Why do you love storms? He said, “Because finally there’s something that’s bigger than us.” So a powerful storm, and we’re seeing more and more of them. Clearly, with every seasonal change, it’s increasing. It would appear to be the case. So, I mean, get ready for awesome, obviously. But there is something in the nature of storm patterns and storm consequences that, beyond their destructiveness, is their unmitigated power, their sense that even at a standstill, they are overwhelming to the human mind. Think, for example, of that recent I mean, I don’t know if it was pathos or if it was tragedy, but that descent, that privately owned little submarine, or whatever it was, was a submersible thing going down to see the Titanic and literally imploding. I mean, I can’t even imagine, from a physics point of view, the consequences of that implosion, but it’s a contraction of such unimaginable intensity. This is awesome. Clearly, it’s awesome. It’s a force of nature. It’s naturally occurring. It means no harm. 

But probably on occasion at least, it serves as a fair warning that there are places in this world where we don’t belong, but awe does. 

Shai Tubali: I see.  So places we don’t belong, but all do. So that indicates that all is well. What is it? That which is, as you said, bigger than us, that which evades our comprehension, that which we cannot contain. 

Stephen Jenkinson: Yeah, certainly it has those qualities. I think it’s important to say that none of these observations are meant to suggest that it’s hostile to humanity. I don’t think it is. I think it’s indifferent to humanity, which humans experience as exceedingly hostile. The indifference of a storm, the willingness of the storm to proceed regardless of the consequences, makes the storm monstrous to us. But I would say that inside the storm, there’s nothing monstrous about it at all. It is on its way. It’s moving towards exhaustion. That is the nature of awesome. It seems to me that things are, in some remarkable way, kind of time-limited. They have a kind of expiration that they seem to be moving towards all the time. And our disassembly—maybe that’s a better word for it from a physics point of view. 

disintegration and dispersal, and then a subsequent reconstitution in some other form, which may not be as powerful the second time out. I don’t track, for example, things like tropical storms and storms coming off the ocean and things like this, but these are some examples. But maybe scale is something we could address for a moment. So far, it would seem that I’m suggesting that all of these things have to be enormous in their length and breadth. I don’t think that’s actually the case. I think certainly the most easily awe-inspiring things tend to have those qualities. But you could imagine, I don’t know, the organization of a beehive. We have bees here on the farm. The internal organization of a beehive is a phenomenon called swarming. This is awe-inspiring too. 

You don’t want to get in the middle of it and have others participate behind you. You want to be awe-inspired from a distance. You understand what I’m saying? It’s unwise to draw too close to that which inspires awe in you, it seems to me. So maybe there’s a synonym here. Maybe wild would be a good synonym for some of these things. If you don’t mind, I’m going to tell you a little vignette that I think illustrates these things very well. This comes from my days working in the death trade. So I was asked to come to somebody’s house. There was a woman in her 40s. She was an English teacher at a university, and she just spoke generically. The form said she wasn’t doing very well. I got out of my car in front of her house. 

I could hear her screaming from the second floor. Screaming.  It was overwhelming before I even got in the house. And I felt immediately like it was a scene from The Exorcist, though I wasn’t in the place yet. So I knocked on the door. They let me in. Clearly, the family was unnerved and had no idea how to respond to the dying woman upstairs. And I said to them, “Listen, I’m going to go up there now.” No matter what you hear, don’t come up. Give me a chance to do the things that I know how to do, and we’ll see how it goes. It may last only a few minutes, or you may hear nothing, or we’ll see. And they agreed. And up the stairs I went, and I let myself in the door. And she was in mid-flight. Her torment was beyond description. 

It was almost a force of nature unto itself. She was cut loose there. That’s a good word to describe it. So I sat down, maybe 6 feet away from her bed, and I just waited. And occasionally I would nod, as I’m nodding to you now, which is just a generic indication that I’m affirming her presence without requiring her to be a different kind of person than she is right now. She herself was bordering on a wild thing. All the old lessons, all the old rules, all the things that she’d learned in school that she taught as a university professor—all of them had basically abandoned her by now. So eventually the storm abated, you could say, and she was kind of gasping for breath and so on. 

