When birth meets death

Usually there is not a lot of overlap in the two halves of my professional life. 

Well, in a sense there always is: the skills I use as a chaplain are nearly identical to those I use as a doula. I support not just the person, but the whole family as they adjust to a major life transition. I help people navigate the complicated and overwhelming experience of being in a hospital. I listen, sometimes I cry, often I laugh. I carve out space in a hectic time and place for people to identify and express their feelings. I once described to a chaplain colleague what it looks like for me to support a family in birth, and she said, with comprehension and amazement dawning on her face, "Oh! So, it's like a 13 hour patient visit!" Yes. It is exactly like that.

The skills I use are the same whether it is a birth, or a death. Usually there is a clear line dividing the two events. But not always.

Last year I went to the funeral of a mom whom I had supported in giving birth. This woman had been a delightful combination of fierce warrior mama and tender-hearted girl. She brought her beloved teddy bear to the hospital to cuddle in labor, and then pushed her baby out without an epidural in front of a gaggle of nursing students who had never seen anything so beautiful and raw. Several months later, she died suddenly and unexpectedly. I sat in the pew and looked at her baby sitting in her uncle's lap and cried my heart out.

Last week one of our doula clients let us know that there was nothing more that could be done to save her baby's life, and they sang their baby to sleep later that day. Her baby had lived for just a month. The mother told me that day by day, week by week, she had held out hope that her baby could somehow thrive. She also said that her own physical recovery from birth has been very easy, with her body quickly returning to its pre-pregnancy state, and now she finds herself wondering, "Did I really have a baby?" Sometimes she goes into her baby's nursery to remind herself that her baby existed, that it all really happened.

I offered, and she gladly accepted, to facilitate the celebration of life they will host in their home for close family and friends on Sunday. That is how I have come to be here, pondering, wondering how to strike the balance between the deep joy the parents feel over having been gifted with their baby's life, however brief, and the deep sadness they feel, knowing that their baby is now gone from their arms. Because there was so little time and the parents wanted to soak in every precious moment of their baby's life, their extended family never met the baby. For them, this will be both hello and goodbye.

I am so honored to be able to cross over from supporting this family in birth to supporting them in death. But this is some of the heaviest work I have ever done.

For thus says the Lord:
As a mother comforts her child,
   so I will comfort you;
   you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.

You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
   your bodies shall flourish like the grass;
and it shall be known that the hand of the Lord is with his servants.

-Isaiah 66:12a, 13-14a

Rest in peace, Lisa and Chloe. You are loved and remembered. <3

The (Metaphorical) Birth of Israel

A while back I packed my kids up and went to visit my folks over a weekend, which meant I got to visit the church I grew up in. That week the pastor preached on Genesis 32, the story of Jacob wrestling in the night with a mysterious figure. I have to admit that I do not recall the point the preacher was trying to make. I am particularly bad at listening to sermons--something I do feel guilty about, considering I once was a preacher and know the frustration of working hard on a sermon, only to look out at a congregation full of fidgeting and glazed eyes. But I remain a terrible listener.

I do recall that the preacher spent a good bit of time telling the backstory of Jacob--how he came to be staying up late by a stream in the middle of nowhere. And I do like a good story, so I listened to that part. And also I listened when he retold the strange episode of a "man" appearing and wrestling with Jacob through the night. Even the most apathetic listener would be hard put not to be drawn to this story. Who is this "man"? God? An angel? A demon? Jacob's own inner demons personified? It's anybody's guess, really, as the text doesn't say. What is clear is that this being was well matched in strength with Jacob: they wrestled through the night up to dawn, it had the power to dislocate Jacob's hip with a single touch, and it conferred upon Jacob a new name as a result of their striving.

Jose Alain Austria,&nbsp; Jacob Wrestling with God ,&nbsp;mixed media on canvas, 2008


Jose Alain Austria, Jacob Wrestling with God, mixed media on canvas, 2008

Halfway through this incredible story it hit me: this is a birth story.

It begins with the setting: the dead of night. Ask any woman who experienced a spontaneous labor (as opposed to being induced), and I'd guess 9 out of 10 would tell you her labor began at night. This is when the mother's hormones get reset, and some tipping point is reached in the dance between the mother's body and the baby she's been carrying all these months, and the contractions begin. The relentless contractions, which are a sort of wrestling that continues through the night, and does not cease until the baby is born.

In this story and in birth there are waters flowing (so, so, so much water and other fluids flow freely in birth).  Jacob has shunted all of his wives and children and possessions just across the river before nightfall, and so in the story and in birth, there are people nearby. But those people are only incidental to the drama unfolding between Jacob and his foe, and between a woman in labor and the force of her contractions. I am a doula, and it is my job to support women in labor. I am usually one of many support people: her partner, her midwife or doctor, nurses, other family and friends. We are all there to try to keep her safe and as comfortable as possible, but in labor, it is really all up to the mother to find a means of coping, of not giving up. I can bring her a cool cloth or a sip of water, I can assure her that what she is experiencing is normal, I can talk with her about her fears. But she must find her own way to conquer her fears, to cope with the intensity of her contractions, and ultimately to give in to the process, to let her body wrest the blessing from what can seem to be a stronger foe. But this is a crucial point that many people do not realize: the process of labor is not stronger than the laboring woman. It is her body that is doing this. She is as strong as her contractions. She is well matched to this labor with which she wrestles, just as Jacob in the end is well matched to his adversary.

