WHY I BECAME A DEATH MIDWIFE…

It was certainly not my life plan to be a death midwife.

Born and raised in rural England, I trained as a music teacher for special needs children and put myself through college working as a nursing assistant.  After a year in the classroom I was safely within the comfort zone. My life was slowly and predictably unraveling  through wet and drizzly suburbia. It was terrifying. I was going to die before I had lived!

So I jumped ship. 

I travelled first to Australia and then California, landing in Hollywood at the tender age of 22. I secured work as a nanny for a celebrity. I learned to fly planes, sky-dive and ride motorcycles. I studied acting and stand-up comedy, wrote and published children’s stories and volunteered for the hungry, homeless and elderly.

I worked my way up the movie industry ladder to Director of Development for a production company at Paramount Studios and in my free time I studied metaphysics, energy healing, past-life therapy and alternative religions. I earned a degree in Natural Theology and was ordained as an Inter-faith Minister. I started a hands-on healing practice, raised a dynamic daughter as a single parent and became a U.S. citizen.

Ah Yes!  Now I had a stimulating, creative, meaningful life that I loved.   Now it was okay to die.

But then mother died and life got even better.

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Mother had the perfect death

After undergoing surgery for ovarian cancer and then a round of chemotherapy, Mother declined further treatment. “I’ve had enough of this nonsense,” she said very matter-of-factly during one of our weekly telephone calls across the Atlantic. “I think it’s time to go.”

Mother spent her last few months at home on hospice, surrounded by family and friends. I went back to England for her final days to help relieve my sister of the care-giving duties and to say goodbye.

Mother was as opinionated and determined in death as she was in life. “I don’t want to lie in bed all day, I’ll sleep when I’m dead. Put me in my chair!”

Every morning I helped mother wash, dress, arrange her long hair in it’s familiar up-twist and sit her in the chair in the living room. She existed on cups of tea and the occasional miso soup. She was thin and frail but still she read the paper, did the daily crossword and talked to whomever came to visit.

“All my affairs are in order, and everybody’s been forgiven,” she declared proudly. “I’ve had a good life with no regrets and I’m looking forward to going to meet my maker.”

The day before she died she told me to get a notebook and proceeded to outline in detail the plans for her funeral – the people she wanted to invite, the hymns she wanted sung, the kind of flowers she wanted placed on her coffin and where we were to sit in church.  She even designed the program and wrote her obituary. “Now all you need to add is the date dear,”  she said with a satisfied smile.

The next morning she motioned for me not to get her dressed,

“Leave me in bed,” she whispered, “I’m going home.”

 

Mum had been a teacher all her life and this was her final lesson, ‘The Art of Dying.’  Her last breath would come just 18 hours later. Mother died the way she lived. In control. Clear. Organized.  Considerate of others. Filled with love and upheld by her unwavering faith that God was going to take care of her.

Mother’s leave-taking evoked a tsunami of pain as the umbilical cord was severed once again, as she floated off to who-knows-where and I was left alone, untethered, also floating but with earthly duties to attend to like raising children and earning a living. It wasn’t fair!!

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Grief  is a very self-centered emotion. There is a seductive deliciousness to it, like falling in un-requited love, over and over again. Mother’s dying taught me this and many other things but

the events that followed her death changed the direction of my life forever…

 

Shortly after mother died the hospice nurse arrived. She offered genuine condolences while she quietly put away the prescription bottles and medical supplies. Then she calmly filled a bowl with water and asked if I would like to help her wash mother’s dead body. “Er… yes please,” I answered somewhat hesitantly yet greedy for anything that would give me a few more minutes with Mum.

“We’ll do it together,” she said kindly. “What was her favorite soap?” As I cradled Mother’s frail body in my arms, the nurse used a washcloth and warm lavender water to gently wash Mother’s back. She quietly hummed a lullaby. I wept, the tears dripping freely onto Mother’s creamy white skin – but these were not tears of grief, these were tears of love and awe and gratitude.

Caring for Mother’s body evoked profound gratitude.

 

Everything she had ever said or done for me was crystallized here in her lifeless body, and this was my final opportunity to say ‘Thank You.’

My sister and I dressed Mother in the white lace burial trousseau that was hand-sewn by her grandmother and stored in the bottom drawer of her dresser for this sacred occasion. We laid her on her bed in the living room with a rose on her chest and her Bible in her hands. We held each other and prayed for her safe journey. The veil to the ‘other side’ had lifted and the room was transformed by a tangible and profound peace. It was agonizingly beautiful.

Friends and neighbors stopped by to pay their respects. They brought flowers and food and children with snowy boots and muddy dogs, and soon the room was filled with the humming of love for Rosemary. While they gathered round the dining table to share stories, I pulled up a chair between the table and the bed – between the noise and the silence, between life and death.

Hours went by. The guests finally left and sister cleared the table and went into the kitchen to wash the dishes. Mother still lay motionless in her white dress. I still sat in my chair close to mother’s bed.

