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Birth and Death

After I wrote the question for last week’s Weekly What If, it keep tugging at me mentally, would I want to be there for the beginning or the end?  The birth or the death?

What if you could either be transported to the first show or the last show of your favourite band.  Would you rather go see them before they became the polished musicians you know them to be; to catch that first spark?  Or would you rather go enjoy their last hurrah?

I was couching it in terms of a band, but I think (at least for me) what it really comes down to where is your comfort level with death.  With a few exceptions that come to mind, I think most people are excited to be there at a birth.  But how many of us would opt to be there for a death?

While there are many who would answer affirmatively, point out that they wouldn’t want to miss out on any time they could possibly have with the person, there are a great number of people, I would guess, who might want to be close by, but not actually in the room.  Or not even close by — there are plenty of people who are more comfortable remembering the person as they were when they were vibrant and don’t want their final memory to be that moment of death.

And I think all options are valid — a person needs to do what a person needs to do to feel comfortable.  There is no right or wrong way to say goodbye.  Or to not say goodbye, as it were.

*******

I would hazard a guess to say that we have fewer opportunities to be there at a birth than to be there at a death (with perhaps the exception of certain professions).  I’ve met exactly two people on the first day of their life and those would be the twins.  I’ve met some people a few days into life, but most people I’ve met months or years or decades into their life.  Isn’t that a strange thing to think about?  How few people you’ve known since the moment they were born when you consider all those important people around you?

This concept is thought about deeply in adoption circles, and people have written much more eloquently that I could about what that moment of birth means.  Missing out on a person’s birth is a loss — a deep loss that we can barely wrap our minds around, so we instead joke about it through movies such as Due Date — and yet the rational side of our brain knows that the best is yet to come.  It’s exciting to be there for the beginning, but is simply seeing a person exist more exciting than seeing them walk for the first time or ride a bike or graduate high school or get their first job?

Birth sort of feels like the beginning of a band, where you can sense that you like the music, but you have no idea what the band’s full potential is during those first few chords.  I’m not sure it would be that exciting to see my favourite bands when they were pimply teenagers barely able to strum a few chords.  The music certainly wouldn’t sound like the music I know and love today.  Whereas there are milestone concerts along the way that I’d love to have been at.

And while I don’t like the idea of saying goodbye to something or someone I love, I think I would opt to be there at the end, to have known as much as I could about the journey.  It takes time for love to full entwine itself around your heart as much as it can wrap itself fairly tightly at first sight; at first knowledge.  I would rather be loving that person (or in the case of our what if, band) with my whole heart, having that love in every single one of my pores as I say goodbye, having all of the knowledge that comes with being part of something or someone.  I never want to say goodbye; I am terrible at goodbyes.  But I think I would rather miss out on a birth than ever miss out on a death.

Which is to say that, of course, I’d rather be at both.  I’d rather be at neither.

*******

Which leads us to our next logical thought — what about when the beginning is the end?  When the birth is the death?  When they come in quick succession or when death precedes the birth?  When the two are wrapped so tightly into a single package that they become inseparable.  The birth is the death.  The death is a birth.

Just writing that paragraph made me cry.

*******

We recently got to the part of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone where Harry encounters the Mirror of Desire and sees his parents.  The ChickieNob had turned her body so her face was pressing into the back of the sofa because she was scared of Professor Snape (who almost bumped into Harry in that scene).  The Wolvog had his head bent over the arm that held the book, half looking at the page, and half resting his forehead and just listening.

And then I noticed that my arm was wet.  The Wolvog had been crying, thinking about how Harry’s one desire was to see his parents and how he had grown up in life obviously missing their birth, but also not consciously there for their death.  He talked about it in terms of Harry, how it would be so sad to say hello and goodbye at the same time, seeing them for the first time in the mirror, but also knowing that it’s not real, it’s just a reminder of a goodbye.

But, of course, what he was really talking about was this knowledge in the back of his mind, the one too terrible to actually think about too deeply yet, is that one day his own parents wouldn’t be here anymore.  That everyone dies.

And seeing him process that book was seeing this premonition of how my own children would possibly grieve my death in the future.  That I am going to bring this pain on to them one day; it’s unavoidable.  I am going to devastate my children by dying.

And that absolutely gutted me.

We take such care not to yell at them.  Not to tear down their self-esteem.  We beat ourselves up when we snarl at our kids because we’re having a bad day.  And yet, we are going to do something unspeakable horrific to them in the future and there is nothing we can do about it.  They’ll do this to their own children.

