Grief is a sacred journey

Birthing and Dying: Do They Have Similarities?

With baby David

With baby David

“I didn’t expect it to hurt so much,” I said in a little girl whine. My husband Vic sat next to the hospital bed where he’d been all night. “Oh no, here comes another one.”

“Pant, E. Pant.”

I panted. Although I was twenty-five, I felt like a child overwhelmed by a midnight storm. My job was to get out of the way and surrender. It had seemed possible in the childbirth classes, but I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. Lamaze Painfree Childbirth? Were they kidding?

“Here comes another one,” Vic said. He had one hand cupped on my belly and a stop watch in the other.

“Put that damned watch down,” I growled after I had huffed and puffed through the contraction. “What good does it do?”

“The class said it helps to time contractions.”

The ecstatic papa Vic

The ecstatic papa Vic with one-week-old David

“It doesn’t.”

“OK. I’ll estimate.”

“No, stop counting. Don’t count. Here it comes.”

I panted and tried to let go. He rubbed my back when the contraction subsided. Then he wiped the sweat off my forehead with a cool damp towel.

“This is hard, Vic. I’m tired.”

“I know, E. You didn’t sleep all night, but you’ll be OK.” He hadn’t slept either. He spoke in the voice he would later use to soothe a fussy child.

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At the Continental Divide, 7 months pregnant

Then another contraction. A hard one. I whimpered rather than yelled. I wanted a natural childbirth, but the nurses tried to change my mind. “You don’t have to be a martyr,” they said as they offered sedatives and blocks. In 1970, the local hospitals weren’t interested in undrugged births.

I wasn’t a martyr. I was a determined warrior. I imagined myself climbing a steep mountain. I couldn’t see the top, but I kept going. One more contraction. Then another.

“I wish I could do it for you, E. I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere,” Vic said. I dozed between contractions. I felt safe because he was there.

The last day

Staying and loving him the last day, with Lauren

I remembered those words when he was dying. “I wish I could do it for you.” While he labored for breath, I didn’t sleep. I stayed and witnessed just as he had for me.

Did he feel safe because I held him, whispered love in his ear, read him poems, and oiled his feet? He worked hard, deep inhalations with long periods of quiet. Reverse contractions. I timed the quiet between the breaths. Thirty seconds, forty-five seconds. Is he gone? A long inhalation.

“He’s taking in lots of oxygen in those breaths,” the nurse told me. “It may be a while longer.” We waited. I counted silently. Our younger son Anthony rushed to get there in time.

It felt like a birth, although I wouldn’t be there to catch him on the other side.

Anthony with his sick dad

Anthony with his sick dad

When Anthony arrived, Vic opened his eyes for the first time in two days and blessed his son with a penetrating gaze. Then he stopped gasping and surrendered. Was he being birthed into another realm? Was it like labor? I felt the same holy presence I felt in childbirth. But where was he going? Who would midwife him there?

As he moved toward that final transition, I could only witness and love and pray. I hope staying was enough. It had been for me.

***

What was it like for you to be with someone while they were dying? Or to give birth yourself or attend a birth? Do you think there are similarities? I hope you enjoy this post about deciding to have a baby in 1969: A Call in the Redwoods: My Hippie Intuition. Or this one about our marriage: Language of Love.

40 Comments
  1. Elaine, once again, your grief song is sweet and wise. I love you, dear friend. Gita https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4SqDx1vi4c

  2. Both stories told beautifully, Elaine. Similarities? Birth and death are both part of the cycle of life.

    You gave me a new thought: Last breaths of life are like contractions in reverse. Ah, sweet remembrances which I understand more fully now with the recent death of my mother. Thank you!

    • Dear Marian, I hadn’t thought of “reverse contractions” in those words before writing this piece. It sounds as if your experience with losing your mother was heart-opening and full of grace. And also sad and a little shocking. So many strong emotions come together at this moments–and it takes years to untie the knots and write about what happened. Thanks for your beautiful encouraging comment.

