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Reflections on the Roles of Angels

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By Alyce Barry

Usually when I write an essay, I like to think I can offer more answers than questions.

That probably won't be the case with this one.

I'm not sure when I began to think that this period of my life might be my time to play an angel. It may have been when my friend Susan DeGenring gave me an angel as a parting gift. I was leaving Colorado to move back to Illinois to take care of my elderly mother. Both because Mom is a difficult person to care for, and because my siblings were so thrilled that I was willing to assume the role of caregiver, the role seemed angelic.

As you know if you've read Practically Shameless, I had an opportunity to play an angel in September 1995, at the first Shadow Work® weekend I attended. At a time in my life when my self-esteem was at an all-time low, it really changed something for me to think that I was capable of playing the role of angel.

I'm glad to say that I have more self-esteem these days, so the role of angel is no longer such a mental stretch. To tell you the truth, I'm enjoying the heck out of this role most of the time, though it certainly has its challenges.

Playing angel full-time, however, is raising some questions for me about the role of angel.

Specifically, it has raised questions about an angel's shadow.


One shadow of an angel is a role I call the angel of death. But let me explain what I mean by that, because I think it can mean two very different things.

Dr. Joseph Mengele was called the angel at death at Auschwitz. He separated those who would live from those who would die in the gas chambers. If I were to give this role a line to speak, it would be, "I choose whether you live or die. What you want doesn't matter; I know what is best."

There's another role that I would also call an angel of death, but it says something very different. It says, "I hear that you want to let go of this life, and I will help you if I can."

CHRIS: Acceptance.

MRS. GOFORTH: What of?

CHRIS: Oh, many things, everything, nearly. Such as how to live and to die in a way that's more dignified than most of us know how to do it. And of how not to be frightened of not knowing what isn't meant to be known, acceptance of not knowing anything but the moment of still existing, until we stop existing—and acceptance of that moment, too.

. . .
MRS. GOFORTH: You are what they call you!

— from The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Any More by Tennessee Williams


My mother has suffered a good deal from depression in recent years, and in the past two years she has been through some very rough times. Although she's doing better mentally now than she has in a while, she believes she has little to look forward to. So I believe I'm being compassionate, rather than cold-hearted, when I say that I wish that she could let go of a life that is more painful than happy, and pass on to whatever is next.

My mother has an older sister, my Aunt Ginny, who turned 97 recently. Whenever I say to my mother that she might live as long as Aunt Ginny has lived, Mom starts crying. She sees her life as an infinite chain of days full of unhappiness. She has said numerous times that she envies those loved ones who have gone because they are no longer suffering. When we talk about death, however, she expresses a lot of fear.

What I hear is that a part of Mom really wants to leave this life but is afraid to do so.

If as my mother's caregiver, I'm her facilitator as well, it's my job to listen carefully to hear what she wants.

In every Shadow Work® process, the facilitator asks the person working, "What would you like to have happen?"

If I were able to separate out the Mom that starts crying to think she might live as long as Aunt Ginny, that part of her might say, "I want to die now, please."

If I'm playing the role of angel of death, I am acting like a facilitator who is facilitating that part of her who says that dying is what she would like to have happen.

But if I asked Mom today if she wanted to die, I might hear from another part of her that would answer, "No, I don't want to die, I'm afraid." If I'm her facilitator, it is my job to help her determine something else that she wants instead of dying and to help her get it.

So, in which way do I facilitate, if I'm correct in believing that I'm facilitating at all? Which part of her is stepping out onto the carpet? Perhaps each of these parts of her, in turn? And I facilitate based on what I'm hearing from her in the moment?


I find myself judging that it's her job to let go. That judgment seems to be based on a belief that letting go is what someone does at her time of life. But I have no doubt that I will find it difficult to let go of life when the time comes for me to do so.

Helping someone let go of something painful is a role every Shadow Work® facilitator plays, particularly when leading a Tombstone process, which helps somebody let go of anything they're holding as a way of loving somebody.

In another sense, every Shadow Work® process helps a person let go of something, whether it's a way of being that is no longer working well, or a fear of asking that life be different, or an emotion that's been trapped inside the body that can be released through the process.

So I ask myself, Why is it any more her job to let go of life than it is my job to let go of life? Because she is frail and in declining health? Perhaps there is something else in line for her.

So, where I come to is this: It is just as much my job to let go of life as it is hers, by which I mean, it is her job, and my job, to surrender to what is next.


Alyce Barry is a Certified Shadow Work® Group Facilitator and Coach in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. She is the author of Practically Shameless, which has been on's Bestseller list of books about Jungian psychology for more than a year. The book is available in paperback and on audio CD. Read more about Alyce.

This article originally appeared in our free email newsletter in November 2009. To subscribe, visit our subscription page.

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