As a birth doula, it is impossible for me to view my understanding and thoughts around death without the lens of birth. The similarities I find soothe me. My contribution to this topic is rooted in 2 very personal and formative experiences of first death, and then birth in my own life.
What if we were to take everything we think we know about Birth and and everything we think we know about Death and flip it? Imagine preparing for the somber affair of bringing a child into this world. The quiet hush that would give space and contemplation to childbirth. The recognition that something is lost as a woman enters the sacred void that precedes birth and results in the entirely new realm of motherhood. The time given to mourn and grieve this loss before truly stepping into your new world as mother. Death, by contrast would be a congratulatory affair. A refined, honorable state that one aspires to before ultimately leaving this plane and entering the great beyond. The time, energy and excited preparation currently reserved for preparing for birth would instead be spent planning for death with careful consideration for the many layers and players involved. And once death transpires with delight, dignity and honor - outpourings of congratulations and support would flood in.
Could we not dance with death and bow to birth?
This idea of celebrating death comes from my experience witnessing my uncle Roger dying when I was 24 years old. He was an independent spirit, never married and always seemed to flash in and out of our family. Always the life of the party, it was hard somehow to ever really know him. In his early sixties, he was diagnosed with liver cancer that had already metastasized to his stomach and kidneys. We think he knew he was sick long before informing us. This was shocking and tragic for all of us - but what was most striking was the incredible transformation of spirit that began to unfold. I would get phone calls out of the blue from him, just calling to ask how I was doing. I don’t think he had ever called me or any of my siblings before in his life. He became present, open, vulnerable. It was clear from the outset that he would receive hospice care at home. My aunt was able to provide consistent care and so we all began to make regular visits to just be with him. When the end was near, we all held vigil. He would go in and out of lucidity, regaling us with the most fantastic images of his dying dreams. He was so small and frail and yet clear and strong in his purposeful process of dying. In essence, he showed us how it was done and we showed up to witness, support and allow it. As difficult and sad as it was, when the final moments came, I was overcome with the need to crawl right next to him in bed and hold him as he passed. It was an instinctive act, not a cerebral one. And I treasure that moment and my uncle for showing all of us how to die. He showed us the power of vulnerability and we responded with compassion and connection that made the genuine celebration of his life and persona a natural act. His infectious humor and personality are immortalized into our family story.
Thie idea of birth as a somber affair is the result of my own initiation into birth, which undoubtedly set the stage for my professional path towards birth work. And by somber, I don’t mean depressing or negative (which some births can surely be) - but more the essential acknowledgement that there is a sense of profound loss and change, especially for the birthing mother. We are so fixated on what gets lost when we die, and what we ‘gain’ when we birth our babies - but on both accounts, there is more to the story.
Birth and Death are, in their essence, transformational events, an energetic shift from one state to another. There is beauty in both, but also loss. The act of becoming, requires leaving something behind. And while this may be obvious as we contemplate the reality of dying, it is less obvious when we consider the journey into motherhood.
My first birth was, without a doubt, the most intense experience of my life. I was hell bent on staying home (driven mostly by my fear of hospitals than by a vision of candles and incense) and, thankfully, my husband was willing to move from his initial hesitation towards a fully informed advocate for home birth. We were a team and for me, this was essential. Nothing can actually prepare you for the physiological reality of birth - though I admit to having done an insane amount of preparation the more I sank into my pregnant state. Regular prenatal yoga, swimming 3 times a week, acupuncture, reflexology as well as a deep emotional purge of long held fears and limiting beliefs. I have no doubt that this preparation contributed towards my unusually short birth (6.5 hours) - as well as to my ability to sink into and allow this unfathomably difficult physical act to play out.
My waters burst open at 1:30am, sending me flying out of bed and immediately into regular contractions happening every 5 minutes. After 3 hours of intense but almost pleasant sensations, made totally manageable with deep breathing and rhythmic swaying on my birthing ball, everything shifted when at 4cm dilated I had the irresistible urge to push - a sign that baby may be posterior or ‘sunny side up’ - without a doubt, one of the more painful ways to experience labor. When I got into the birthing pool I remember the sweet relief as the warm water instantly relaxed my tense muscles, allowing me to actually feel normal and ok between contractions. Then the full force and effect of each contraction took me to another realm of existence. I remember moments of feeling savage as I moaned and roared. Each urge to push was met with the most unintuitive arching backwards of my whole body as it can be dangerous to push against a cervix that has not fully dilated. My midwife made it clear that I could do this, but also that I really needed to NOT push. For an hour, I did the impossible. Without the water to hold me with tiny morsel sized moments of relief between my flailing around in the most awkward manner imaginable - there is simply no way I would have been able to endure. All of my training to breathe and release into the sensations flew out the window as I growled and yelled and saw the look of astonishment in my husbands eyes. He simply could not believe what he was witnessing. Miraculously, an hour later, I was 7 cm and soon after my midwives allowed me to start pushing. 30 minutes later, my baby emerged (sideways with his hand by his face) sputtering, eyes wide open as he lay on my chest staring straight into our eyes. A transcendent moment of arrival for all of us. I was flying high with the amazement of what I had actually done. Relief that it actually ended. Shock that it was only 8 in the morning.
