The Talisman: Discovering Death Rituals as a Doula

Although definitions vary slightly, the term “talisman,” from telesma (Greek) and tilsam (Arabic), is often defined as a physical object imbued with powers to repel negative forces or attract positive energy. There is evidence from as far back as 25,000 BC that prehistoric peoples readily used these symbols of protection, and they were very common in ancient Egypt—especially in the form of scarab beetle amulets worn by the living and dead alike.

Across time, cultures, and religions, people have utilized versions of talismans as a physical representation of strongly held hopes, beliefs, or prayers. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon the term in my death studies that I realized I had been unknowingly embracing this practice too.

Almost twenty years ago, I faced my first major loss. My dear Aunt Nancy and I had always been close. She was my neighbor growing up and she loved me fiercely. Watching pancreatic cancer steal her away was devastating. Before what would turn out to be our last visit, I felt the need to bring something. I wasn’t quite sure why or what it needed to be, but it felt essential. So, I tuned in and scanned my belongings.

It didn’t take long to find it. The small, super soft stuffed bear she had mailed to me as an “I’m thinking of you” present was perfect. Next, I felt another equally compelling urge to write a final note to my aunt, so I could express the love and appreciation I didn’t want to go unsaid. I rolled up the piece of paper and tucked it behind the bear’s clasped hands.

When I arrived at the hospital, my aunt was in and out of awareness. She was able to converse on occasion, but mostly, she slept. Later that night, I asked my uncle and cousins if they’d allow me a few moments alone with Aunt Nancy. They obliged.

What a gift that turned out to be. I was able to curl up close, read my note aloud, and then tuck the bear in my aunt’s arms for the remaining hours of her life, knowing I was leaving behind a physical manifestation of my caring presence. My cousin returned the bear to me a few days later and it sits on my memento mori bookshelf today.

The next time I created a talisman of sorts was when my father-in-law was dying. When we learned time was short, I again experienced a pressing needing to have something on hand for the impending transition. I found a blank wooden ornament in our craft bin. On it, I affixed photos of my kids, inspiring words, and the Confucious quote: Wherever you go, go with all your heart. It was close by as he navigated his end of days. And now it, too, resides on my bookshelf.

After my paternal grandfather had a major heart attack, I immediately began preparing for what would be our last goodbye. Before leaving, I grabbed my amethyst angel figurine (a gift from a special aunt-in-law) not knowing if it was for my safe travels, his impending departure, or perhaps both. Smooth and cool to the touch, it fit perfectly in a closed hand. I drove with it in mine, filling it up with loving wishes, and left it on my grandfather’s chest for his final few hours.

During the time span between his death and funerary services, my grandmother kept that talisman close, even walking around with it at night, my Uncle Dale told me. I let Gram know she could keep it if she wanted. In the end, she decided to bury my grandfather with it, which gave me a measure of peace because it had brought her comfort during such a difficult time.

Without realizing it, I had been incorporating a variation of an ancient, timeless ritual during major life thresholds. I wondered, did it arise from imprints on my soul or from within in my DNA? Is it “human nature” to want to do something with intense emotion? To want to house it in something? To want to hold it and share it with others?

It turns out, death is not the only suitable realm for a sacred talisman. For example, when my kids were young and I had to travel without them, they would ask me to bring a “stuffy” along for the journey. I would take photos featuring the stuffed toy and share stories about our adventures. It was mostly silly and sweet, but in a way, I’m sure those inanimate objects served as talismans, as they were filled with my kids’ love and concern for my safe return.

My most recent experience with a talisman was just this past week. I learned my Uncle Doug, who has lived with a chronic condition for many decades, was facing serious health issues. The urge to create bubbled up once again. As I thought about what might be meaningful, I recalled a “thank you” gift I had made for this uncle when I was young. Back then, he had a routine of giving me a lift to the bus stop each morning while on his way to work. It was a lovely, quick two-minute connection. To acknowledge it, I had decorated a plain white shirt for him back then with messages of gratitude.

I figured, why not recreate that same gift as a nod to a wonderful memory and as a way to wrap him up in love now. I asked my kids to help, and we worked on it together, infusing well wishes from three hearts and sets of hands instead of just one. My aunt reported the shirt brought a smile and some tears—good medicine in their own right.

What, then, turns a mere thing into something special? Into a talisman? Likely, intent is the main ingredient.

You create your reality with your intentions. -Gary Zuka

Are you interested in this practice? Start by selecting or making an item that resonates with your desired effect—basically, something that feels right to you. Then, “charge” it with focused attention on a particular outcome, whether it’s peace, protection, ease, wellbeing, good fortune, or another earnest hope. Finally, carry or share it, reminding yourself of all it contains.

Have you discovered or developed rituals that support you through times of hardship?

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