At the end of his long night of wrestling, Jacob wrested a blessing from his mysterious opponent. In birth, it is obvious that there is a blessing. It might be that our first thought is that a baby is a blessing, and of course, that is true. But in the Genesis story, it is Jacob who is reborn, and, though we often overlook it in our excitement over the new baby, when a child is born, a mother also is born. At the end of his ordeal, Jacob receives his new name: Israel. Just as a woman who gives birth is still June or Stephanie or Katie, she is now also known as Mother. And just as Israel is not only one man's name, but also the name of a people, so are women who give birth now part of something larger than themselves. We are Mothers, we span time and space, not bound by nationality or era. We belong to a new tribe.

And when we recognize our strength, we are fierce.

As day breaks, Jacob limps onward. Though it goes without saying that he has been psychically altered by this experience, he has been permanently, physically altered as well. Once a woman has carried a baby in her belly--stretching her skin and squishing her internal organs beyond what she could have imagined was possible--and then she has birthed that baby, her body will also be permanently, physically altered. Nothing she can do will bring her body back to what it was. She has lasting scars, battle wounds. Ones I believe she should wear with pride.

photo by Jade Beall, creator of  A Beautiful Body Project

photo by Jade Beall, creator of A Beautiful Body Project

Pregnant in Worship: Thoughts on Liturgy and Birth

I was SO going to post this week on the Curse of Eve (doesn’t that sound like a B-list horror film? spoiler: It’s not.), but then another idea came crashing in. Maybe next week I’ll take us back to the Garden of Eden, but today I want to go inside Christian worship and look for birtheology there.

Note the preggo belly--I was determined to get this one sprinkled before the next one came along.

Note the preggo belly--I was determined to get this one sprinkled before the next one came along.

It seems to me that the church doesn’t offer much in the way of ritual or spiritual support for families in the childbearing year. It seems that most churches do a really good job of helping with the practical considerations of having a baby–chiefly, organizing a baby shower before birth and a care calendar afterward.  And when my church did these things for me, I felt loved and knew that this was a way for people to show that they care about me and my family. But, I wanted more. I wanted ritual–words and symbol used as a way for my church to acknowledge and support the spiritual journey my growing little family was on.

Of course, there is baptism (or baby dedication, depending on one’s tradition), but this happens well after the birth (and if you are like me, you don’t get around to doing this until your baby is a toddler (note the photos of my own family’s experiences) and MUCH less open to the idea of a semi-stranger coming at them with wet fingers). Plus, the baptism or baby dedication ritual is much more about starting the baby off on a solid theological grounding in life than about acknowledging what the parents and older siblings have just experienced.

Clearly I did not learn from my experience the first time around. My apologies to Ken White,&nbsp;the pastor who had to chase after my son’s head as he did his best to duck and dodge.

Clearly I did not learn from my experience the first time around. My apologies to Ken White, the pastor who had to chase after my son’s head as he did his best to duck and dodge.

Credit to  Barb Nunn , a wonderful Dallas-based photographer and friend

Credit to Barb Nunn, a wonderful Dallas-based photographer and friend

This kind of ritual acknowledgement of the incredibly transformative spiritual experience of pregnancy and birth was something I actively searched for when I was pregnant. There are two moments when I felt my pregnancy acknowledged in church that stand out in my memory. One was at my friend and colleague Chantel’s ordination. During the celebration of Communion, I walked up the aisle to her beaming face, and as she offered the bread to me she gestured to my belly and said, “May this nourish both you and your baby.”  I returned to my pew with tears in my eyes.

My other moment came a bit later in my first pregnancy, at Holy Trinity, the Anglican church I attended in Utrecht, the Netherlands.  They hold a healing service every few months in which people are invited to come forward to the altar rail and receive a blessing. I went forward as I approached the end of my pregnancy in order to have the minister pray over me and my baby for a healthy birth. That moment of having hands laid on my shoulders, oil anointing my forehead, and words of blessing spoken over me as I kneeled in church did much to allay some of my anxiety and to remind me that God would be with me in the physical act of delivering my child.

While I treasure both these memories, I did sort of happen upon them by accident. Neither communion nor a healing service are particularly designed to support pregnancy. So where are the rituals for pregnancy and birth? Why does the church, and its vast store of language and symbol regarding advent, and hope, and fear, and creation, and journey, and, well–LOTS of themes which easily relate to pregnancy and birth, remain silent?

I can’t answer that one. I have lots of thoughts, but of course no real answers.

