Forever twinned, birth and death represent two of the most transformational and powerful experiences known. Yet, when encountering miscarriage, stillbirth, or the death of an infant, birth professionals so often feel overwhelmed, sad, and scared. In this piece, Amy Wright Glenn invites us to become skilled at navigating not only the terrain of joy but also the landscape of sorrow.
The joyous elixir of the birth of a healthy child always carries an accompanying companion — death. Whatever is born in time and space will know an end. Forever paired, birth and death usually bookend decades of living. When it comes to the untimely death of fetuses or infants, these doorways of existence collapse onto each other, filling hearts with bewildering grief.
– Amy Wright Glenn, “Miscarriage Matters,” PhillyVoice
As a hospital chaplain, I know what it is like to hold space for difficult moments — profoundly searing, difficult moments.
Yes, it is true that death is a sacred threshold, one capable of opening the human heart to profound gratitude and wonder. Nonetheless, companioning individuals across the threshold of death more often than not means holding space for deep expressions of grief.
I am also a birth doula. I know what it is like to hold space for the beginning of life — the deeply moving openings of women’s bodies as babies enter our world. And while labor and delivery are often marked by physical struggle and pain, more often than not holding space for birth means being present to a remarkable elixir of joy.
Forever twinned, birth and death represent two of the most transformational and powerful experiences known. Bridged by love, they mark our mortal experience.
Yet, how many end-of-life care providers have taken the time to learn about birth? How many birth professionals have taken the time to learn about death?
“I’m not sure how I could handle it,” a birth doula tells me as she reflects upon the possibility of supporting a client through perinatal loss. “I feel really scared when considering this possibility.”
She is not alone.
So often it is hard to know what to say and how to comfort a human being experiencing the shock of loss, trauma, and unexpected tragedy. When encountering miscarriage, stillbirth, or the death of an infant, birth professionals so often feel overwhelmed, sad, and scared.
On one hand, this makes perfect sense. Even those seasoned in end-of-life care experience the normal range of human emotion when it comes to being present to untimely death. Yet, these individuals are skilled at navigating — holding compassionate space — not only for their own feelings but also for the feelings of the bereaved. So much of my chaplaincy training strengthened me to walk more openly and courageously into “someone’s hell” not to fix or correct the situation, but to be a compassionate presence and companion.
This is the key.
How do we hold compassionate space for the fact that there have been and always will be those who die before being born? How can we best prepare birth professionals to respond with mindfulness, best care practices, and companioning compassion to bereaved parents?
Over the past few years, we’ve experienced a cultural shift in how hospitals and medical professionals respond to perinatal loss. We’ve also witnessed a profound opening in our collective discourse about such loss –- helping to slowly and steadily remove the stigma associated with miscarriage and stillbirth. It makes perfect sense for birth professionals to help lead the way with regard to these positive changes and become skilled at navigating not only the terrain of joy but also the landscape of sorrow.
As founder of the Institute for the Study of Birth, Breath, and Death, I am committed to offering up, to the best of my ability, quality online and in-person trainings entitled: Holding Space for Pregnancy Loss.
You are most welcome to join me.
By Amy Wright Glenn