And that thought, that there will one day be a goodbye, one day be an end of the band, one day be a choice of whether they want to be there for the end of my life — that is what gutted me.

29 comments

1 Rebecca { 03.16.11 at 8:23 am }

Such an incredibly beautiful, touching post. Thank you for this. As someone who has experienced that birth & death intertwined with my daughter I can tell you it is a heartbreaking, forever changing event, but as you said one I’m still thankful to have been able to experience. To be fully present in that moment and have that opportunity, I too am tearing up writing this;(
I also did hospice social work in the past and have been present at several deaths and can tell you it truly is an honor and such a moving moment to see someone pass from this earth and their closest family/friends present with them to usher them out of this world surrounded by love…there really are no words to adequately describe that moment.
This post moved me so much, thank you.

2 Shelli { 03.16.11 at 8:26 am }

Hello… goodbye. That was the part in your book acknowledgments that sent me over the edge. Curiously, it also set off a bunch of inner conversations with myself over the last month, and, the result that I am needing to make some hard decisions. I want to be present for my son and a future adopted child, but my lifestyle is chipping away at that.

Remember that defining moment you asked about a few posts ago? For me, it was that simple statement in your book acknowledgments. Thank you. And for this post, which feels like you stepped into my head and wrote down my thoughts.
xo

3 Devon { 03.16.11 at 8:38 am }

Ugh. I think about this so much. They are both such precious events, Birth and Death. The first moments, or the last moments of a life.

I was present at my father’s death, in the room with him alone when he drew his last breath, and I knew the moment it happened. While I was glad that he was not alone and his suffering had come to an end. It was a moment that will probably be with me forever. It is so hard for me to remember him full of life-because the last memory of him for me is his death. Three weeks later I gave birth to my daughter, and hearing her first cries is another moment that is etched into my brain permanently. Birth and Death are so entwined with eachother for me, because it wasn’t long after we found out I was finally pregnant that my Dad was diagnosed with cancer and started dying. I struggle with this all the time.

Whether I wanted to be in the room when my Dad died or not I am very lucky to have been present (It gives me great comfort to know he was not alone) Both occasions have had a significant impact on my life, but for very different reasons.

As for my own death, and my daughter being present, I never want her to feel the pain that I felt when my father passed. But that is inevitable i suppose.

4 Tigger { 03.16.11 at 8:43 am }

Odd that you should post this right now. Why? Because sometime in the next several weeks I will be giving birth to our son. My husband has had nightmares since we first started trying to conceive 6 years ago that I would die in childbirth. My biggest fear these days is that this will be a stillbirth. In both scenarios, there would be both a birth and a death – and my husband, at the very least, would be present for both. Needless to say, he’s terrified and handling it in the only way he knows how – not talking about it.

I met my oldest nephew just minutes after his birth (I wasn’t allowed in the room, and was WAY too young at the age of 12 to experience that anyways) and my youngest nephew a few hours after. I feel like I have a closer bond with the former than I do the latter…but until now I’ve never stopped to consider that maybe it was because I was THERE when he entered the world.

I was not there the minute my mother died, but I was there 3 days before and knew it was time. I spent that day by her side – her in the hospital bed in the living room, me on the couch at her side. The entire time she was sick and dying, I was the only person she consistently recognized, right to the very end. Not my sister, not my dad, not her best friends…but me. If you told her I was there to visit, she would just light up and show excitement. I miss my mother, but I am glad I was not there for the very last minute – I don’t think I could have handled it. I just don’t. Her death was hard, hard, hard and I had a long time to prepare myself for it. My father was the only one there, and for that I am grateful. He would probably never admit to it, but he probably is too. Death is hard, regardless of the form it takes.

5 Kristin { 03.16.11 at 8:44 am }

Wow Mel, what a powerful and beautiful post. Watching kids learn about death can be so hard.

6 Rebecca { 03.16.11 at 8:45 am }

I would go to the death of a band, for sure.

I wish someone had been there with my dad when he died but then by it’s very nature suicide is a lonely death.

7 Chickenpig { 03.16.11 at 9:16 am }

I would choose neither birth nor death, but a wedding :) The happy point in between where everything seems possible. The concert where the band really has it’s shit together, before the breakup or the slow decline. The happy party where everyone is present, your friends, your grandparents, the love of your life. But I also feel the same way about a birth as I do about a wedding. Brides make a huge deal about having the “perfect day”, mothers to be make a huge deal about having the “perfect birth”, but why? In reality, it is the marriage and the life that is important in their entirety, not just the moment of beginning.

