I am a mother.
Through my body, my son entered our world.
Because of this fact, one day he will die.
I bow to the mystery wherein resides this difficult truth.
I bow to the love that gives this mystery meaning.
At birth, we each are given two gifts. One is life and the other is death. Through the body of a woman, each one of us enters life’s dance. Whatever our relationship to this woman is today, this simple fact unites humanity. Through the bodies of women, we begin a journey that must inevitably end. In ancient mythologies, the keeper of the underworld was often a female figure. According to mythologist Joseph Campbell, this is because we are born—and we die—due to a gift she bestows upon us. A gift embodied in the mother archetype.
I am a doula.
I am drawn to care for women during childbirth and meditate more deeply upon the mother archetype. While the focus of the medical team involves safeguarding the physical wellbeing of the mother and child, I support the birthing woman holistically. As a doula, I offer comfort measures, healing touch, and encouraging words. I serve as a compassionate witness at a most transformative time. The doula is a constant reminder that pain doesn’t have to equal suffering. Body and breath awareness aid a woman tremendously in her capacity to open to the birth experience and draw upon her own power with dignity and choice. Doulas support this truth.
I am a hospital chaplain.
I am drawn to care for the dying and meditate more deeply upon the irrevocable destiny of death shared by all life. A chaplain ensures that our medical system full of life-saving machinery and potent drugs doesn’t eclipse the power of the heart, spiritual encouragement, and the energy one person can give to another through compassionate touch. As a chaplain, I listen to people share unbearable sorrow and hold sacred space for the dying as they depart from the world known to human senses. The chaplain is a constant reminder that a mystery beyond our human understanding is at work in this world. A chaplain offers people of all faiths, and no faith, open and authentic support as grief transforms them.
I hold the hands of the dying.
I hold the bodies of women as they sway with the dance of labor.
I know the smell of birth and death.
I’ve cried rivers of tears at their feet.
In ancient days, the midwife of birth also served as a midwife of death. There is much to learn from the archetype of this wise woman unafraid to embrace both joy and grief. Today, there are a handful of American women trained to offer comfort in both dying and birthing. Though few in number, I draw strength from my sister doulas of birth and death. So much of my doula training deeply reflects the skills needed to support the dying. So much of my clinical pastoral care education resonates with the skills needed to aid a childbearing woman.
Standing with an open heart in the presence of birth is very much like standing with an open heart in the presence of death.
In the study of religion, the axis mundi represents the center point of power around which creation spins. Mystics affirm the true axis mundi resides not in a temple, mosque, or church, but in the awakened human heart. The threshold points that constitute our entrance into, and exit from, this world are also axis mundis as they constitute the beginning and end of each heart’s journey through time.
In Sufi lore, the Muslim poet Rabia al-Basri went to Mecca to perform her pilgrimage. She didn’t walk the required circuits around the cube-shaped building called the Kaba. Rather, the Kaba circled her seven times. Why? She walked with an awakened center superseding the rituals created to stir humanity from a slumber of ignorance. Like Rabia, our culture can awaken.
Imagine a little girl entering this human world in the bedroom of her mother. Blood, sweat, tears, and joy accompany the arrival of this beloved child. Years pass. She inherits the house and her mother’s room becomes her own. The relentless dance of time transforms the child into an aged woman. When she closes her eyes for the last time, does something in her being recognize a circle complete? For this woman, the doorways of birth and death open in the same space linked only by time’s inevitable passage.
The complexity of our global age and the fragmentation of embedded communities pose great challenges as doulas and chaplains work to improve the quality of birthing and dying. While many of our ancestors experienced profound intersection of life’s bookends, today very few Americans are born and die in a familiar space that holds the memories of one’s nearest and dearest.
Most of us are born and will die in the sterile anonymity of a for-profit institution. Yet, we can draw upon the wisdom of the homebirth and homedeath movements even if the modern hospital remains the location of the vast majority of birth and death. Location is secondary. Skilled and loving support matter. Doulas and chaplains serve vital roles by bringing back the wisdom of ancient days.
If the true axis mundi resides within an awakened heart, it is essential that we bring a compassionate and courageous energy to the work of welcoming little ones into this world and honoring each other’s dignity when we exit. Why? When supported with love, the human heart dares to open even in the midst of deep transformation and pain. Who can look at our world today and not wish for more individuals living with open hearts?
At night, my 20-month-old son sleeps by my side. A peach colored, crocheted blanket covers us. My maternal grandmother made this for me in celebration of my wedding day. My son will never meet her as she died years before he was conceived. Yet, as my little one breathes the deep inhales and exhales of peaceful slumber—the generations meet. A beautiful blanket gently covers him with his great-grandmother’s warmth.
I watch him sleep and soon close my eyes. I see the faces of birthing women and the faces of the dying. I open my eyes to look again at the one I love beyond words. I marvel at the miracle of his birth and feel the bewildering sting of his inevitable death. My mother, doula, and chaplain heart fill with prayers and blessings.
May his death be far off in the future.
May his life be blessed with safety and health.
May the mystic’s heart of awakened vision inspire his journey.
May it be for us all.