I have been spending a lot of time in conversation about, and reflecting upon, how to walk with someone through a transition, whether a birth or death. In sharing some of my musings, a friend commented on the fact that I kept referring to my grandmother’s “passing.” He said, “I can’t help but notice you keep using a euphemism, ‘passing.’ I prefer to call it what it is—death is death. I can’t philosophize on what happens afterwards. But I know it is an ending.” I considered this for a moment. I do say passing. But not passing away.
I do believe in something after our temporary time in these bodies. The closest comparison I have is dusk and dawn. The sun both rises and sets simultaneously around the world, depending on where you are on the planet. It’s a daily occurrence, carrying a wave of beautiful light that marks the coming of day or the transition to night. I have been present for both the first breath of new life, and the last shallow sip of air as life slipped from my grandmother’s body. For me, those moments felt the same. There is something so mysterious about both, and yet it’s just a moment in time, as life continues to flow all around me.
We do birth and death so poorly in our culture. I think we often struggle with how to fully be present with someone in the midst of either of those transitions. We have many other rituals to mark moments of change, whether weddings, graduation parties, or birthdays. We are constantly marking transitions. But when it comes down to it, do we really know how to be with, and to bear witness to, the ultimate transition at the very beginning and very end of life?
I believe in the unifying feature that none of us make it off this planet alive, and all of us were born of the womb of woman. If you’re human, it’s a guarantee, you were both born and one day you will die. Despite being a unifying feature of our humanness, is also uniquely intimate to the person enduring it and to the surrounding family. Without acknowledging the differences between experiences, we run into the danger of romanticizing these transitions that can be hard, brutal, and heart wrenching. I don’t think we can ever honestly say, “I know how you feel.” It’s such a deeply personal experience to endure. We will each have our own stories and experiences with both birth and death. But what should can we do or say when a loved one goes through a transition?
Here are a few of the things I have found helpful in being with individuals and families through massive transitions in life.
There is something sacred about these transitions, birth and death. These are the bookends of a lifetime. These are the kinds of events that become permanent markers of the before and the after in your life. There’s life before the birth of a child, and life after, or the time before the death of a loved one, and the time after. These revered moments of time have the potential to be miraculous. To witness a miracle you can’t be looking down at your phone or distracting yourself with small talk. There is nothing small about it. Be with the person or the people around you. I can’t say that enough. Be there. Be present, and breathe.
Through working as a doula, I learned that I was never going to be able to take the pain of a laboring momma and bear it for her. That baby comes through her and her alone. Similarly with death, I can’t take that suffering, much as I may want to. It is their journey. I have found in my own experiences, the ability to bear witness to and to be with harrowing pain is in direct proportion with my own humility. It takes a profound knowing and acceptance that you cannot take that pain away, but you can be there. The strength and resiliency of the human spirit is humbling. Honor that strength by being present.
I’ve attended births that last upwards of 32 hours and more, and been with loved ones in the journey of death for four days. I find these vigils at the bookends of life to be the essence of meditation. Passages always happen on their own time. In most cases, they can’t be rushed. The only guarantee we get, is that they will happen, but likely not on our watch. It happens when it happens. Acceptance of that is key.
Lighting. I mean this in a very literal sense, as well as lyrical. When I attend transitions in hospitals, I always bring LED candles, essential oils, and cozy blankets. Overhead lighting can feel cold, sterile, and inauthentic. If possible, soften the light, so your own inner light can shine. Just like dawn and dusk, there is a balance in the softness of sunlight melting into or from the darkness. Creating an environment that is pleasing to the senses helps ease the passage. Soft music, gentle lighting, aromatherapy, can all assist in the journey.
Doesn’t it always come back to this? Love: the essence of every great poem, song, tribute, speech, moment in time. At the end of the day, all we want and all we need is Love. Of this, I am certain. It is not enough to simply love the person you are sitting with in transition. You must know that your Being, the essence of who you are as a person, beyond all teachable techniques of tending to another human, you yourself are fundamentally enough. If we have love for ourselves, it is possible to be with Love, in the moment of transition.
Last weekend at one of my sacred Sunday brunches, we had the joy of witnessing a momma bird teaching her babies to fly. Sweet soft tufts of feathers awkwardly fumbling for the first floats through the air. Four hours later we came back from a ride through the forest and two of those babies were lifeless on the concrete, one of our dogs had gotten them. It was the circle of life right in front of us. The marking of life and death so quickly circling was admittedly jarring. And yet it’s nature. It comes with the territory of loving animals and being outdoors. It also comes with the territory of being human. As you consider walking with loved ones through birth, death or any major life transition, be present, be patient, have humility, soft lighting and love.
Author: Cait Allison LCSWA, MSW, RYT-500, CCH, CLD