8 N { 03.16.11 at 9:54 am }

When n was newish, and I was still overwhelmed with hormones, I spent many a night crying and panicking over what we’d done to her, bringing her into this world only to have to suffer so much pain and loss, and then to die herself.

I still have a hard time with it a lot.

I’ve only been there for one death. And while it’s not the sort of thing I’d necessarily *want*, I feel like I would be honored to again – for the other person. And while I prefer to think of people as i knew them earlier in life, there is really something special about knowing I was there as long as I could be, and got all I could.

9 Elizabeth { 03.16.11 at 10:13 am }

Wow – deep thoughts. I felt what N describes before my kids were conceived, and it kept me from actually trying to conceive for a long time. Now, I guess I don’t think about it because it’s too much, too terrifying.

10 Iris { 03.16.11 at 10:48 am }

Thanks for this wonderful post. I am a medical social worker and worked with many people that died and I have had patients that were declared dead for a few seconds but were brought back to life. I have spoken with them about their experience. I really believe that some of my patients waited until their families left the room before they died. I believe they made a conscious choice understanding it might be more difficult for their family to be there than not. My patients that were revived told me they heard what people around them were saying and in fact in checking it out I found it to be true. After that, I always advised family members and friends, even with a loved one in a coma, to talk with them as if they heard you…I believe that there is nothing that rivals the power of being in the presence of a birth or a death.

11 Peg { 03.16.11 at 11:03 am }

What a great post. On a daily basis I get to see how my two nieces have to deal with the death of their parents. It’s heartbreaking. What really gets me these days is not always about how much I miss my sister, but that the girls don’t have their mommy. A mommy that they need so much right now. When bad things happen, your parents are supposed to be there to comfort you. I wish the accident never happened, but what I really wish is that the girls had their mommy and daddy. No one should have to go through what they did.

Also, I really liked the music comparision. Great writing.

12 Denver Laura { 03.16.11 at 11:07 am }

I had a very surreal day a few years ago. My FIL was going in for double bypass surgery. It just do happened that a co-worker was in the maternity ward of the same hospital. So after seeing off the FIL to go into a surgery where they would stop his heart, I went down a couple floors to see where they brought new life into this world. The mood was so very different on that floor.

The band question is a different flavor. Although I have been there for the rise and fall of a local band, I would rather be there for the peak (a nod to pp: wedding), not the end. The end for a band is usually riddled with bickering, drugs, women… The beginning, the real beginning, is usually in somebody’s garage. Songs aren’t really together yet, they haven’t figured out what works best for each other, it’s sometimes just getting together having fun instead of being filled with hope and ambition.

I was there the day my goddaughter was born. Her mother and I were friends in HS. This week, my 17 year old goddaughter is now a godmother. That makes me feel old, lol. Death makes me feel young, or at least makes me reassess my life to make sure I am living life.

13 Tigger { 03.16.11 at 12:15 pm }

@ Iris: My mom didn’t want to “leave”. It took her a couple weeks before she did, although she kept saying she wanted to go “home”. All of us made a final trip up there, all of us telling her she could go home, that it was time, we were ok. I was the last one, and 3 days later she was gone. My dad was in the next room and he somehow, I don’t know how, heard the change in her breathing. He went in there, she very plaintively said she wanted to go home, and he told her to quit dallying and just go home, it was time already. :) She asked if he was sure, he said yes, held her hand, she closed her eyes and went. (and I’m tearing up just writing about it) We always believed, even when she was asleep, that she could hear us and were always cautious about what we said and how we said it. I believe as you do, that some patients just wait and try to make it as easy on their families as they can.

14 flmgodog { 03.16.11 at 12:36 pm }

Right now I come from a place of grief (though I am having some better days). Birth and death, two very complicated issues for me right now. I had to sort of skim over the part about the band because once I read birth and death in the same sentance I went right back to exactly three weeks birth/death day even though the baby had already died probably two weeks before that.
When I found out that the baby had died I knew for myself that I needed it all to end as soon as possible. And I knew that I did not want to be awake for the “birth”. Just thinking about it is awful. I am trying, trying, trying to move beyond what happened to me a few weeks ago and think about this post in a different way but it’s just not happening.

I am with other’s I would rather be there on the “wedding day” of a band than birth or death.

Sorry I hijacked this space and then blubbered on :(

15 BigP's Heather { 03.16.11 at 1:34 pm }

Crap. I never even thought about that. Now I’m crying too.

