As birth workers, we understand the importance of bringing sanctuary, authenticity and open-heartedness to the birth room. We know the importance of holding space for women to come into their full power, and we do it with compassion. As we focus on birth, many of us forget that the same space is useful for supporting death, the opposite end of life. According to Leslene della-Madre, midwifing the dying means to bring the sacred values of mothering into the process of dying. In this piece, she gives us a peak into such work.
My journey with the questions about death began a long time ago. Most recently, I was called to care for my aging parents. When my father became ill, I made a decision that I would help him through his passage from this world into the next. It was a spiritual practice for me to show up in that way, because his wounding had gone unhealed in his life, which made him difficult to be with at times. Often when people are dying, and they are afraid, their anger and fear can be released in ways that can be very confusing for caregivers, loved ones and family members. My father’s death was twenty years ago, and since that time I have learned a great deal about midwifing death. I have seen the need for people to feel safe at the time of dying, and I have noticed that most people don’t. I wondered why not. That question guided me on my own spiritual quest, as I realized that there was a great deal I did not know about myself, my conditioning, the ruling paradigm I had grown up in, the global wanton hatred of women, culminating in the burning and torture of thousands if not millions of women in the Inquisition, that is, simultaneously, referred to as the age of the Renaissance. This is the single most unspoken event in the recent herstory of our species: the women’s holocaust that lasted for about five hundred years, ending in Europe and in the U.S. only three hundred years ago, now finding current expressions in other parts of the world. It might not be easy to understand why anyone would talk about this in relation to death and dying. For me, it is painfully obvious why it is absolutely necessary. In the cells of every woman is this memory, unseen, untold and forced into exile within a woman’s soul. Death and dying take on a new meaning from this perspective.
Aspects of women’s spirituality in tending to the dying become more comprehensive and encompassing in regard to the current human condition, because if we do not understand the Mother Wisdom from which we are born, we will not know how to impart it to ourselves or to our children, in life and in death. Understanding women’s spirituality is also about cultivating a deep understanding of what is happening on our planet and seeing that the death and destruction, violence, and war we wreak on ourselves is intimately connected with the denial of the Mother Wisdom lying dormant in our cells, though there is a new spark of awakening that is happening around the world as women are choosing to create something new rather than fight against the old.
Interestingly, midwifing my father in his death taught me a great deal about life. I saw that we need a completely new way to live, which is not new information, really, but it came to me in my process with him because I came face to face with my own anger and fear, and I needed to learn how to express myself in compassion and love without blame and judgment, all the values of the original dark mother. As I continued in my journey helping people die, I felt I was awakening to that cellular memory within me of the Mother and began to create with and for people a new way to be together in one of, if not the most important, mysterious and awesome experiences of a lifetime.
Midwifing the dying means to bring into the experience the sacred values of mothering, which have been all but destroyed in global male-dominated hierarchical cultures around the world. Death for the ancients was always connected with regeneration. In our society, we associate death with the grim reaper-a scary image of a man with a sickle coming to get us. In pre-dynastic Egypt as well as dynastic Egypt, the Goddess Nut is found painted on the bottoms of coffins with open arms and the body of the dead is placed on top of her image, face down, indicating a face-to-face meeting of the mortal with the immortal Mother Goddess. The arms of the Mother Goddess welcomed the dead back into the numinous realm between life and death. The Norse Goddess Hel was the wise eternal grandmother whose womb cave of regeneration, the place where souls went in death to find nurturing in her safe haven of warmth and rebirth, was found deep in the heart of the mountain. Today the remnant of Hel’s sacred domain has become split off from the cycle of life, death and regeneration and has deteriorated into the demonized place of hell where the hot and cold fires of fear and rage are fanned with violence. People are frightened into believing that to be god-fearing will save them from punishment in the afterlife. Fear, however, does not allow for love, openness, surrender and peace, which are all favorable states to be well acquainted with in life in order that one can be prepared for death, and once again, the values of the dark mother from which we all have come.
