Death Midwifery vs. Death Denial



With increasing frequency and ferocity we accuse ourselves of being a death denying culture as though it is something to be ashamed of.  Its true, we have become alienated from the rituals associated with end of life and post death care.  Understandably, those who awaken to that fact often feel angry, frustrated or motivated to shift our awareness.

 
We let death back into our lives a little bit by journeying with those who are terminally ill and stretching ourselves to remember how to care for our dead without professional intervention.  Such undertakings offer an invitation consider one's own mortality, and those of us who do so often gain a sense of enlightenment.   We realize that life is affirmed by engaging its negation and we come to live more fully because of it.
 
We death midwives seek one another out, and, together, aim to share the wisdom we have rediscovered.  In other words, we get off on a death positive vibe together.
 
"If only," we tell one another," if only everyone could embrace the great gifts death has to offer" and so as death doulas and home funeral guides and grief counselors we embark upon the good work of helping people to participate in the rituals that bring us closer to dying and deathcare and grief.
 
Personally, I find this work to be deeply fulfilling and gratifying, and at times I find myself becoming almost greedy for the high called death acceptance.  The circles in which I travel are increasingly lined with candy coated skeletons and flippant expressions of passion for the macabre.  Practitioners state their lack of fear of death as an asset from which their clients might benefit.  
 
Death denial has become the common enemy.  The trouble is, one can't fight denial with denial.  As a movement we have yet to realize that rather than an obstacle to overcome; denial is actually one of the very conditions upon which death acceptance depends.
 
When I was studying grief and bereavement as a thanatology student, my father said to me, "you know you're still going to be sad when I die, right?"  Inwardly I scoffed at his comment, knowing that my goal was to develop skills to grieve well rather than avoiding it; but in retrospect I have come to understand his pointed question more deeply, and it is one I wish to share with my death positive colleagues now, as we cooperate to mount a defense against death denial.
 
Let's face it, if we totally accepted death we'd be dead.  To eat or drink or draw breath is to deny death.  There is no shame in that, just as there is no shame in clinging to our loved ones who are dying and begging them not to leave us, or bargaining for more time to attend an event of personal significance before we die.  In many ways, raging against death is simply called living.
 
I believe that full death acceptance involves acknowledging that death is the normal, natural, inevitable and irreversible outcome of life while simultaneously acknowledging that our refusal to completely accept it is what makes us alive.  Its a subtle balance.  
 
I find it is useful to think of denial as a skill.  It is an important aspect of grieving well.  Bereaved people need such shifts in the often overwhelming emotions associated with grief in order to re frame and move forward, and for terminal patients it can offer some much needed reprieve.  Denial can be especially important for masculine grief processes, and overall has been shown to be much less harmful than rumination with respect to accommodating loss.
 
The death midwifery movement is re feminizing end of life and post death care.  I am grateful that we as sisters, nieces, daughters, mothers and grandmothers are remembering our role in community and helping to reclaim home based, family centred deathcare practices, and I am sure glad that we are teaching our culture that it is OK to be present to death and dying again.  I'm glad that we are sharing the possibility that participation can be beautiful, beneficial and healing; however, this is not something we can enforce or demand unequivocally.  There is no battle to be won.
 
It behoves us to accept the wisdom of denial.  Let us trust and cultivate skills in those who know they don't need to lay hands on their dead loved ones to move effectively through their grief.  Let us celebrate the work of those who do paperwork and dig graves and hold space outside the vigil room rather than operating under the assumption that engagement is always better for everyone.
 
I wish for us to re embrace death denial as an important component of death acceptance.  I wish for us as death midwives to recognize our own process as we ourselves deny death by claiming expertise.  Please let's stop trying to prove that we are so okay with death, when really its the fact that we are not totally accepting that makes us good at empowering others to open to it, and good at living in general!  Afterall, one simply can't fight denial with denial.
 
Cassandra Yonder
BEyond Yonder Death Midwifery


Comments


death denial/ death acceptance

Thank you so much, Cassandra, for opening this stimulating conversation. I often wonder about the death acceptance/death denial conundrum you are exploring and have read and reread your post several times.

I am mostly excited about the honesty with which you are willing to approach the ethics of death midwifery by questioning the beliefs and attitudes evidenced by our behaviors.

As I appreciate Stephen Jenkinson’s work that describes grief as a skill, I am intrigued by your suggestion that denial is a skill, too. Admittedly, my own psyche often bumps up against its limits of capacity for holding death acceptance, sometimes quite painfully and disruptively. It is during such times that I find how useful denial can be in providing rest to my weary mind and spirit because living requires it. What a blessed relief!

Merriam Webster says “skill- noun: the ability to do something that comes from training, experience, or practice.”

Then, is death denial a skill? It depends on whether we define a skill as something we need to work at or something we just acquire by default without even trying. Is death denial something we intentionally cultivate or an unconscious response from cultural conditioning? Is it a benign force? How does it serve life or inhibit depth of meaning? Is death denial a luxury of those of us not immediately confronted with active dying? Could death denial actually be a kind of gift or grace bestowed when we need it?

Does it follow that death acceptance is a skill? This certainly appears to be the greater challenge as cultural influences weigh in so heavily against our learning it. I have to believe that the willingness to repeatedly return to the labor of death acceptance is a moral imperative. We simply must have the courage to do it. Sometimes we find great beauty along the way and sometimes we find things we would rather not see. Instinctively it feels worth the effort.

