Pregnancy & Death: In Service to What Is
There is this “joke” amongst doulas and midwives, for those of us who have had busy practices prior to getting pregnant ourselves, that we get thrown curveballs. I’ve heard it called the “nurses curse.” While this isn’t always true, I got thrown several curveballs during my perinatal time.
After intending, dreaming and envisioning what my pregnancy experience would be like for many years, and finally being ready to conceive, after conceiving it became clear that my pregnancy experience would be different than what I had imagined. My husband, Christopher, and I would also be saying goodbye to both of his beloved parents, as they also approached the threshold of death. In my first trimester, we nervously flew to New York to be with his Dad during his last days of life. For those of you who know me, you know that I am fervidly passionate about everyone getting the thorough and compassionate medical care that they deserve.
I was shocked by what I found in the ICU surrounding this tender time at the end of Rick’s life. No one wanted to admit he was dying, despite his O2 stats continually decreasing. The infectious disease doctor came in screaming like a football coach on the sidelines about one hundred different antibiotics they were giving him to “fight” any underlying infection. When I tried to talk to the nurses and the internist about palliative care and having honest conversations with the family, they all gave me blank stares like, “how could you say the “d” word? We don’t talk about that.” This is a f&#$ing ICU. He would be transitioning in a matter of days, and they all knew it, but literally would not speak to it. Wow.
Those of us who have done doula work for years will tell you that there is a “mode” that we step into when we do our work, almost like an altered state of consciousness, that allows us to be fully present with our clients in their birthing spaces. I felt myself sink into that familiar place. I would do everything I could to ensure that my husband’s father got exactly what he wanted in these last days. I would engage these tough conversations. Eventually I would convince his lung specialist to have an honest conversation with his closest ones about what was happening. This was happening alongside my own food aversions, nausea, and all the water in the state of NY tasting like dog urine to me, while I worried that I was drinking too much bottled water out of plastic with possible endocrine disruptors in it. In retrospect, despite the deep grief and hardship, it was also a time of deep connection. To myself, to my loved ones, to my baby, to the depths of life itself. All I wanted to eat were these sausage, egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches from Otto’s Market in Germantown. We still joke that Rosie grew so healthy from those sandwiches as they were my lifeline some days.
In my second trimester, Christopher’s step mother, who had lived several years past her prognosis with stage four cancer, approached the death threshold. Once again, we left for New York. While there, in Rhinebeck’s Sunflower Natural Foods store, I felt the small, butterfly flutters of life in my belly. One of my favorite smells in the world is the smell of small health food stores, and those of you who have been pregnant know what a respite it is when something smells good!
A few days later, Liz would be gone. A day or so after she died, my belly popped out – and all of a sudden I looked pregnant. What strange, long hot summer days these were. Liz glowed like an angel before she died. She was able to die in her home, surrounded by her loved ones. The day before she died we had a party. Many people came to be with her. She sat in the bright hot sunshine in front of a fire, taking a few slow bites of locally grown strawberries, full of love. Liz had a very special, rare way of appreciating all the small blessings of life – good food, beautiful art (or art she found in the dumpster and repurposed), good friends. Our sadness was still, all encompassing.
Christopher and I both talked to this growing life in my belly every day about what was happening. We told our baby that all of this sadness wasn’t about her. We told her exactly what was happening. We told her about our sadness, about our joy, and the blessing that she is.
The reactions I received in sharing my pregnancy experiences with others was sometimes challenging. Glazed over looks, quickly changing the topic, or comments like “Oh well you’ll have the joy of your lifetime soon!” without any space for sadness, for curiosity, for acknowledging this profound ocean of grief that felt and sometimes still feels engulfing and isolating in our lives. This tendency to push away what is difficult to be with, confusing to hear, is a spiritual epidemic in our Western world. There is so much to grieve in the world that it often feels like, if I open these doors to grieve, will I ever come out? Will I drown? And yet, I have found, that when grief is accepted, it also makes more space for authentic joy. Some days we still drown, and that’s ok, too. Life can simply what it is if we let it, without excessive energy going towards pushing away what is, towards repressing and depressing emotion. Here is what I longed to hear: “Wow, tell me more about that experience for you. How have you been coping with that? What has that been like for you? What do you need? What can I do to support you?”
We are beginning to feel our feet firmly planted on the earth once more. We are beginning to feel able to hold all of this paradox, continue to heal, enjoying our one year old full of fire and spunk.
A doula is one who serves. Life, death, they are inextricably linked. I know that I will formally study death doula work at some time in my life, and that this experience of death while being pregnant will continue to teach and inform my heart and soul – and how I support others. In every death there is birth, and in every birth there is death – whether it’s literal death, or the death of our old lives and selves that we say good bye to when we enter into parenthood.
There is this pervasive cultural myth that the birth of a child is all happiness, sunshine and rainbows and that the death of a person is all gloom, doom and sadness – it is a complex myth that I live to unfold and unravel – so that we make more space for all that is in these threshold experiences in our lives. So that we can make space for our own wholeness, for the space we need for grief and joy to be there, and the courage we need to be with it, move with it, learn from it, and keep dancing through all the seasons and cycles – even when for me, they overlapped in the most edgy and uncomfortable ways – pushing me to grow in all directions at once. I know I’m not alone in this experience, I know so many other warrior women and men who, during this perinatal time of life, walk through the unexpected, the unimaginable, the plan B, C or D. Here is to our wholeness, to our resiliency, to our connection to one another, and to life itself.