A Day in the Life of a Death Midwife

I spent my day listening to stories by an old Appalachian mountain storyteller, her riveting tales keeping me on the edge of my seat.

I conducted storycorps pre-interviews for a Legacy Project.

I collected colorful maple leaves🍁 with a newly widowed woman with Alzheimer’s, watching her face light up with childlike wonder upon each and every newly found leaf.
She then happily handed them out to others, small tokens of love and affection.

I sat with a dying woman and her family, being fully present as she peacefully drifted deeper into sleep, her time drawing closer, experiencing bits and pieces of both worlds.

Lastly, I tried my best to comfort and console a woman who is terrified and alone, with no living relatives. I was not too successful I’m afraid, I will try again to reach her during my next visit.

Each and every human being handles death and the dying process in their own unique way, the dying process just as unpredictable as each and every birthing process.

People generally die in the same way they have lived.

Midwife to the Dying [On loss]

I lost a patient this morning who I shared a very beautiful connection with. This was a tough loss for me.

I received the call yesterday, my patient was actively dying.

In order to receive Hospice care, a physician must determine the patient has 6 months or less to live.

This particular patient was in the final stages of his disease, and vitals among other tell tale signs indicated imminent death.

My person suffered from a very debilitating illness that affected his cognitive function.

As we sat together over lunch about 3 weeks ago, his head down, he suddenly looked up at me and said

“I’m ready to go home”.

He asked me if I would pray with him, and I did. I told him it was ok to let go if he was ready… “Are you ready, I asked”? “I believe so” he responded.

I sat there holding his hand in silence for a few moments as he drifted back into his former state of disorientation.

An old WW2 Navy veteran, I spent many a day with him nestled up to me as I read old war stories to him, he loved history in general, and responded favorably to these old stories of victory, triumph, and yes…. even defeat.

Like a helpless child seeking comfort, i’d stroke his forehead as i read aloud, reminding him regularly that it was safe to let go, that i was there and there was nothing to be afraid of.

Many times he drifted off in my arms, like a small boy, safe with mother.

I woke Saturday morning with a sense of panic, restlessness and anxiety.

These are not typical emotions for me. I sat with these feelings as they intensified over the course of 3 days.

Then Tuesday, I received the call. My patient was actively dying. I was able to say my goodbyes, and offer one last, tender stroke upon his forehead, one final word of comfort in his ear.

I woke this morning to the news…He had passed.

This is such deep work, and I realize it is not for everyone. It is the greatest honor to be a part of the dying process, helping a soul cross over into the unknown. I feel what they feel; fear, panic, terror, peace, anticipation, sorrow, regret. I feel it all. And that is the impetus that creates the drive needed to keep going in the midst of such intensity.

And while I feel a level of sadness for the families of my people, I know that my peaople continue on free of all these earthly constaints, and that I celebrate.

I have now been assigned to the wife he has left behind as she draws closer to her own transition.

Diary of a Death Midwife

I was called in today to sit with a patient who was extremely agitated, and unable to communicate what exactly was causing their distress.

It is like I must play the role of ‘mother’ and find the source of discomfort.

It always amazes me how people return to such a vulnerable state at the end of their lives.
How much they rely on others to offer them comfort and care.

My job is to find and meet their emotional needs, whatever they may be. It is an extremely intuitive process. They often speak only through eye contact and/or body language.

My person was afraid, and as a result retless and agitated.

Dying is an entirely new experience that we only (most of us) experience once. So full of unknowns even for people who have strong faith in something beyond this life.

I handed my person their blanket, stroked their forehead and sang to them, much the same way I have with each of my 5 children.

Isn’t this what we all crave at the deepest level?

Presence, connection, comfort, and love.

Each, such primal needs, beyond mere desire.

Such a beautiful, rich experience ❤

A Day in the Life of a Death Midwife

Today, during a staff meeting with a team of beautiful souls, dedicated to the work they do with Hospice, I share a story about one of my patients who is suffering from the late stages of dementia.

Often times all I have to offer her is my presence, and somehow that leaves me feeling as if I am not truly reaching her, reaching deep down into that space where the essence of who she is lives on in spite of her cognitive decline.

She offers bits and pieces to me of her former life, her former self, mostly childhood memories of growing up here in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The Winter that she contracted measles and became deathly ill.

The way the youngins acted up (all 8 of em) when they’d been cooped up too long.

Bits and pieces, like a puzzle I so desperately try to put together so that I might help her make as smooth a transition as possible from this earthly reality to the next.

I look into her piercing blue eyes and they speak to me where words fail.

She reaches for my hand and we sit together in silence.

And then, restlessness sets in, she is resisting this process, there is something inside of her still unsettled.

We sing a few rounds of Amazing Grace.

She is calm once again.

Her eyes suddenly show deep sadness. I pull out my iPAD and play a youtube video for her of scenes from the Blue Ridge Mountains set to Bluegrass. Her eyes suddenly light up.

“Banjo!” She shouts, as she starts tapping her leg with her wrinkled, frail hand, visually engaged in the scenes of her childhood here in the mountains upon the screen.

It was a good day, we connected.

Success!

This is a small glimpse into my day as a death midwife. It is an extremely intuitive process in many ways, especially while sitting with patients who can no longer communicate.

Body language, breathing, the subtle shift of a gaze are often times the only indicators I have to go on.

It is both challenging and rewarding.

It is an honor.