But if the church, or even a church, (hey, what about your church?) wanted to start acknowledging and supporting the spiritual journey expecting families are on, here are some ideas:

  • A blessing for a pregnant woman, as well as for her partner and other children. What I’m suggesting is something that would happen within the context of worship, with the whole congregation present and participating. (As opposed to what is known as a “blessing way“, or “mother blessing”: a home-based ritual meant to provide emotional and spiritual support for a woman in her pregnancy. This is fodder for a whole other post entirely. Stay tuned.) This blessing could be short and simple, but the pledge of spiritual support from her congregation would be quite meaningful to a woman and her family journeying through pregnancy.
I love this image, but I think it is sad that this woman is all alone.&nbsp;Where is her community?

I love this image, but I think it is sad that this woman is all alone. Where is her community?

  • A blessing for the mother and her family after the birth. There used to be such a ritual, and it still survives in some Christian traditions. It is known as the “Churching of Women“, and for many people it carries negative connotations about the impurity of women following childbirth. However, I am proposing that we move beyond any such connotation, reformulating and reclaiming this ritual as needed in order to focus on welcoming a new mother back into worship, acknowledging the enormity of what she has just done, and lending support to her and her family as they move into a new way of being.
  • Always in the back of my mind when I am working with this concept of birtheology is the knowledge that pregnancy and birth are not always simple or even accessible to all. Of course, considerable discretion would need to be used, but I believe that offering a means of acknowledging the loss of a child through miscarriage or stillbirth and praying for and with the parents who have experienced this within the context of their community of faith could be a powerful means of supporting their grief.
  • Along these same lines, there are those in the pews who silently struggle with infertility.  I have no idea what this might look like, but perhaps there is a way to break the silence and shame on this subject as well. What is the church for, anyway, but to support one another in faith through life’s journey, whatever that journey might hold?

These are just preliminary ideas, and I could write a whole post on any of the points above. What I would really love is to hear your thoughts and experience. Is there a way in which you found spiritual support in the childbearing year within the context of worship, or do you have suggestions for how that could happen? Or have you felt excluded within worship as one who has struggled with fertility issues? How would you suggest the church address people in this situation?

Meeting the Theotokos in the Hospital

I was doin’ my chaplain thing this week, sitting with a patient’s family while they waited for news about their loved one, and I happened to mention to one of them (let’s call him Hank, which is not his real name) that I’m also a doula and a blogger on things birtheology-related. A couple of days later, I had a chance to swing by and check on this family, and Hank stopped me and said that he had googled my blog (“It’s an internet world,” he said), and he had a suggestion for me. Turns out Hank is Eastern Orthodox, and when he saw my blog, he immediately thought of this:

Or something a lot like this, as this is what I found when I googled what he described to me. It is an icon, which (put simply) is a religious work of art, often used in worship, but not as an object of worship. Eastern Orthodox Christians venerate (that is, regard with reverence or respect) icons, but this veneration, as Bishop Auxentios explains,

must be understood as a veneration rendered not to a thing (or person), in and of itself, but through the thing to that which sanctifies it—ultimately, of course, to God. We honor the Cross, therefore, because of the One crucified on it. We honor a Saint because of Him whose friend the Saint is.

This icon in particular is of Mary who is here depicted as the Theotokos, which is a Greek term most precisely translated as birth-giver of God.  In this rendering, Mary is pictured facing the viewer with her hands raised in a position that is both a posture of prayer and a reminder of the posture Christ took on the cross, here reflected by the tiny fully formed Jesus in her womb. This icon is meant to capture Mary at the moment of the Annunciation, when she gave her Great Yes to God, submitting to her role of God-bearer. Veneration of the Theotokos is a big part of Eastern Orthodox Christian practice. According to Dr. David J. Goa (who by the way, looks like THIS!!→)

When Orthodox Christians around the world enter the church, they bring a candle to this icon and, bowing in a prayer of gratitude to God who clothed them in flesh, ask that they, too, like the Theotokos, may be open to be a birth giver of divine love in a fractured and suffering world.

This is a prayer uttered by all Orthodox Christians regardless of gender or age, because this vocation to give birth to divine love is one that all Christians share. It’s like the good Dr. Goa says:

The mystery of the Incarnation of God in Christ is our mystery, a revelation of our created nature and a call to its fullness,...[thus] the Icon of the Virgin and Child is...the Icon of the Human Vocation. It reveals to us our capacity as persons, as women, men and children.

I believe that the Incarnation is not only something Jesus did once, but something that every Christian is called to do daily: to bring God into this world of flesh and blood. We are to say Yes to God, and allow Christ to be born in us, just like Mary did. This reminds me of the sermon Julie Pennington-Russell preached at my ordination, in which she stated that this woman who became the mother of Jesus was “no Milquetoast Mary,” but instead an incredibly brave and faithful person. Each of us who are serious about bearing Christ within us and bringing forth the light of God into the world ought to take her for a model of faith.

When Hank was telling me about the Theotokos and the significance this icon has for him and for his fellow Orthodox Christians, I lamented that Protestants lost so much when we decided to stop really paying any attention to Mary.  He replied that we “threw out the baby with the bath water–no pun intended!”

I couldn’t agree more.