If you follow me on social media platforms, you may have noticed—or will begin to notice—that my incorporation of death into the conversation of birth has been turned up a notch or two. “Why?” you might ask. The answer is simple—death is part and parcel with birth, with life. And, more often than we’d like or ever care to admit, these two things happen simultaneously—or within a very short window of time from one another.
“But, Lindsay! There’s a whole month dedicated to Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness. Can’t we just talk about it then?!”
The denial of death in the ongoing conversation of birth is not only naive, it’s harmful. When 1 in every 60 births ends in stillbirth or neonatal death—or 1 in 4, when we included miscarriage—we’re talking about a whole lotta people who experience the death of a child, and whose stories are potentially being invalidated by mainstream death culture (or lack thereof).
Not only has the discussion on pregnancy loss and infant death been silenced in our Western culture, the event of death, in general, goes virtually unacknowledged. Stephen Jenkinson—the former leader of a palliative care counseling team at Toronto Mount Sinai Hospital, and the subject of the documentary film Griefwalker—says, “it is not human to fear death…it is not a universal fact.” Fear of death is not a given across cultures.
So where does it come from?
Jenkinson suggests it comes from disconnection from our ancestral dead. We do not see death; it happens behind closed doors. We are so disconnected from death, that we hardly know what to do with it when it walks across our threshold. There is often little involvement from family or loved ones in the handling and preparation of the body before burial, and grief and sorrow are minimized—all but swept under the rug. Death, including our own, has become “a rumor where we are left to imagine everything” (Jenkinson, Griefwalker).
Let’s get really personal, here.
In the summer of 2015, my husband, son and I were anxiously awaiting the arrival of a little brother. As you may or may not know, that little brother—Theo Gussie—was born still at 39+5 weeks gestation. His death was mind-bogglingly devastating. This was the closest death had ever come to me. Yes, I’d attended funerals of various extended family members (most of whom I never really knew on a personal level) over the course of my childhood, but I’d never experienced anything like this—the death of my child. His birth was beautiful and sacred. The moment I saw his little face, I didn’t see death, necessarily. I saw my son. The one I had come to know and love in my womb over the last 9 months. The reality of his death, however, came almost immediately after. He didn’t breathe; he didn’t make a sound. His arms lay heavy on his chest, and his weight fell entirely into my arms.
In the weeks and months (hell, years!) that followed, my husband and I waded through our grief. Though it manifested differently in each of us, we were both drawn closer to the idea of death—mourning rituals throughout history, emblems and mementos, etc. A whole world unfurled before us.
I have no doubt that some of you read that and thought, “how morbid!” And, given the current culture, I don’t blame you. But the things we came to learn endeared us to life. It’s not that we became fixated on death. Rather, we came to love what it means to be human—mortals on an earthly sojourn. We found beauty in grief, and in really connecting with, and accepting our own mortality. Death showed me how to live my life more fully, revealing the juicy goodness and depth of life I had scarcely tasted before—ultimately guiding me into birth work, and changing my very existence.
How do we move forward?
I don’t have any clear cut answers for you here. And I’m not suggesting that it will be easy—quite the contrary. But from my perspective, the first step is acknowledging—acknowledging our fears and insecurities around our own mortal existence, and the mortality of those we love. When we acknowledge death—and lean into the discomfort—we open the door for storytelling. We allow ourselves to awaken to life, and give ourselves permission to let go of the things that aren’t serving us.
So, I will continue to have the conversation. I will do my part to pull the curtain back and reveal the diversity of experience in life, birth, and death—making way for greater empathy and connection.
“Until your ability to see the flower is rooted in the fact that it won’t always be there, how much of the flower will you see?” —Stephen Jenkinson, Griefwalker
Check These Out: