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The Unknown Companion

JanieBrownby Janie Brown, RN, MSN, MA (Psych.) Executive Director Callanish Society, Clinical Nurse Specialist: Oncology


“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:


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Janie Brown is the Executive Director of the Callanish Society, a nonprofit organization she co-founded in 1995 for people who are irrevocably changed by cancer, and who want to heal, whether it be into life, or death. She is currently working on her first book.




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