So you see, Cassandra, your blog has truly inspired me to wonder more deeply about death denial and death acceptance. In my humble opinion that gift of nourishing curiosity and wonder is one of the highest forms of contribution a human can make.

Thank you again for speaking out to give pause to our sometimes overzealous attempts to change culture. Especially as death midwives and others who are intimately involved in work with death and those of us dying; what are our moral concerns? May we have the integrity to proceed in a way that is genuinely thoughtful and compassionate.

And finally, further crediting SJ’s teachings about our death phobic culture, I wonder about more radical notions of loving death instead of just accepting it. Is this possible? Is it worth aiming for? Is it more helpful to consider the indications and implications of death phobia as a more formidable force than death denial as a cultural reality in present day North America? I wonder.

I’ll stop here…for now, anyway…needing to ponder further.

Sharon Ponciano


Posted by Sharon Ponciano


Less Denial/More Receptivity

I LOVE the concept of a death midwife! I was not aware of the term until I read your blog post. It inspired me to write a blog in response to the both the value and enterprise of a woman's touch being provided those dying

Kevin Haselhorst MD
www.wishestodiefor.com


Posted by Kevin Haselhorst

the re-emergent goddess

thank you for validating my thoughts that the death cafe is a sign of the trend to re-feminize our world and to bring this female energy back into a harmonic balance.
( maybe even in time to save our sweet earth mother from the ravages of male dominion) I wrote the blog "hacking the ego at a Down East Death Cafe" and hope to follow it up with some more work regarding the re-emergent Goddess. One of my sources is Eliade Mircea who has some very interesting things to say about the role of the women in relation to death. thank you again for your words and for your work,
Sincerely Chuck
ckniffen@gmail.com


Posted by chuck


my hero

YES Louise, thank you for embracing your own death denying self and for offering that compassionate self in service of others. You have my utmost respect.

And I agree that in some ways one could view physician assisted suicide as the ultimate denial of death.


Posted by cassandra yonder


Soul Midwife

As usual Cassandra, I am moved by your beautiful writing. Thank you for your eloquence. I thank you for putting into words what I have often felt and pondered on myself. As you know I took a hiatus from my work as a Soul Midwife, and this was partly because I was feeling overcome with grief because I was immersing myself in death and dying every day, and that made me feel a failure. How could I feel embracing death and dying was a negative thing? Wasn't that what I was supposed to be arguing against? But of course that's not true. I embraced my death denying self Cassandra, because, and I also say this often, I am NOT dying have not been told that I am, and therefore all the imagining of that moment in the world cannot prepare me for my own death. I simply don't know what I will feel, want, do or fear in that moment. Nor do I feel comfortable with claims that we will "enable a peaceful death". We can't know that, not even Dame Cicely herself could have or would have made that claim. She recognised and coined the term "total pain". Pain which is outside the grasp of analgesics, adjuvants or therapists. Pain, that lies deep within someone, that they cannot reach, with or without help. Some people will die in pain, and although it is unlikely to be physical it will appear to be. I hope that as a Soul Midwife, I can hold a space for the dying, in which I can give them the opportunity to find some meaning in their experience and allow a more peaceful transition than it might have been without me. I believe that in my acceptance and reassurance of death and dying, in my calmness and with whatever "healing energy" I can muster, I bring comfort calm and reassurance. Of the physical process, by my knowledge and by the experience I have had at the bedside of the dying, and the spiritual process, by my creating a sacred space. Sometimes there is an overwhelming sense of transition of all things being right. Sometimes there feels to be an anticlimax. But what there will always be, is a life changing moment for someone. I have my own spiritual beliefs, but I hope that even if I cannot share that connection with the dying or their relatives, I can bring some meaning to this experience for them and comfort in my presence. I don't accept death unreservedly. I welcome life, I accept death as a natural part of that process, and I know that death will be a part of my journey like it will be everyone’s. In knowing that I will die, I find motivation to live in the moment and embrace all that I experience, I have a sense of “never put off until tomorrow what you can do today”. I hope that my death will come at the end of a long and fulfilling life, and that it will be in the loving arms of my wonderful family. It could equally be messy, pain filled and terrifying. I hope that I will have the anchor of someone to hold me, and my family together throughout and afterwards. That last statement that you make, about fighting denial with denial, resonates SO strongly with me, and I think that I have mentioned to you before, that this is why I believe it is incorrect to champion Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS), as being a death acceptance, it feels to me to be THE most death denying approach there could be. But I do not wish to comment on that here, I just recognise that sense of irony that you are referring to. Death, like life, is unpredictable and often uncontrollable. Our generation, are very control orientated, we have had more control over our lives than any who have gone before us, that in part is what medical science has given us. And yet, we are fighting to reclaim death , the one thing no-one will ever have control over. I think what you have pertained to here Cassandra, is absolutely THE key to this whole movement. It is right to look death in the eye, to engage with it, to touch it, to welcome it into our families and homes, when it comes. It will help us find meaning, comfort and it is, in my opinion beautiful. There is always an element of 'struggle' somewhere along the path. But, with all the will in the world, neither the medical profession, (who I believe are mistrusting of us as a community because we are in danger of making claims they know we cannot always uphold -but that is another debate), nor the more grassroots of us can make any claim over controlling what it will look like and how it will be. We can only hope to acknowledge it, and stand steady whilst it happens, in which there can be comfort, embrace our grief and learn to move forward with it. Thank you Cassandra for bringing up this important topic for conversation.


Posted by Louise O'Brien


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