Alive and Dead had collided. It was deafening.

 

My mind, made feeble and exhausted by it’s inability to understand, finally stopped grasping and relaxed. I let myself sink with the anchor of death deep beneath my humanness. Death was taking me somewhere, she was showing me something, something unfathomable, something sublime. I was intoxicated, drunk with reverence, with awe, with, with…?

And then the Funeral Directors came.

 

My sister ushered two polite, stiff, strangers into the living room. They pulled their rattling gurney over the white carpet and parked it by the bed. “We are deeply sorry for your loss,” the tall one said. Then they stuffed mother and her beautiful white dress into a black plastic bag and zipped it up. They wheeled her out across the frosty lawn and into the waiting green van. They didn’t even say goodbye.

“Wait!” I called out. “Wait! I’m not finished! Come back! I need more time!” But the van had turned onto the main road and was out of sight.

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That was 10 years ago. After producing mother’s grand funeral and burial at the local village church (as per her wishes), I returned to the U.S. and immersed myself in the world of death, dying, after-death care and funerals.  I began teaching the art of conscious dying and how to give yourself just a little more time.

Sacred Crossings was born.

23 thoughts on “WHY I BECAME A DEATH MIDWIFE…

  1. Oh My God, Olivia…
    Such eloquent writing… it brought tears to my eyes and joy to my heart. Thank you for sitting down and pouring yourself onto the page. It’s moving, touching and soooooo many people need to hear these stories.

    God bless you, my sweet friend. God bless you!

  2. Your journey through your mother’s death is so inspiring. How fortunate to have a mother such as yours. She is proud of you wherever she is. Thank you for this post. I continue to prepare for my own departure with journaling and reading and remembering how precious each moment is when we are still alive.
    Many warm blessings,
    Judith

  3. thank you, this was lovely…I met you at Jerri Grace’s home funerals’ class. I too was deeply inspired to help shift the paradigm of death and dying in our society but have come up against a lot of resistance. It is encouraging to know you are out there keeping it going!

  4. I hadn’t heard this story until you shared it last weekend, at your event on green funerals & burial. So moving and heart opening. Because of all you have taught me over the last two years, I am now welcoming my mother’s passing, rather than dreading it. I look forward to being given one last opportunity to be of service to her, and to many others, as I begin my journey as an *apprentice* Death Midwife.

    1. So beautiful cannot stop crying.I will meet you in Boulder Colorado this month and I am excited and blessed to have this opportunity to become a death dula.Thank you for your service and teaching. Sincerely Laurie smith, salt lake city

  5. I have watched and admired your steady and conscious , even serenely determined development that is changing the American way of death. You are needed and loved for this work, and now I get to read how it all happened, and what continues to move you forward. Thank you, Olivia!

  6. This is so beautiful. Thank for sharing the origins of your inspiration for the creative birthing of Sacred Crossings!

  7. Thank you Olivia, for this and for all that you have done over the years that I have worked with you. People are so eternally grateful for the chance to experience all you have to offer when their loved ones cross. I feel so fortunate to have you ‘on the team’.

  8. July 1

    Hello Olivia,
    I read your blog, The Diary of a Death Midwife and found it very touching.

    I certainly know of and appreciate your services as a Death Midwife when you were there for me when my friend Jayne Major’s passed 3 1/2 years ago. You helped everyone present deal with the situation in the hospital. Thank you Olivia, you are an angel.

    Frances “Sparky” Sotcher

  9. Thank you so much Olivia for sharing this with the world. What a precious time – the transition between the life and death of this body. Thank you for pioneering this very important aspect of our lives. We need it for the mending of our broken hearts.

    I’m looking forward to meeting you and learning from you and bringing this healing approach into my family circle.

  10. Thank you for sharing this. So moving! Even tho I’ve heard the story, you’ve expressed it her with such eloquence and dignity.

  11. I’ve heard pieces of your story Livy, throughout the trainings. This is so lovely to see it written and deeply feel your journey and the profound love. I’m moved to the core by you and this work beloved friend.

  12. Dear Olivia,

    What a tender experience that helped you launch Sacred Crossings. To this day I wish I had someone like you at my side when Kenny passed. I would have shown my love for his body, the Temple of his Soul, that in life was at my side for over thirteen years, but I couldn’t on my own. Sacred Crossings inspired me to write a chapter in our book of with the same title and I referenced death midwifery in the resources section. With great appreciation and admiration to you, my friend.

  13. You would think that—given that it was seen as a fate worse than death prior to the Civil War—it would have just disappeared. But in fact, it only became stronger.”

  14. Olivia,
    Thank you so much for everything. I now understand why you were so willing to help me and my family get these precious last few days with our baby girl.

    1. Thank you for your willingness and courage to find a way to do what you know your family needed. It was an honor to help you. Blessed Be.

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