To bring the values of mothering to the dying requires skill, because we no longer naturally know these values in our bones, though the memory is there. One must cultivate presence and bring to the bedside of the dying a loving openness that is not encumbered with an agenda. And one must keep one’s own fear, anger and need to control in check in order to be truly available to the dying. One must be able to see the needs of the moment and be able to give. This is not a co-dependent giving. This is a giving from the heart that sees and feels, grounded in compassion and authenticity. A loving and present mother knows what is needed. She just knows. It is the same in tending to the dying, which used to be women’s practice prior to the advent of patriarchy. When people feel cared for and safe in their dying process, amazing things can happen. I have witnessed a person who has carried a lifetime of anger shed that deep-seated identity with anger in the moments before death, thereby changing the effects of what they carry with them into the realms beyond. Such was the case of my own mother. I midwifed her in her dying, bringing her home to die in peace. Many of us in this culture are the walking wounded. My parents’ generation, and many before, did not know much of anything else–therapy was not considered as something people needed unless one was diagnosed as mentally ill and needing special confinement. From what I witness, that describes just about all of us. Valium was offered for women who were considered hysterical. Now we have Prozac. So, my mother suffered from a deep depression all of her life, at the same time raising five children and certainly doing the best she could. But she was angry most of her life, having suffered a difficult childhood. In her death, because she was surrounded by love and safety, she could let go of her pain and really surrender into dying. It was an amazing process to witness, because her personality fell away as the true nature of her being emerged. It is said that our true nature is 10,000 times brighter than the sun, and I could actually feel something of this truth as my mother let go of her anger in the hours before her death.
It is motherly love that births life, sustains and tends to it. Why wouldn’t we want motherly love surrounding us in our dying? I am sure most of us would. But most of us do not know what that is, nor what it looks like, because we have been deprived of the ancestral grandmother wisdom that guided, for instance the indigenous peoples of this land, such as the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, as they were named by the French, whose wisdom was not only used in the formation of our constitution, but also was offered by the Haudenosaunee women to the suffering Euro-Western women who were their neighbors to help them realize their own oppression–such women as Matilda Joslyn Gage, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott. We all know what those women did with what they learned from their Indian sisters.
Motherly love in death and dying offers sanctuary, authenticity and open-heartedness to all involved. Fear and anger melt away in the open arms of love, compassion, truth and beauty. However, in order to be able to give in this way, we must cultivate this reality in our lives. This is the ancient global truth of women’s spirituality. It is an indigenous truth that when women are respected, then so is all life, which makes the opposite true as well.
If we are to have peaceful transitions from this world to the next, it is imperative that we change our ways and become more aligned with our true nature, which is love. Life is meant to be lived in peace, joy, harmony, abundance and celebration. With such a life, death is not the end, but rather an opening, a portal, into another realm of the Great Mystery.
This is an excerpt from Leslene della-Madre’s full piece Aspects of Women’s Spirituality in Tending to the Dying which can be read in its entirety here.
1 Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess, HarperSanFrancisco, San Francisco, 1989, p.xiii.
2 Professor Lama Gatusa, personal experience/conversation. Also refer to Goddessing, An International Journal of Goddess Expression, issue #19, 2004-5, article by Leslene della-Madre,” Societies in Balance: Gender Equality in Matrilineal, Matrifocal and Matriarchal Societies, ” p.41.
3 Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, dark mother, Authors Chioce Press, Lincoln, 2001, p.xxvi.
Leslene della-Madre is a mother, priestess, “shemama”–shamanic spiritual midwife author, poet, artist, ritualist, TV host, and holder of sacred female shamanic wisdom. She has traveled and taught both in the U.S. and internationally. As both student and teacher on the shamanic path of awakening for over 45 years she has taught the womanist shamanic healing arts for over 30 years. She is an initiate in the metis Paiute medicine tradition of Grandmother Mahad’yuni, and is an initiated daughter in the Nepalese lineage of Ajima, protector of women and children. She lived for nearly eleven years on The Farm in Tennessee where she apprenticed in health care and midwifery and where she gave birth to her two now grown daughters. Her groundbreaking book, Midwifing Death: Returning to the Arms of the Ancient Mother has inspired many people to revision death and dying from a Sacred Female perspective. Grandmother Agnes Baker Pilgrim, chairwoman of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers says “Leslene has an important message and many people need to hear it.”