How death informs Birth Support
WHY I became a doula is not the same reason as why I CONTINUE to be a doula. I used to fancy myself a “birth junkie”. Now, that term sounds so creepy-conjuring up images of a woman who can’t stop twitching until she gets a whiff of amniotic fluid. Eeeewww.
Here are two stories; very different. Very much the same. They may help explain why this work is so important to me and why I stay in it.
A little over a year ago, my father passed away. On April 7th, 2017, he breathed his last breath. It happened at about 3pm on a Friday afternoon. The weather was grey and cold with freezing rain blowing off and on all day. The world felt sombre and sad. Driving to my sister’s house that morning, where he lay dying, I knew we were on the verge of something huge. I knew what was coming but the magnitude of it was still just hovering over us, not yet here. The swell of tears and grief were being held back, for now, by practicalities- appointments with doctors, nurses and pharmacists - all the things that had been occupying our lives over the past few weeks.
Later that day, as his breath became more and more halting, I sat on one side of him, close to his head. My brother on the other side of him. My mom was sitting at his middle. My sister on the other side. We all had our hands on him. That downstairs bedroom was dim and quiet. Upstairs, in the house, there were grandchildren, nieces and nephews, brother and sister in laws and clergy from my mother’s church. There had been songs and prayers, memories shared and even some laughter. That morning, my father had been semi-conscious, not able to speak but we were sure he was present enough to know - to feel, the absolute love and support he was surrounded by as he prepared to transition to the after life. Technology allowed us to have him see and hear his beloved sister in Jamaica, my brother in Florida, his grandson in China all tell him for the last time, how much he was loved. Those of us at his bedside saw when the last minutes came. We hugged and kissed him. We stroked his hair. We assured him we would all be ok, and we encouraged him to go. And he went.
In the days that followed, everyone in my large, extended family came and held us up. Friends from near and far reached out and held us up. They kept watch, they witnessed, they fed us, they gave money, they checked in, filling us up with so much love and support. It was the most beautiful death.
A little over 18 years ago, my son entered the world. On Jan 30th, 2000, he breathed his first breath. It happened around 11:15am on a Sunday morning. It was a sunny bright, cold morning. It was Super Bowl Sunday and in my house that was a big deal. Outside, the ground was hard and frozen but there was not much snow about. My older son had some friends who had slept over the night before and were to stay till later to watch the football game. As I made pancakes for breakfast, my contractions started. This being my 5th baby meant I need to get moving ASAP. I had to leave those pancakes half done to tell my husband to 'make the calls'. The 6 teenage boys lounging on my living room floor waiting for pancakes had no idea what was happening. I went to shower and felt the magnitude of what was about to happen. The world felt anticipatory. We were on the verge of something big and although we did not know exactly when it would happen, we knew it was soon. Shortly, my cousin who lived downstairs, came up to help with my daughter (who was only 15months at the time) and my 4-year-old son. My sister and mom then arrived. Two of my aunties and my cousin arrived next. And finally, my beloved midwife arrived. During my contractions, my husband held my body up while I moaned and cried through each contraction. My family chatted, encouraged me and even made some jokes. My midwife was there keeping watch, assuring me that all was well. When it came time to push, I got on the bed. My husband held me up from behind. My mom was on one side, my sister on the other. Their hands were on me as I pushed my son out. As he came in to the world, everyone cheered! We were so glad to see him. We hugged and kissed him and stroked his hair. Everyone hugged and kissed me and stroked my hair.
In the days that followed, everyone in my large, extended family came and held us up. They kept watch (midwives visit a lot!), they fed us, gave us money and other needed items, they checked in, showing so much love and support. It was the most beautiful birth.
We need each other. So much. So desperately. I am deeply grateful to have this built in support in my life - to hold on to and lean on during these major life transitions. But, as much as we all deserve this, we don’t all have it. This is where doula support fits in handily.
After my father’s death, the similarities between what we did for my father as he left the world, what my family did for me, my mother and my siblings and what I do for families in my doula work showed up like a warm revelation.
The primal connections between birth and death are obvious- beginnings and endings, transitions...
But it is the coming together of humans that strikes me. The witnessing, the helping, the ushering in and the ushering out. The mourning and the celebration.
For this, we need those other hands, those extra bodies, those alternative voices.
It is how we have good births, good lives and eventually good deaths.