And I don’t remember which one of us started to speak first, and I honestly don’t remember what we said, but it was kind of inconsequential. It was almost conversational—strangely conversational, given the storm that we’d both just lived through. And then, about 20 minutes into this almost meaningless conversation, I said to her for the first time, “So how are you doing?” And with no hesitation whatsoever, she said, “Pretty good.” And then we just looked at each other, and I looked at her to say, Do you see? And she looked at me very accusingly. And then she said, “How did you do that?” And I said, Do what? How did you make me say that I’m okay? I said, Obviously, I didn’t make you say anything. I just asked you a question at the right time. You see?  So she learned an enormously important lesson that all people on the receiving end of awe should learn, which is that it’s possible to be okay and to be dying at the same time. It’s not required that you be completely undone in order to slowly soften your attachment and your connection to this world. And what has this got to do with awe? In the way that we were talking about it earlier, to me, I characterized her as a storm cut loose. That’s true.  She was experiencing herself as a force of nature. She was clearly undone by this strength and the magnitude that was raging inside her. It was a combination of fear and terror, dismay and a little bit of sorrow and perplexity, mysterious tremendous, and probably many of the things that your other guests have spoken about apropos of awe. 

But none of these things gave her a sense of well-being. You see, it was completely beyond her until we spoke as normal human beings, not particularly overwhelmed by the storm that had come and now gone. And in that quiet, she observed herself in a different sort of fashion. I think this is what awe gives us a chance to do as human beings: experience our place in this world and our habits, our feeling habits in particular, and our habits of perception and the eye. We can experience them in ways that we’re unaccustomed to because those extreme moments and those extreme experiences ask something of us that regularly scheduled programming doesn’t seem to ask. 

Shai Tubali: This story has left me somewhat speechless. Yes, because it’s been very engaging. So when you’re talking about this differentiation between a hostile or indifferent source of all, this reminds me a little, if I may bring this to the conversation of Albert Camu’s description of the universe, because he wrote that the universe is not hostile to humans but actually simply indifferent. He spoke of the silent universe. So I’m wondering if this is what you mean to a certain degree—this kind of silence of something that is incomprehensible or inconceivable—and that we somehow need to come to terms with this kind of silence or be silent ourselves. 

Stephen Jenkinson: Right.  I’m certainly not characterizing what I’m describing here as silent. I would say that people who do translate what we’ve been talking about have a kind of eerie silence, a kind of vaguely indifferently hostile or hostilely indifferent silence. These are people who want to hear their name come back from the world. They want the world to echo them. Probably that’s where the notion of silence comes from. In actual fact, there’s a lot of sound; it seems to me there’s a lot of presence, which has a lot of, and I don’t mean literally sound that you can hear in your ear, but there’s impact in the sense of sound waves. There’s an impact on the body that’s a consequence of, I mean, I was just in Cleveland, Ohio, it seems, four or five days ago, and an immense storm was blowing in just as we landed. 

And the sky was that kind of combination of gray and green, which means something really severe is very close by. And it lingered and flashed at a distance, but you could clearly see everything happening. And it kept a distance, and it changed the ozone in the air, the relative humidity, all of these things. And they manifested themselves around you in the swirls in the trees. And it wasn’t a prevailing wind. It was a wind that you could call either chaotic or ecstatic, depending on how you felt about it. I suppose it was a wonder to see it blow in, and it tore the roof off a church very close by. And it had real consequences. It set off those sirens at the edge of town that warn of heavy incoming missiles and all that kind of stuff. So it was the real thing. That’s the kind of notion that I’m describing here. It’s not always catastrophic, but it seems to be, almost without exception, consequential. And some of the consequences register with us, but maybe not most of them. 

Shai Tubali: Yes, I think I’m now starting to comprehend the depth of your transmission here. Essentially, it all lies in where you are not, or that which is not your domain in this sense. 

Stephen Jenkinson: Yeah.  We are guests in an awful house. Correct. 

Shai Tubali: Now, is there any chance—any possibility—that one could enter a sort of communion with this kind of awe? Is there any access to this in our human experience? 

Stephen Jenkinson: I think so. And this warrants another story. Now, this is as awful a story as I can manage. at least as awful as the one I just told you. So the preamble to the first story would be that these dying people were routinely trying to feel better, right? As you’d expect, And they routinely expected that anybody who came to them had to work toward the goal of making them feel better. But they’re dying anyway. The only way they can feel better is to forget about dying for a while. Which is not really feeling better, is it? It’s feeling less. 

