Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

More on Midwifing Death

When babies are born into the world, expected, they are greeted with great fanfare. There are many people supporting them- doctors and nurses, doulas and midwives, expectant parents and grandparents. Everyone is rooting for them and calling them into the world. Mothers push them out as others coax and pray the newborn into the world. And someone is there with hands to catch them.
This is how we begin. No matter what detour life takes after that first breath, in that last moment we are willed and wanted into the world. That is how we begin. But how do we end? In what manner do we leave the world? There is a growing movement of people who are interested in that very question. There have always been midwives to help babies into the world. What about midwives that help people out of the world?
This is not a new concept. In fact, I think in a world bereft of funeral directors religious leaders, our instinctive bodies would intuitively lead us to tend to the dead and dying. We would see the shadow of death coming, and rather than open the door to fear or denial, we would let time stand still to savor those last days. We would sit vigil and ward off the loneliness in our loved one’s last moments. We would save our grief for when breath had ceased and we would walk with our companions as far as possible- until their journey ends. 
Think about funerals and the purposes they serve. One is to honor the deceased’s life and tend to the disposition of their physical body according to their spiritual or religious beliefs. The other is a model that hopefully facilitates an outlet for the grief of those left behind. They are about the dead, but cannot be for the dead. In cases where there is any measure of forewarning to death’s approach, those last moments could be about what the dying person wanted, or what the dying person needed. And a person who acted as midwife could help oversee that.
As a disclaimer, I’m not talking about assisted suicide, though our cultural views on that would likely change if the way we handled and viewed death did. Most people who are supportive of assisted suicide, are not talking about doctors killing people who decide to die even though they’re healthy. If a person knows they are facing death, and the doctors cannot help them anymore without extreme or invasive measures, why shouldn’t they get to decide how their life will end? Why shouldn’t the dying get to decide what their last moments are like? When their last breath comes?
We welcome newborns into the world. Why shouldn’t we also celebrate the endings, and bid our beloveds a bon voyage? Perhaps that is already happening, beyond our perception and vision? Maybe there are spirits on the other side of this world, known and unknown, encouraging and rooting the dying on, waiting for them as they cross over. I know that while we sat at my Grandpa’s bedside and told him it was all right to let go, my Grandma’s spirit filled the room in the instant that his heart stopped beating. I believe she came to claim him. For my Grandpa, my family and I acted as midwives to him, keeping him company, telling him whatever he needed was okay. Telling him how much we loved him. Not everyone, in that moment of their own grieving, can be that person to the dying. And that’s all right.
Someone who acts as a midwife would help ease the disconnection of the spirit from the dying body. Then, when the person was truly ready to open that door, and embrace the end that comes to us all, they would be free to do so. I don’t have a lot of experience with shepherding living beings to the other side, but I have some hard ones. I sat in the hospital room with my Grandfather when he passed. And he waited until the moment we were turned away to die. I held the faces of both of my beloved pets at the moment of their death. I hold sacred the mystery and truths of their last moments.
When Bella began to struggle, I swallowed my tears and told her it was okay if she was ready to go. Even while we were crying in disbelief, we told her we would be okay, that we would take care of each other. We were her family and acted as her midwives into whatever was to come next. We didn’t know what that was, we just knew her time here was done.
It was the enormity of our love that moved us to let go of our feelings and do what must be done for her. Her peace was greater and more sacred to us than our grief. We felt the spiritual calling to keep her calm and at peace and ease her transition so her last moments would not be fraught with pain. That’s part of what it means to be a midwife, I think. We saw the need and we answered it.
We saw the shadow of death. I know the minute I saw it in each of the three cases I have experienced. There’s a quality of it that some people can see. And we can open that door. It takes faith and trust. And should you ever find yourself staring into the face of death, you will know it. And you will be able to let your loved one go, with all the love and grief in your heart, and you will be able to whisper to them to go. That it’s okay.

We’ll do it, when the need arises, because we have it in us to meet the challenge of it. We’ll do it, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard. Because these passages are what define us, and because love should be the legacy we leave behind. Love and kindness should be the way we both come into and out of the world.


  1. There was a story on NPR Wednesday morning I believe about professional mourners in China. The woman they interviewed said that we come into this world in a big way, when we go out it should be just as big. It was a fascinating story. This blog reminded me of that.

    1. Ooo! I will have to check that out!


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