Frontline: Facing Death

Whew. This was a hard watch. Frontline follows several people in intensive care units near the end of their lives. One storyline is a man named Norman who is suffering from multiple conditions after an organ transplant. His girlfriend says that he's ready to sign a DNR, but he tells his doctors and his sister that he wants all measures taken. In one scene (starting at minute 41:46) the doctors and his family gather to discuss his prognosis. His sister (and healthcare proxy) says, "...I have a question and I would like a straight answer. Is my brother dying? I need a straight answer."  The doctors look at each other and then counter by asking her what she thinks is happening. I know that these conversations are immeasurably difficult but I am so sad that nobody in that scene will answer her simple question.

Is he dying? Yes, he is dying.

Watch the whole thing if you can. Frontline: Facing Death


Ticket to Heaven | The Moth

Breeda Miller shares a wonderful story in this episode of The Moth Podcast. This one really resonated with me because I take care of a lovely lady with Alzheimer's, and I cared for her husband before he died from Parkinson's. Being with him in his last days was such a gift for me. I'd never experienced the events that I'm told are common among the dying- gazing past you to the ceiling, restlessness about taking a trip, talking about long-departed family members. In his lucid moments, when I asked him how he was feeling, he would say he wasn't sure if he should stay here or go. Another time, his eyes popped open and he asked, clear as a bell, "Which way is the border?" 

Here, Breeda tells the story of her mom's final days. Take a few minutes and listen.




What does it mean to be a death midwife?

I've been impressed by Cassandra Yonder ever since I started reading about death midwives. She has a great video about the term "death midwife" that is worth watching. In this article, she expresses exactly how I view this work and why I lean toward the use of death midwife as a descriptor.

The ability to witness what is, recognizing the centrality of those who are living and dying their own authentic experience without directing or manipulating in order to forward one’s own agenda is what is meant by midwifery to me, and birth midwives seem to understand that in a deeper way than others do. Death midwifery is not about claiming a set of professional skills as much as validating the ways in which we serve our families and communities as we empower one another to remember what it is to re-inhabit the deathbed, as well as the bedside, of those among us who are dying, those who have died, and those who are bereaved.(emphasis mine)

Recently, I spoke with a birth midwife who said that midwives don't "deliver" babies so much as "catch" them.  It reminded me of Cindy Crawford's description* of labor in "The Business of Being Born 2"  bonus episode "Special Deliveries". She expresses appreciation for how her midwife steps back at a point in labor when Cindy felt she needed to be by herself. She needed to face her fear- no one else could labor for her- and push through it.  She would "deliver" the baby for herself. Her midwife would be there to offer support and guidance, but the work of childbirth was Cindy's alone.

Samuel Beckett wrote:

"...perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on." (emphasis mine)

You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.  I can't have this baby - that baby is coming ready or not. I can't live without my beloved - time keeps passing just the same. I can't face dying - the end comes anyway.

I love death midwifery framed in this way.  For me, being a death midwife is about holding space for people to do the work of dying. By the work of dying I mean preparing to meet the end through reflection, confronting fears about death, saying what needs to be said to loved ones, etc. The work of dying is different for everyone.  At the core, I see my role as simply being present with death; listening without judgement, accepting without prejudice, bearing witness without flinching.  I can't do the work for you. All I can do is be there while you do it.

*I watched this video years ago so pardon me if I'm fuzzy on the details. I looked for a clip but couldn't find one.


Experiencing the unimaginable - one mother's story

One of my friends turned me onto this podcast called The Longest Shortest Time about childbearing and parenthood. I've been listening for a few months now and always find something to love about each episode. This one in particular has stayed with me.  The website describes it as "a story about a woman—poet Arielle Greenberg—who has had three extremely positive natural birth experiences. Even the one in which she gave birth to a stillborn baby." It is an incredible story and I've listened to it three times, each in a state of complete wonder.

A story of stillbirth: Alexander's mother shares her grief

This New York Times video is a really beautiful recounting of a woman who births a stillborn baby. She describes the moments when she has to let his body go.

They give you a time to sit with the baby and hold the baby. We had Alexander for about four hours but we...had to give him...give him away.  And this is still my baby and I'm giving it to a total stranger who is now going to put this baby on this cold-looking metal. It was racket-y and making a lot of noise and you just heard metal clicking on metal. And this is the last time I'm going to see my child.

Stories like this reaffirm my belief that we should spend as much time with the body as we need. What possible reason could there be to take him away except for the convenience of the hospital or funeral home. Imagine how much she could have benefited by holding her baby until she was ready to let go. Or better still, taking him home and caring for his body there. No strangers to handle him.  No cold metal. Just the warm embrace of his mother and father until he is laid to rest. It reminds me of the video I watched that sparked my desire  to do this work. In this video Adeleida's parents explain why they decided to keep her with them until she was buried.


Teamaker Steven Smith's final days

Beautiful description of dying from the daughter of Steven Smith.

"The past few days have been ones of vigil, tears, and laughter, as family and friends who have felt the need to be here have come to hold his and our hands, bring food, read a poem, sing a song, or share a story," Smith-Prei wrote. "Together, we are learning and teaching each other how not to be afraid, and how to embrace this moment as one of love, peace and wonder."



My Father, Body and Soul -

In this story, death isn't pretty.  I'm amazed by Josh Max's decision to see his father's body one last time even though his death occurred several days before.

The blessing, as I see it now that enough time has passed, was seeing death up close in all its gruesome reality, burning into my consciousness. No hospital, no nurses, no embalming, nothing cleaned up.

In that last split-second glance, I was able to truly see the body as a shell, a vessel that must give out, releasing the spirit to wherever its next journey is — if you buy that sort of thing. It’s either that or all those thoughts you have, your name, your sex, your age, your religion, your address, the songs you know, the sights you’ve seen and the war you fought stop existing right there and it’s eternal oblivion.

I suppose we are capable of more than we thought possible when the moment arrives.


Before You Know It, Something's Over- story of a daughter's grief

When I was 14 years old, my best friend was hit by a car and died. Marie Lyn Bernard (or "Reise") lost her father from a heart attack when she was 14. It is a strange age- well past puberty yet not a fully-fledged teenager. Marie's story is the best example of how I felt as a teen grieving for someone.

My father died when I was 14. My father died when I was 14. My father died when I was 14. Heart attack. While he was running. Training for a marathon. Yes, it was unexpected. Yes, just out of the blue. Yeah, just about the worst thing that could have ever happened, just really the absolute worst, nothing worse will ever happen to me! (I will laugh at this part, a little. To make sure you know it’s okay, that I can think about this thing and laugh at the same time.)

Go read the rest of her beautiful, haunting story.


What It's Really Like To Care For a Dying Parent - xoJane

I remember wrestling with this when the man I was a caregiver for died. I was so used to urging him to eat, drink, move and when the focus shifted to comfort care, it took some time for me to catch up.

How do you care for someone who is dying? We all have a pretty good idea of what it means to nurse someone back to health, but how do you compassionately nurse them into death? 

Gracie writes about the daily minefield of caring for someone you love as they are dying. This one gets me right in the heart. Her other story recounting her experience when her mother was diagnosed is also a beautiful read.