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Death, Doulas, and Denial

I'm running through my Facebook feed, mindlessly catching up on the inner-made-outer thoughts of the world, when I come across a post in a Doula group about the possible death of a baby at or shortly after its birth.

As a Birth and Bereavement Doula, they have my attention.

The post is from hours before, so I check the comments to see the outcome and find a short update from the Doula. They say that the birth was fine and that the baby is sleeping now.


Nobody has commented on this yet, but their use of the word "sleeping" glares up at me from the screen. I'm sure that there are many people who would either take this comment at face value and be relieved that the baby is fine. There are also those who would see this and understand what the Doula doesn't want to come out and say.

The baby is not sleeping. The baby has died.

It reminds me of a quote from Accompanying the Dying by Deanna Cochran:

"Dead and death have almost become taboo words in our culture. The tree dies; the car dies; the dog dies. Grandma hardly ever dies. She passes, passes away, transitions, leaves her body, graduates, and so on. She’s gone to a better place (hopefully); we’ve lost Grandma; she’s gone home. All these euphemisms have tremendous implications."

We abhor death. We treat it as something so ugly, so unnatural, that we can't even say the words...and never in reference to the innocent creatures we bring into the world. A baby could never be something so terrible as dead.

And yet, it happens. 1 in 4 pregnancies will conclude with the ending of a pregnancy or the stillbirth of a child. If you have not experienced it yourself, you know several people who have whether you know it or not.

As a Birth and Bereavement Doula, I know that these people also want to talk about it. They want to open up and share their stories, their losses, and their pain with those around them. They want to share it in the hours and days after. They want to share it in the weeks and months after. They want to share it years down the line and they will cry fat, salty tears that make you aware that their grief is as fresh at that very moment as the first moment they faced their loss.

But they don't. Not always. Maybe they talked about it in the beginning, but then they said nothing for a while. Maybe they couldn't find the words at first. They think about talking about it down the line, but now so much time has passed. They don't want to make people feel awkward and nobody has mentioned what runs through their mind every day since it happened.

My baby is dead.

Not sleeping. Not resting. Died.

They think about all the people who couldn't talk about it. Who showed up for a while, but have moved on. They think about people who don't have to live with the constant knowledge that something soul-shaking and reality-cracking has occurred. People who have to fit flowery euphemisms to something painful, just to acknowledge it.

"Baby was born sleeping."

This shouldn't have to include someone's Doula.

Something that people who work closely with death and dying notice is how similar death and birth are. So much of what Birth Doulas learn are techniques that more than comfortably fit in with the needs of the dying. Many Death Doulas actually start as Birth Doulas and are happily surprised by how alike the roles can be.

How we enter this world and how we leave it are so alike, so similarly supported, but we hide from death. We don't prepare for it. We don't think about what would be important to do and say in those moments. This is especially true with the ending of pregnancies and the deaths of the newly born. We prepare for the rituals of welcoming in life as Birth Doulas, but we don't prepare for when life ends or never begins.

It's so comfortable to surround yourself with joyous moments, like births, but when Doulas avoid training to be prepared to walk with someone through a loss they are ignoring one of the things that makes life so joyous and beautiful: it is not a guarantee.

I want to challenge Doulas to face not only the way we all enter this world but how we exit it.

I want to challenge Doulas to walk with their clients through golden lit moments of creation and walk with them through the deepest moments of despair.

To share in their clients' tears of happiness and tears of heartbreak.

I want to challenge Doulas to work for birth and be prepared to face death.

To stand before it and speak its name. To know it.

Not as the enemy, but as the other side of the same coin.

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