And so I realized my responsibility to them was to oblige them to feel more, not better, but simply to expand the repertoire of possibilities so that things weren’t narrowly either good or bad or right or wrong or left or right or dull or bright. You understand what I mean? So this story is from my own childhood and carries very much the same kind of numinous, eye-widening power. It took place on Christmas Eve. If Christmas was not part of your childhood, the story is not going to mean much, but for those who did, they’ll recognize something. So, of course, you don’t know this, but your parents are down below. In my case, we had a two-story house that we lived in. 

So they were on the ground floor, and they were obviously putting together some kind of Christmas-related paraphernalia, gifts, or whatever they were doing. But on pain of severe consequence, they were never allowed to come downstairs until they were beckoned to do so in the full glow of Christmas morning. See.  So it could happen, and it did happen to me. And I’m going to guess I was about five; I couldn’t sleep, and I was completely attuned to the marvel and the wonder that was unfolding down below, silently but without question, magically. But I was also aware that I had this biblical injunction not to go downstairs, you see. So I was sitting at the top of the stairs, and I experienced a sense of excitement, or, I don’t know what else to call it, awe. As a five-year-old, that was so intense, so indwelling, and so consequential that I thought that my rib cage was going to break apart because of the sheer marvel of the whole thing. I could barely contain it. So you see, it’s very similar, even though it seems much less consequential than the storm that tears the roof off a building. But I think you understand what I mean when we’re talking about the human-scale encounter with awe. I think it’s very recognizable to a five-year-old in the presence of something that’s so big, so vast, and so portentious. And his job is to not intrude until the appointed hour. Absolutely.  It remains a marvelous memory, and I’m very lucky to have had it and proud to be able to remember it. 

Shai Tubali: So would you say that your life work takes place on the threshold of all? From what I’m gathering in this conversation, death is one component, one ingredient, of this ungraspable, uncapturable presence. 

Stephen Jenkinson: Indeed.  I mean, you’ve said it very well. I didn’t know there was such a thing as the death trade when I was in my twentys and thirtys, as naive as that might sound. But genuinely, I wasn’t aware of it, and I had no desire to get into it either. So it happened completely by accident, and I kind of backed in. And when I was there, I began to have these encounters, which were almost routine. They were so frequent of people who were beyond speech, not because of some physical or pathological development, but because nothing in their ordinary lives enabled them to encounter or engage with the realities of dying at the ordinary level. Everything was hypersonic, if you will. Everything was extreme. And they couldn’t find a language where they could engage with the realities of dying. 


So I began to realize that was my job. My job was to find a language where the undomesticated, unhoused, broken awe of death was available to them in my manner of speaking to them. I didn’t always speak about what I just said to you, but I always spoke to them as if that were so. And I’ll give you an example of why this became so important. So I’m driving to meet the next patient, and I’m talking to his wife on the telephone. I’m just making sure they’re still there, they know we have an appointment, and so on. 

She says, “My son, they only had one child.” He was about 15 or 14. I said I’d kept him home from school so he could meet you. He’s really looking forward to meeting you. Well, that was the first. How should I call this? I don’t want to call it a lie because she meant well, but it wasn’t true. I knew it wasn’t true at the time. No 14-year-old who’s got his father dying upstairs is looking forward to meeting a strange man, period. Right?  It’s not an object of curiosity. Okay?  So I said, Okay, I understand. She said, Oh, and by the way, she said, When you’re here, don’t use the D word. Quote.  That’s what she said. And I actually looked at the telephone. I couldn’t believe someone had actually explicitly said such a thing, though it was always there in most houses in most people’s lives. Not using the D word constituted compassion for most people. I considered it malpractice myself. And so I said, Don’t use the D word just to make sure I’d heard right. And she thought I was agreeing with her. She said, Yeah, that’s right. very casually like that. And I said to her, Didn’t you just tell me that your son, when he comes home from school, comes into his dying father and tells his dying father about his day? Yes.  She said he does that. And didn’t you tell me that before he goes to school in the morning, he comes into his room and lays down in the bed beside him and talks to him or doesn’t talk to him, whatever they do? You told me that too. She said yes. I said, Well, if I don’t use the D word, then what secret am I helping you keep? And I’m asking that question to see if the people are listening. Now, if we withhold these radioactive words, if we draw back from the edge of awe in the name of being compassionate or in the name of being obscuring, which to me is virtually the same thing, then I wonder if we’re leaving the important job of truth-telling to the symptoms instead of to each other. No.  So I think finding a language that does justice to awe is something you hear me trying to do here since you and I first said hello. I’m not using one word, one synonym, and saying that’s what it is. I’m trying to find a way of speaking where the consequences of awe become available but not manageable, somehow detectable, or somehow touchable. Yeah. 