    • Birthing can be the most painful experience on the earth. I know because I delivered my daughter at 02:23 am after my wife was in serious labor for 23 hours. I was at her side holding her hand the whole time, no lunch, water or coffee.
      I had to use calipers because she could not push the baby out on her own.

      By contrast, I have seen people pass in as little as one second with no outward sign of any pain. Other times, it was as painful as the birth I described for a longer period of time.

      There are similarities.

      • Dear Robert,

        Wow, calipers. You are one brave man who must have been trained to use them. My first labor was 36 hard hours. My husband didn’t move an inch. My second nearly four years later was 12 easy hours. He stayed.

        His illness caused periods of deeper suffering than I had ever witnessed or thought a person could or should endure, but his will to live was strong. His death, by contrast, took 2 1/2 days and was peaceful after the decision was made to stop fighting for life. He worked hard for breath, but didn’t seem to be suffering in any other way.

        From my limited perspective, death and birth are as individual as every other human experience, so generalities don’t completely work. I found similarities in what is needed for the person working toward a transition and the deep peace that descended when the transition and hard effort were done. Thanks so much for telling me a little of your experience and for taking the time to comment, Elaine

  3. Gita, So beautifully said.

    Elaine- you’re amazing. Love to you both.

  4. You blended beautiful memories of birth and death in sharing another wonderful post with us. Thank you, Elaine. I have attended several deaths and quite a few births, so I do see the similarities. I believe that both take some surrendering and some faith, and having trusted loved ones close by, makes both journeys easier. You’ve jostled some more sweet and sad memories, as always.

    • I’ve also attended friend’s births, Patti. The similarities are even more obvious when we’re observers and not the ones going through transition. “Women have been going through this since the beginning of time,” I thought as I panted and grunted through labor. “Humans have gone through this since the beginning of time,” I thought as I watched Vic die. And I held on to that thought as I grieved. “People have always grieved. I’ll be OK.” Thanks for your comments and support, Patti.

  5. Your muse is alive and well and living within your soul. This is a lovely piece. I was blessed to be with Bill as he died, curled up around his thin body on the hospital bed we had Hospice bring to our home. I can still feel his last exhalation on my cheek and his last heart beat beneath my hand. I spent several hours there with him after his spirit departed his body but well aware of his presence in the room. Our Golden Retriever and registered therapy dog, Bentley, leaped up on the bed shortly before Bill died and licked Bill’s hands before he curled up on our feet. He also stayed with us. It was sacred and I cherish the gift of being with him.

    • Thank you, Mary. What a beautiful memory of Bill’s last hours. You paint the scene so well. Bentley is one great dog. I don’t know if it’s usual for a dog to accept death in this easy way, but they would be wonderful relaxed companions for such a journey. I’m glad Bentley was with you after Bill’s death. I know he will take whatever comes with as much trust as he did Bill’s.

  6. Elaine, I love the way you connect birthing and dying–both painful, yet spiritual for you–with Vic there for you and you there for Vic.

    My own experience of birthing was awful–no husband present, no understanding of what was happening to me, only the pain–and I was happy to have the epidural.

    • I’m sorry birth was like that for you, Lynne. I know this happens often. In 1970, we had to go to Corning to have our baby because husbands weren’t allowed in the delivery room in the Ithaca hospital. I had lots of support and the birth went fairly smoothly, so I was able to hang on to my convictions. It’s still a hard and exhausting experience. Vic was so exhausted while dying that I knew death was the only way he would get rest. Sometimes it’s the only open door.

  7. Beautifully combined with birth and loss Elaine. I am sure your being with Vic in his final hours gave him comfort for his journey. I have never given birth and I have witnessed more than my share of loved ones and their last breathes. I always pray they are preparing for their journey to heaven with those last unsettling breaths.

    • Thank you, Debby. I pray for rest and release as someone is dying. I don’t know how to name where they are going. With Vic, it felt as if he was moving somewhere with great resolve. In my mother’s case with severe Alzheimer’s, she took a quiet sidestep into death. It seemed her soul had left the body long before. I’m sure the experience is as individual and unique as our births and lives.

