I started working on my first few doula training assignments after Rora went to sleep last night (and after I woke up 2 hours later, after falling asleep nursing her).

One of the first assignments was to write about an experience of someone dying, and look for similarities with the process of birth.  After writing until 2am, I realized that it’s Halloween today!  What a treat, to be exploring death on the day we honor the spirits that have crossed over!

Here’s what I wrote:

I was able to be with my maternal Grandma in the last two days of her life, through her death, and afterwards with my family as we processed the experience.  Being with her as she transitioned out of her body brought me to a deeper awareness of that sacred time between the spirit world and the physical world – and in fact, taught me tangibly that there isn’t such a clear distinction!

She was in a bed provided by hospice, set up in the living room of my aunt’s house.  We tried to make that space quiet and focused, but too often we became chatty and irreverent – and she clearly let us know that it was “TOO MUCH!”.  She didn’t like people casually talking or moving too quickly.  She wanted things done to her slowly, ever slower.  She wanted water, right up to her last hours, after she had refused food and medicine for days.  She wanted sunshine, and fresh air in the room.  Over the last two days, she wanted less and less restricting her body – first the pillows around her had to be a certain way, then no blankets covering her legs, then her shirt needed to be unbuttoned, then it came off altogether.  The oxygen tube around her neck was a constant irritation, and we finally removed it so she could be more comfortable.  She was adamant that she didn’t want anything to prolong her death – “Why is it taking so LONG?”

She often seemed frustrated when we didn’t understand what she was talking about, when she spoke out in the midst of a trance/sleep state.  She was experiencing something that none of the rest of us were experiencing, and we could often only guess at what she meant.  When we “got it”, she was clearly relieved and grateful.  She liked to be sung to, and gently touched.  She didn’t want to be alone.  She wanted to make sure she wasn’t being a burden to any of us, and at the same time, she clearly asked for what she wanted and needed.  “I might never taste carrot juice again if I don’t get some now!” Her social inhibitions mostly evaporated, making clear requests without politeness.  “I’m being myself for the first time.”

The day she died, the energetic shift in the hours beforehand was tangible to all of us on some level, though I don’t know how consciously.  We didn’t know she was going to die that day, but we all made significant changes that, looking back, indicated some awareness that everything was changing.  We spoke more softly, moved cellphones out of the room, and cleared the bedside clutter that had accumulated, replacing it with a few photographs and flowers.  We hung a blue curtain in the window, to soften the light.  Two of my aunts spent the day finding peace with each other, and were honoring each other over my grandma’s body when she took her last breath.

In the moments immediately after her heart stopped beating, we gathered in the room and celebrated her transition.  One aunt yelled “Hallelujah!” in a loving mimic of my faith-filled grandma.  I felt her spirit throughout the room, filling the space in a slow expansion.  I felt her on my body, in my body, and growing to encompass and permeate the whole house, then the city and the mountains and the globe and the stars and eventually the Whole Universe.  As I felt her spirit, I felt a taste of that Wholeness, an awareness that the only difference between the physical world and the spirit world is a perceived experience of the limitations of space and time.

I see clear parallels between death and birth after being with Grandma through her journey: the absolute need for sacred space, the slowing of time, the need for us to let her do and be and say whatever she needed and wanted to.  We were there to serve her, to honor her, and to witness her journey.  We responded to her requests and tried to intuit what she might want, but never forced her to do something that we thought she should do.  I guess the big difference between birth and death is that once you know someone is dying, there’s no need to fear death, or work to prevent it.  With birth, there remains the possibility (and thus the fear?) that the mother or baby could die, so we walk the balance between pursuing life and accepting death… while with someone ready to die, it’s just about surrender.

But then again, maybe birth is a different kind of surrender — surrendering to life.

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