Shai Tubali: Yes.  I have this growing feeling that we are on the brink of awe. It is here, palpable, not nameable, but still more present than anything else, actually. And I think that what’s so unusual and so welcome in this type of conversation is that you’re speaking about awe as a direct outcome of encountering reality as it is with all its overwhelming difficulty and with these parts of life that we are trying to negate, which are the parts of life of which we have absolutely no. 

Stephen Jenkinson: Indeed.  You know, I’m speaking to you from my farm here in the Ottawa Valley in eastern Ontario, and if I were to take a pinch of dirt from outside and hold it in the palm of my hand and hold it up to you, I wouldn’t tell you what it was. I just asked you, What is this in my hand? And I don’t know you, of course, so I’m just guessing. The possibilities are that you may answer from a scientific point of view, decayed vegetable matter, or something of this kind. You may answer from a New Age point of view: Oh, it’s potential, it’s life force, you know, this kind of stuff or other things in between. But of course, almost nobody says what it actually is when I ask this question. And what it is is death. It doesn’t represent death; it doesn’t symbolize death. It is death. I’m not saying it’s dead; I’m saying it’s death. It’s a different order of understanding. No.  And everything that’s alive that’s outside this window has its roots in what? Life, which is what we would be prompted to say in a moment like this, The answer is no. No.  Life is rooted in life; that’s cannibalism; life is rooted in death. No death, no sustenance, period. That is amazing, isn’t it? in the sense that we’re talking about it now. It’s so enormous, and it’s so ordinary at the same time. It’s not a spectacle, but it is a covenant, if you will, between those conscious of being alive and life. A kind of covenant that says, You get to do this for now; don’t wait. Soon enough, you won’t, period. Any questions?  That’s it.  It’s kind of that simple. And I started by talking about storms, but maybe I put too much emphasis on the kind of thunder and lightning. What we’re really talking about here, I think, is something that overwhelms our capacity for indignation, boredom, and self-importance. That’s not a bad combination. If those three things can be overwhelmed once a week, that’s a pretty good combination. And you’d be awestruck if that happened. 

Shai Tubali: So if one removes this type of death phobia you’re speaking about, is that then a source of new life or new consciousness that enables us to experience the other side of awe, which is marvel, which is astonishment, or which is appreciation of life’s beauty? 

Stephen Jenkinson: Yes, absolutely.  The question answers itself very well, but I’ll add something to it and say that, without endings, there’s no living. There’s a strange irony to the arrangement. without frailties, endings, and limits. are a kind of boundless, ungathered something, a kind of strange vapor of potential that the world doesn’t seem to benefit from. So here’s a word that hasn’t come up between us yet that maybe belongs in this conversation, maybe right about now, and it’s the word amen. How does it work? I mean, it’s not clear that you can even translate Amen. What does it mean? The answer is that it doesn’t really mean anything. It does something. Amen is a kind of event that is not all affirmation, as it turns out. I think it’s made of two parts: the word amen, and it’s an awful thing. And it goes like this: The first part of amen means something like, I have no idea, or I did, but I don’t anymore. Or I’m trying to reestablish my understanding of things. It’s not working. Or this thing is so vast and so uncharted, and despite Google Maps and everything else, I just don’t get it. It’s bigger than my capacity to be big, et cetera. And all the things we’ve said—that’s the first half of amen, and without that, the second half doesn’t mean anything. The second half would be something like, “I’m in.” That’s the affirmation I’m in. I remain a citizen of such a place and such a time. I more or less willingly stumble towards something that I don’t really know. That’s what Amen means to me. And that’s a one-word symphony of an awestruck person, I think. Amen. 

Shai Tubali: Thank you for this. I think we’ll leave our viewers and listeners with this kind of silent and realistic prayer, a recognition of reality as it is. Stephen, this has been one of the most eye-opening conversations I’ve ever had. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this. 

Stephen Jenkinson: Thank you.  Amen, brother.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Let’s experience together

1000 reasons for feeling awe one by one.

Join our monthly awe-letter now!