      • I think you are right Elaine. My grandmother had Parkinsons for years, and for years it seemed like she was a shell with no soul. But who knows? We do have a soul while we are still on earth and to appear as though we don’t must be a frightening hell to remain living in when you may or may not know who you are inside and certainly don’t recognize the loved ones on the outside.

  8. A lovely post and a lovely thought that those who leave us are emerging through a birth canal to a better place. Reverse contractions. If we are lucky, we also have the equivalent of a doula.

    I will share this essay with someone whose birth-death watch is very recent.

    I enjoyed going back to other posts at the end also. What a good idea to link posts. I may follow your lead.

    • Thank you, Shirley. I hope there is help on both sides since we move in both directions. Thanks for sharing this. Yes, I love using those links and people seem to use them once in a while–like you.
      Voting yes for your sequel.
      Warmly, Elaine

  9. Poignant and beautifully written. Your writing touches the soul, Elaine. ❤

    Birth and dying–they are both transitions, a part of the cycle of life.

    • Thank you, Gisele. I agree with your last line. I love the way transition is used for both experiences.
      Telling me my writing touches the soul opens my heart.
      With gratitude,
      Elaine

  10. Yes, Elaine. I’ve often noted the similarities between birthing and dying. Both are painful transitions into new realities. There is a holiness and reverence to both amid the initial chaotic pain of ‘bringing forth’ and ‘letting go.’ During the home birth of my very large son (12 lbs…I exhibited gestational diabetes that included very large babies)and difficult transition, the presence of my husband Gene was invaluable. While my midwives were fantastic and ready for this extraordinary home birth, it was Gene who kept me calm and centered and who cheered on my inner Warrior. Later, as he was dying of cancer, I did the same for him…holding and talking him into releasing and moving into his new adventure beyond the veil. After his death, I, too, felt like I’d gone through a ‘birth’ canal of sorts…wrung out, wet, and struck by the strange new world in which I found myself. But where did Gene go? I wanted him back. Celebration on the Other Side be damned! I needed him to turn around walk right back through that canal he’d passed through and be whole in our lives on the physical plane again. Of course, I had a dream about this that helped me process those feelings and let go. I will just share the ending of the dream here:

    “…I am following Gene as he walks toward a thick fog bank on the shores of the Gulf-of-Mexico (a body of water we both love). He enters the fog, but I am unable to do so. It is hard like a wall of grey concrete. I pound on this fog wall, to no avail, and drop to the sand, crying inconsolably. After a while, I look up and catch sight of a beautiful Red-Tail Hawk (Gene’s totem), flying up out of the fog and over the Gulf. I know that he’s free. (EOD)

    Thank you for sharing your stories here and in your book, Elaine. I feel such cathartic healing in your words.

    Hugs,

    Jenna

    • How beautiful your words are, Jenna. I love hearing your birth and death stories. I had so many dreams after Vic’s death to help me digest losing him, but I also felt lost in a confusing surreal life. I could celebrate Vic’s death because he was no longer suffering and there was no other path out of suffering, but I was lost. I cooperated with the initiation because I had no choice.
      I’m grateful for dream guidance during that time. When I felt lost, my dreams gave me hope. And I love Red-Tail Hawks. What a powerful image of pounding on unyielding fog. Whew!
      Sending love and support for your writing adventures,
      Elaine

      • You are absolutely right, Elaine. I, too, was ‘lost in a surreal life’ for many months after Gene’s death. If I made it sound like one dream helped me to ‘let go,’of my pain in transition, that was misleading. Grieving often felt like one step forward, two steps back to me in those first few years. The dreams did help, but what an arduous journey…

        Your support is always welcome,

        Jenna

        • Jenna, I assumed your dream was part of a long process of digestion, absorption, and reorientation. For those of us who love dreams, an unforgettable dream image helps see where we are when we feel lost. (And I know you know that.) Some dreams after Vic’s death felt like an oasis in the desert. Sending you love, E

  11. That was powerful.
    Thank you.

  12. I have witnessed many births and deaths as a R.N. and the greatest similarity I feel is that each is part of a sacred journey. At each of those times my faith teaches me that we are birthed into our earthly home and then into our heavenly home. A new dimension each time, a new journey. Your story touched me deeply and reminded me of my godmothers death – as I watched, and waited and stroked her arm as we used to when she took me to church. It was an honor to be with her in the process as all of my other family members died suddenly.