16 magpie { 03.16.11 at 2:08 pm }

My sister & I were with my mother when she died. It was wrenching, but then, it was going to happen. I think she went in the best way possible – at home, not alone, without pain.

17 loribeth { 03.16.11 at 3:12 pm }

It’s not that I would especially WANT to be around when someone dies, but I would never want one of my loved ones to die alone. I would rather be there to see them off on the next part of their journey than to have them go it alone.

I’ve never been present at a birth either (daughter’s stillbirth not included). I don’t particularly believe birth should be a spectator sport ; ) — especially since I know all too well what can & does sometimes happen :( — but if a close friend asked me to be there to support her through birth, of course I would do it.

But I have been to & enjoyed many weddings, of all sizes & flavours. : )

18 Vee { 03.16.11 at 3:16 pm }

I am crying too. If you had asked me a couple of years ago whether I wanted to watch someone die, be there for the death. Heck no way could I. I changed my mind, I wanted to be there.

I was with Max the whole time during his last days, watching every laboured breath, waiting for his last. When I left the room to have some lunch is when he chose to take his last breath. He didn’t want me to be there. He knew I was scared of watching him take his last breath so he waited til I left the room. So sometimes it’s not up to us to be there for death, even if we want to be there.

19 Tigger { 03.16.11 at 4:38 pm }

Mel, do you mind if I steal this question and post it to a forum I am involved with? I’d love to see their ideas on it…

20 Sue { 03.16.11 at 6:21 pm }

I was 30 when my mother died. After 9 months of illness, as she took her last breaths, my family was around her, touching her, telling her we loved her and that it was okay to let go, it was okay to go.

Her dying was ugly: he death rattle that lasted for hours; there are other details I’ll spare you. But when the hospice nurse said to me, as we were bathing my mother, “oh, it looks like her last breaths…” everyone came in and held her. Held her and each other.

A week earlier, she said she felt guilty about leaving us, not being there to take care of us. I’d like to think, as she took those last breaths, that she was aware of, of our words, our voices, our hands on her arms and legs and face, and left in some sort of peace. The idea that, in the end, we were able to give her some kind of comfort means more than I ever thought it could. She was there for my first breaths, I was there for her last ones. It was the least I could do for her.

I was not able to be consciously present for the death, and birth and death of my sons and I regret that. When news came of my sister’s child’s birth, I love that child even before I knew if she was a boy or a girl. It was immediate and it was more powerful than I could have imagined. I didn’t need to be there. Kind of seems that continuing to be present is what is really the important part.

21 Mer { 03.16.11 at 9:25 pm }

I’ve never really thought about this in the manner you have. I’ve often thought that losing their mom when they are young (if G-d forbid something happened to me), would be devastating and change their lives forever, but I’ve never considered the fact that even if I make it to a very old age, if the natural order of things holds, they will bury and mourn me. It brings me to tears just writing those words. What an incredibly moving post.

@Iris: You are so right about the dying and their wishes to make things easier for their families. My GMIL had 7 kids, and was lucid until the day before her death. 6 of the 7 had made it to her side while she was still awake, and she knew the 7th was on her way. About 40 minutes after the 7th child arrived, my GMIL passed away, surrounded by all of her children, which is just how she knew her family wanted it. I have no doubt she waited for that moment before passing. No doubt at all.

22 New Normal { 03.16.11 at 9:33 pm }

Wow, Mel, thank you for this today. I sit here contemplating a potential adoption situation that is many months past birth, and I consider the grief of losing those precious months. And at the same time I think about the amazing potential for what is yet to come. Of course the birth and death of my twins is never far from my thoughts in this incredibly emotional process. I am quite certain that the reality of having a possible match is stirring emotions that for the past weeks hadn’t been as near the surface. So, thank you. For the food for thought.

23 a { 03.16.11 at 10:24 pm }

We’re pretty pragmatic about death here – we talk about it occasionally. I think that life has shown me that it’s easier to accept if you’re aware that it’s just a part of life. Someone in my life was dying every few years, it seemed (my grandmother when I was 4, my dad’s uncle when I was about 10, my grandfather when I was 13, a classmate when I was 14, a classmate when I was 19, my dad when I was 22, my grandmother when I was 25, my aunt when I was 29 – and those are only the most memorable ones). I was there for my dad’s death and I was the first one at the hospital after my aunt died. There’s an unusual sort of peace in that moment (as long as there are no drama queens destroying that peace).