None of us would ever be the same again.
I had lost a lot of blood, almost fainted as I emerged from the water and will never forget seeing my baby lying naked on my husband’s bare chest, wondering if I was going to be ok. As I ate the most delicious toast and yogurt I had ever tasted, I felt my life slowly return to my body. My midwives sent a blood sample to the lab to confirm I was not in need of a blood transfusion - and stayed with me until the results came back. I was ok.
I felt war torn on cloud nine. I had flashback images and sounds from what my body and voice had endured in a matter of 6 hours. I was in shock. I was no longer pregnant. I had a baby. And I needed to feed that baby and somehow know what to do and cope, hour after hour, when all I really wanted was curl up in my bed and sleep for a century. As the weeks went on, I felt this odd mix of utter euphoria and connection to this incredible being that emerged from my body - where did he come from? was he really mine? - along side deep feelings of sadness and changes that were happening without my consent. The center of gravity of my entire being had shifted and now all things ‘me’ now existed only in relation to all things ‘baby’. The unrelenting reality of breastfeeding overwhelmed me. What happened to ‘me’? How did I fit into this new arrangement?
It took me at least a year to fully integrate this experience, not just of my birth, but of what it meant to be the ‘mother.’ I needed this year to mourn the loss of a self that would never return. I watched my husband return to work and much of the life he had before, while my life was utterly unrecognizable to me. I was angry at times as how much more of the care taking and mothering fell on my shoulders when what I wanted and truly thought possible was an equal partnership. Indeed, all I understood to be true about feminism and gender equality evaporated the minute I became a mom.
No one had spoken to me prenatally about this sense of loss, anger, confusion, overwhelm.
When I spoke to my friends who had also become mothers, I knew I was not alone. I watched as a dear friend plummeted into the depths of postpartum depression. I heard other stories of women not actually liking their babies - and the heavy guilt of even admitting this to anyone.
I can now see that my birth experience truly blew me wide open. And the process of looking at my disparate parts floating around me, and then slowly, consciously choosing where and how to start mending and reintegrating myself was an incredibly meaningful process. But the loss and sadness and overwhelm that I experienced are as important and real as the moments of joy and euphoria that accompany becoming a mother, creating a family.
3 years later, my second home birth was an entirely different story. Indeed, I was not the same woman as I ferociously and confidently roared my baby out in 2 hours. Of course it helps that my body had done this before and that this baby remained in a favorable position! After this less traumatic and far more transcendent experience, I re-emerged knowing that this was to be my work: birth as a powerful act of conscious transformation - where being and becoming collide and change and loss are accepted and honored as essential to growth - not just of ourselves, but of our families and communities as well.
I believe our current cultural climate in which both birth and death have become medicalized has ultimately led to the disempowered and disconnected patient, isolated from a deep cultural web of understanding and acceptance. How many of us have actually witnessed death and birth? Two of the most profoundly normal, inevitable human events! The long term consequence of this is the continued disconnect and fear people experience at both ends of their existence. Birth and death as terrifying cataclysmic events in which so much can go wrong rather then life changing experiences that offer profound moments of growth and transformation.
So when I consider how we can enrich our larger, cultural experience of both birth and death - I conclude that we expand the notion of each rite of passage as more than simply “I am sorry for you loss’ and ‘congratulations on your new baby’ - but rather enrich the experience of birth to include space for loss, contemplation sadness and renewal. And to stretch our sadness and fear around death to certainly allow and acknowledge loss but not without the possibility of also dancing with delight.
I reflect back now at my uncle Rogers death and often think that that was the beginning of my own instinct to move towards suffering and loss and bear witness to the transformation in progress. That there is more to the story than what is being lost or born. That this is where the gold is found.