Sometimes we sat beside her bed in silence, listening to her breathing. Sometimes we paced around the house, eating when we weren’t hungry, checking email for the third time that minute. When the nurse arrived for her daily visit, we peppered her with quiet questions:
“What’s the heart rate?”
“How is she doing?”
“How much longer?”
I never knew that death could so closely resemble birth.
* * * * *
When we are born, when we come screaming into this world all covered in mucus and blood, still attached to our mother, death is conceived, because as soon as life appears, death is the inevitable end. In other words, birth is the conception of death.
So when my grandmother’s breathing began taking pauses, and her heart rate dropped into the low 30s, and her skin took on the pale hue of a white candle, we gathered at her house. We watched her labor. We waited for her body to birth her soul.
But this second birth can be a scary one. The person we know is passing away, and that which is birthed is invisible to us. It is very easy to feel as if we will be left with nothing but an empty body, the husk of memories, and a tangible reminder of the dark road we ourselves must eventually walk.
The first birth, that of our body, is usually accompanied by tears of joy and signs of physical life. The second birth, that of our soul, is usually accompanied by silence, followed closely by tears of sadness and the sound of heartfelt weeping. Mourning. Loss.
* * * * *
I have never been this close to death. I have never before stood by the side of the bed and watched each labored breath, wondered if this one, or this one, or this one would be the last. I have never watched the rise and fall of someone’s chest from across the room. I have rarely thought about what it takes to separate a person from their body.
Yet in these moments, with death gathering, I have been surprised at the peace in the room. Sure, there is sadness at the pending separation. Disappointment that we will not hear her voice again here on earth. But there is also a right-ness in the whole thing, gratefulness for a life well-lived. Even more strange, I feel an eagerness for my own soul-birth, an unfamiliar desire that, when the time is right, I might leave the cares of this world behind and enter into a brand new reality.
* * * * *
Some people tend to discount Ecclesiastes as a book of ravings written by a jaded, materialistic old man who is filled with nothing but regret. Yet there are more than a few gems tucked away in there. This one comes to mind as my grandmother’s final days pass:
A good name is better than a good ointment,
And the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.
It is better to go to a house of mourning, Than to go to a house of feasting,
Because that is the end of every man, And the living takes it to heart.
* * * * *
So we wait. And we sing. And I watch with complete amazement this laboring, this birth of a soul.
19 Replies to “The Most Unexpected Birth”
Absolutely beautiful, Shawn. And this is the exact image God gave me as I began my journey into pastoral ministry – in my 40’s! – never having seen anyone die or even close to death in my life up until that point. I went, with great fear and trembling, to the hospital bed of a friend who was near death from breast cancer. And I was so struck by how similar the process of dying is to the process of being born. And I just held her hand and said with wonder, “Oh my goodness, Joyce! You’re being born!” She was delirious and could not hear me, but I prayed that her laboring would be swift, that her journey blessed, and I have never again been as frightened by the whole process as I was before that time. It is a good and lovely thing when family can gather around as our loved ones make this transfer, this birthing. Thank you for writing about it so beautifully here.
Wow! That is so beautiful. Though I have not seen death close up I have had the privilege to see the brith of both my sons. Such a joyful, exhausting and messy experience. I never thought of the parallels you drew between life and death before, but I love them. Thanks so much for sharing.
What a lovely post. Thank you so much for sharing this journey with us. I am honored to come alongside you and your family. Songs this morning will be sung in your grandmother’s honor as you wait for this birthing of her soul.
Sean, in the most beautiful way, you have called me back to the days of Mom’s death. The peaceful silence. The blessed weightedness.
I remember feeling, just as you do, that there is joy in this time, release for all of us. Perhaps this is why we call death by the softest of terms – a passing.
Love to you and your family.
So very beautiful, Shawn. This brought me back to my mom’s bedside. It was not quite a year ago now that she passed. And it was just like this. Listening to the labored breath of death. Watching her body give birth. Love and prayers.
My brother sat at my father’s side and watched as his soul departed his earthly body. I have mixed feelings about having not been there. I’m not sure I could have handled the pain and sorrow of watching. Yet, I know my brother considers it a great privilege to have been present in that moment.
“… But trailing clouds of glory do we come: From God, who is our home.” wrote Wordsworth. And, yes, knowing that a saint has gone home makes me long for it more deeply myself.
Beautiful piece, Shawn.
I am undone.
I had never thought of death in this way. I’ll be back later to read this again, I think. Thank you, thank you, for writing this. I am praying for comfort and peace for all of you.
And now I’m toying with the thought of my entire earthly lifetime as gestation. Hmm.
“the thought of my entire earthly lifetime as a gestation. Hmmm.”
very nice piece Shawn.
After Christmas dinner in the year 2001, my grandmother was dying. I was half a world away in New Zealand. But my mom and aunt sat with their mom waiting for her “soul to birth.” When her death was imminent, they gathered on each side of her and said the Lord’s Prayer aloud. After they said amen, Grandma had ten seconds of clarity (and she had suffered from Alzheimers for years) and then she passed.
This reminded me of that memory, told to me by my mom.
Brought me to tears! Absolutely captured the scenario I have been imagining and watching on the cam! Beautiful!
My grandfather passed away two weeks ago, and this resonated deeply. Thank you for sharing this beautiful perspective.
Beautiful image, beautiful writing. I love to think of the angels waiting, like midwives, to catch that soul, to see it wrapped and warmed and presented into the arms of our Loving Father.
How precious to be able to grieve, but with joy! Thanks for sharing these thoughts and feelings, Shawn
WOW!!! this is beautiful….
Love and prayers to you and the family….
Thanks for this telling of your grandmother’s passing. I like the concept of the body birthing the soul. Very well stated. Thanks.
Interesting take on death. Sorry to hear about your Grandma. I was in the room when my Grandfather passed. Very sad but a peace filled the room then too.
Exactly as the Hospice Nurse had explained to us as our Mother was passing. So many days of “labor” til the “birthing” was complete. It was a tough time, but also a joyous time. So thankful I was able to experience it. Blessings to you and your family.
beautiful…personal….thank you for your willingness to share.
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