My daughter is already planning her inheritance. I’ve got a teddy bear that I’ve had since I was born that she’s got her eye on. She doesn’t really understand that people die, I don’t think, but I do think we’ve started the work that will make her accepting of death eventually.

24 Iris { 03.16.11 at 10:46 pm }

@Mer. Thanks for your comments and sharing your story. My mother was gravely ill early one morning and the doctor told me she would only last a couple of hours. My brother was in California and my sister in New York. I called them immediately and told them to get here as fast as they could. I told my mom they were on the way. She also waited until we were all there. We all got a chance to say good bye to her late that night and with all of her family by her side she died.

25 Bea { 03.17.11 at 6:38 am }

What thoughts.

Here’s my first thought whilst reading: that I’ve always thought how being there (or not) at a death shouldn’t be about your own comfort so much as what the dying person wants or needs. I mean, obviously your own comfort comes into that. If you’re going to be losing it, you may not be exactly comforting to them, and everyone may be better if you stay away. Still, I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable when people say they’re not visiting such-and-such in the final days because they want to preserve happier memories. I always wonder how their imagination lets them get away with less than reality, for a start, and then I wonder whether their mind really does systematically obliterate earlier memories in favour of newer ones, as if they can only hold a finite number of thoughts on a particular person, and then I just end up hoping nobody does that to me.

The birth and the death, intertwined. Perhaps that’s why it’s so shocking, seems so out of order.

I hope to live long and well enough that my death, whilst sad for my children, is also a thing they can quickly accept without too much shock or regret. Two relatives have died so far this year, but it is easier to grieve for the one who went “when it was her time” and having lived full and happily.

Bea

26 Kate (Bee In The Bonnet) { 03.17.11 at 4:40 pm }

This:
“Isn’t that a strange thing to think about? How few people you’ve known since the moment they were born when you consider all those important people around you?”

is something I think about often. There are those rare people in the world that you’ve known since early childhood, and even those rarer friendships where one’s parents were friends and you have literally known each other since early infancy. But, with the exception of giving birth and/or having a sibling born into a family, you are right that it is exceptionally rare to have known someone since their birth.

And yet, what’s even weirder to me is that both giving birth and having a sibling born are one-sided relationships– except in the case of twins (or other multiples). What gobsmacks me all the time is that my boys know each other in a way no one else ever will, and in a way that not many people know another person. They have known each other since the first spark of consciousness hit their wee tiny heads. It blows me away to think of that kind of knowledge of another person.

And yes, you have me pretty much in tears (I’m an easy cry when my imagination gets going, but I admit, I rarely let it go often enough to do so…). It is so true that we will inflict that hurt on these innocents, and that they someday will do it to their children, and of course, on the flip side of that unique twin relationship, one of them will do this to the other, and THAT is what guts me. Someday, one of the boys will die and the other will be left without his lifelong, known-you-since-before-birth partner, and that one, that poor one, will be one of the absolute few who gets to be there for both the birth and the death of an individual.

27 andrea { 03.17.11 at 8:27 pm }

wow, your comment about ‘birth being death’ says it all. No wonder a miscarriage can feel so bad! It somehow doesn’t make sense in our minds, and feels ALL WRONG. thank you, for your post.

28 coffeegrl { 03.20.11 at 6:02 am }

Where we are (in Japan) death is hard to escape right now. The body count continues to escalate (as does the number of missing people). And yet. In the areas closest to the coastline where the tsunamis were, many schools were built up on higher ground and being that the quake and tsunamis occurred on a Friday afternoon, the children were all safe in school. It was the parents and grandparents who are now all just…gone. Some buried under buildings affected by earthquakes, but many presumably swept out to sea – with no one to bear witness to their death. It’s unbelievably heartbreaking for me to think about the deceased and furthermore all of those parentless children. While I’m not sure that those children would be better off had they been given the opportunity to be present at the death of their parents, I think there’s something so horrific about the not knowing – the “one minute they’re here and the next they’re just… gone”. Terrible, terrible week.

29 Julie { 03.21.11 at 5:46 pm }

“The birth is the death. The death is a birth.”

Before I got to that paragraph, I wanted to make this comment. After delivering my stillborn son, I had a hard time referring to his “birth.” Did he have a birth if he was already dead? To me, birth implies life. I never got to look him in the eye, to feel him grasp my finger, to hold him against me and feel him breathe.

His birth was the end of my time with him, instead of the beginning of his life.

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