    • Yes, sacred journey. I was so aware of spiritual power in my second childbirth because I wasn’t afraid that time. I’m grateful my husband’s death wasn’t sudden. There were so many times during his illness that he seemed to be ready for a quick exit–and then he would step back from the edge. I knew in his last days that death was the only way out of suffering. I was held in love, even as I was stunned. I’ve been schooled in many traditions, but all I truly know for sure about the after death state is that there is a vast and benevolent Mystery beyond anything I can fathom. Thanks so much for taking the time to respond. I appreciate it.

  13. As for my own feelings, this was your most magical effort. I was riveted and to have this doorway opened deeply into two people I’ve known and watched since way back then is so wonderfully uplifting. You touch in so simple a fashion the deepest feelings common to us all on so mysterious a subject. You are a priestess, my friend. Wear the garb well.

    • Dennis, you make me blush. Thanks for seeing the best in me and reflecting your confidence back my way. And thank you for your help as I prepare for the TEDx talk.

  14. Oh my gosh, Elaine. Somehow I missed this one. Amazing comparing birthing to dying. So powerful the entering and exiting life. I love love love this. cheers!

    • I’m glad you love it, Robin. Glad you found it. It resonates for those of us who have been through both. I can’t fathom what it would be like to birth a child and then midwife that same child in death. You’re the perfect one to write about that.

  15. Dear Elaine, Even though I arrive many years late, I sense the beauty, truth and benevolence held within these words. As a writer, time and time again, you conquer by humility and love. You write from your own courageous heart, and it tells, for this poet’s heart shook as I read, “It felt like a birth, although I wouldn’t be there to catch him on the other side.”

    Thank you so much for sharing these sacred transitions, and their un/expected connectivity. I agree with others, (especially the Priestess bit!) both stories are told beautifully, and that birth and death are more alike than we think. “Contractions in reverse” wow, that’s feels just right! Blessings always, Deborah.

    • Thank you, Deborah. You are always so generous and kind with comments. I don’t think there’s any early or late with this timeless post.

      Meanwhile, I’m reviewing the dreams I had after Vic’s death. I’ve always felt they were initiatory and now I’m trying to understand them from a mythological perspective. I love your phrase, “the un/expected connectivity.” I didn’t expect the connection to be so strong for this long, but it feels very strong as I remember dreams from eight years ago. In last night’s dream, I wore a long white wedding gown (in 1968, I was married in a pale yellow minidress I made for myself). Dream Vic and I held hands with each other and many friends to celebrate our marriage with a circle dance. I told Vic we shouldn’t let politics ruin our wedding day. The inner marriage remains a big theme in my psyche. Wishing you a sweet day. I look forward to reading about the Hierophant.

  16. Oh my Goddess the psyche doesn’t miss a beat does it as you join Vic, your Animus, in a sacred marriage ceremony. In the dream I sense your search for wholeness and the well-lived life … a true circumambulation of the soul! The Tarot’s Fool’s Journey was the first thing that popped into my heart, The Lovers card in particular, as lasting happiness with our other half is most definitely an inside job! Rumi wrote …

    “If you want to hold the beautiful one,
    Hold yourself to yourself.
    When you kiss the Beloved, touch your own lips with your own fingers.
    The beauty of every woman and every man is your own beauty.”

    • I love this poem, Deborah. I googled and found it’s a Coleman Barks translation from a collection called “Maypop.” It’s a perfect poem for the Sacred Marriage as I experience it now. I may use it in a piece I’m writing about the inner marriage. Thank you for sending it. It’s vaguely familiar, but it means so much to me at this moment.

      Here’s to love as an inside job. What a great way to speak of it. Thanks to you (and Rumi) for brightening my day.

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