The Gifts of the Death Midwife

Ellen has been sleeping away the hours, in the wheelchair, in the rocking chair, and on her bed, the bedroom couch, the office couch, and even her mom’s bed. When she’s awake, she’s often up and about, traveling in the manner we’ve previously described but no longer packing up. She’s also talking a lot less and we miss her wit. In addition, she came down with some kind of infection yesterday, with swelling, redness, and pain on the right side of her face and neck. The doctor, nurses, and Eric are trying to figure out how best to keep Ellen comfortable in the face of this new development.

Last winter, Ellen began asking her dear friend and colleague Shivani if she would be Ellen’s “death midwife.” During the spring, Shivani queried Ellen on what she imagined a death midwife would do. Ellen didn’t provide much guidance, but Shivani has done an incredible job feeling her way into this role. She creates and holds sacred the space around Ellen, she lifts up the beauty she sees in Ellen even as illness wreaks havoc on her body, she provides hands-on care of Ellen’s body, she prepares her emotionally for dying, she helps ease Ellen’s journey in any way she can, and she comforts and assuages fears and guilt not just for Ellen but for all of us. She is guiding Ellen’s way out of this world the way she guides many babies into this world. It’s so interesting to hear her and other midwives speaking of the similarities they notice in these two life passages. Early this morning, Shivani wrote:

… Yes the absence of her wit is different. I was just thinking how challenging it is that most of what she has to say is in some defense of her body. Don’t move me… No that way… Can we just wait a minute… I want so much for her to die feeling loved and held. But as with birth, and most things, sometimes it is our job to merely be witness and quietly shine our hearts like a steady light.

Ellen would want to provide you with more resources on this topic of death midwifery, but there’s not much available yet in the U.S. culture. More common is the death doula role – see Dying is hard. Death doulas want to help make it easier.

Here is a photo of midwife Michelle teaching Ellen to suture.


10 thoughts on “The Gifts of the Death Midwife

  1. Shelly

    I think the idea of a death midwife (or death doula) is one of the most beautiful–and probably the most needed–concepts I’ve ever heard of. I will hold that close. I am so glad Ellen–and all of you, her family and closest friends–have the support of this kind of guidance, caring, and love.

  2. I was extremely moved by this entry and am so glad that Ellen has someone who can support her in this way. I send all my love to Ellen, her family and friends.

  3. Birdie Condon

    Shivani has midwives circling to empower HER in this mysterious, solemn and sacred work as well. Even as she prepares to take the last steps in this dying journey, Ellen is powerful and gracious in bringing those who love her together.

    • Spee Braun

      When I asked Shivani’s permission to post this blog, she replied, “I am deeply honored. I reflect this love in action back to you, and all of the midwives in Ellen’s circle, and mostly to Ellen herself. It has been the greatest honor to walk with Ellen on this path of midwifery, womanhood and this very blessed pilgrimage that is humanity!”

  4. Jennifer FS

    Our love to Ellen, and to Shivani also for doing this for her. Both are wonderful gentle spirits. I am so glad they have each other.

  5. Kim Tsocanos

    Thank you for sharing this post, Spee;thank you –all–for attending to Ellen and holding a sacred space for her. Sitting with a loved one who is transitioning –but still very much in her body and cognizant of her physical discomforts–is a privilege and a wonder, but a strain too. Blessings to all of you, including Ellen, as you feel your way along this path. Sending much love.

  6. Buffy

    Thank you all for holding this sacred passage so sweetly and truly! An amazing gift to all within and surrounding the family and friends…Blessed Be!

  7. Jillian S.

    Sending all a tender love.

  8. Dan Michaud

    I’m grateful to Ellen, Eric , Shivani and everyone in that inner circle who has showed us how to walk with grace, love and courage the last steps of one’s path to home.

  9. Shivani

    It has been a long and exquisite labor. One you look back at and see every tiny, instinctual turn the baby made through the bones of the pelvis, every layer gently (or not so gently) unfolding in the mother’s psyche. We are starting to see the baby’s head now, beginning that gentle rock back and forth. Ellen is blessed to be surrounded by many midwives, both at her side and sitting at a distance. Each of us, her midwives, her family, mother, sisters, Eric and children, friends, clients and community are holding this space sacred. Immense gratitude to those holding and midwifing me. I am very humbly honored to sit beside you all, near and far, as we lovingly witness Ellen’s last and most sacred birth this time earthside.

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