I gave birth on a full moon, a few days into autumn. I was at home, in a pool in my living room in the sacred embrace of my husband, 10 year old son, my sweet dog-doula, Arbor, and the most empowering birth team I could have asked for. Time stopped. Love expanded. Commitments vanished. Priorities clarified.
Within a few months, I’d be stepping into a doula role myself, though this time a doula of death. This past spring, still in a hazy postpartum daze, my husband and I bought a home, moved our freshly expanded family and set up a hospice in our living room to spend day and night at the bedside of his dying mother. This, my dear friends, this first breath and final breath convergence has been the most honest spiritual practice I’ve ever engaged. Grueling. Beautiful. Inescapable.
I conceived our son on a full moon, a few days into winter. It was the least resourced I’d ever been. Our family was just starting to emerge from a time that had thrown into question realities that had previously been my ground and compass. I was spent, heartbroken, humble and scared. Those months of pregnancy marked the most ruthless self-prioritization I’d ever embarked on. Deep healing and reorientation. Things were looking up.
A week after our baby was born, my mother-in-law received news of an abnormal scan, the resurgence of pancreatic cancer which would lead to a terminal diagnosis weeks before Christmas. We were just starting to feel whole again. We were just starting to feel hopeful, relaxing into the bliss of family life filling out in precious ways. We were constructing futures of granny and grandson year over year in our collective imagination. It was so fucking unfair.
My wish when facing what I knew could lead to an undoing, was for Grace. Let me not relate to all of this as a hell to survive or push through, but as something to be awake in and sink into. Grace, for me, marks a kind of surrender that invites intimacy with every moment, every lesson, every invitation. To somehow open to reality in a way where the experience has space to unfold, to be held by something beyond my own effort.
Our world became a small bubble of new and ending life. The days held rituals of immediacy and service. Wake at the baby’s cry, carry him to rest in granny’s arms, make her a cup of tea at just the right temperature and sweetness to be palatable, nurse and change him, welcome the home care nurses, determine and cook what she can eat today, avoid eating the foods that exacerbate his colic through my milk. These moments hold fast as memories marking the meaning of right livelihood. Care. Tenderness. Presence. Love. Ordinary and extraordinary.
Our days were measured through firsts and lasts. His first taste of solid food, her last sip of water. His first time sitting up, her last time going outside. His first moment of reaching for her, the last time she was able to hold him. The joy of firsts is that you know they’re the firsts of an unfolding future. The sorrow of lasts is you don’t know it’s the last and then it’s gone. The last time she speaks. The last time she opens her eyes.
The unmerciful anguish was having so little time. The bittersweet blessing was having a little time. Time to say everything that needed to be said. Between my husband and his mother, to reconcile and forgive everything that needed to be reconciled and forgiven. Love had been expressed and received so fully, without any doubt, that each of us could trust and let go. Friends and family traveled and stayed and said goodbye. Our home a rotating door of final wishes, quiet love and sorrow.
Those of us who were her primary caregivers took turns at all hours. Midnight and 4am one of us would be feeding or rocking the baby, another administering medication. Again, and again, these rituals would punctuate our days. New neighbours we’d never met brought us daily meals for a month straight. A choir who sings at the bedside of the dying visited often, blessing us all. Friends and family offered unwavering support.
Candles, incense and mantras on repeat turned our home into a temple. We sat in meditation. We sat in prayer. We welcomed the ancestors. She was in death as she was in life, generous. We did our very best to reflect her heart back to her. We couldn’t slow or stop the inevitable transition that will visit us all, but we could bring sacred attention and dignity to her departure. The grief is not gone, and the missing is acute. But incredible solace is found by having no regrets.
Traveling through this experience, has been the greatest of honours and sharing about it here somehow waters the garden of its significance. It’s in the stories we tell ourselves and each other that meaning is made of our lives. And with that, I invite yours. Your birth stories, your death stories. The stories that by sharing, connect and heal us. If you’re compelled, please share in the comments, or share privately via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. It would be an honour to witness your experience and story as you have mine.