Friday, January 18, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Yvonne's Passing by Adrienne Parker

Yvonne's Passing: A Family's Experience With Midwifing Death
Adrienne Parker
PHOTOS: Adrienne Parker

Originally Published in the July 2012 issue of Empirical

As an active participant in the homebirth movement (five of my six children were birthed at home) as well as a lay birth midwife for several years, it seemed a natural and obvious progression that when faced with my mother’s death I would want to care for her at home. Birth and death are similar transitions through the very same door; one is an entering, the other an exit. This idea wasn’t new to me, I had been interested in home funerals for years and had a friend who cared for her adult daughter at home as she died and then kept her there as she prepared her body for cremation. The closer my mother came to this powerful life transition, the more I understood how important it was for me to honor her final life’s passage in this way.

Loving great-grandchildren spending time with Yvonne on the day of her passing
Loving great-grandchildren spending time with Yvonne on the day of her passing
I recently returned from training on Death Midwifery and Home Funerals. It was a powerful experience. The woman I trained with, Jerrigrace Lyons, has assisted approximately 400 families in caring for their dead. I am humbled and amazed at the gift of her undertaking (pun intended). She is a true trailblazer, a pioneer in the home death movement. Our training covered: legalities, the importance of having an Advanced Health Care Directive, who has the authority to care for the dead, filing a death certificate, body care and preservation, and green burial among other things. A Death Midwife assists those who are dying to prepare for their own deaths, as well as serving as a guide to families and friends in caring for their dead and preparing for a home funeral.

I understand that delving so intimately into the subject of death is uncomfortable for many people. We live in a culture that separates itself from death. We fear it and prefer to avoid the topic. But the fact of the matter is: none of us get out of here alive. Death is something that each and every one of us, at some point, will experience up close and personal. We may attempt to ignore death, to hide from it, but it will eventually track us down and catch our attention loud and clear. Another option, rather than hiding from death, is to consider it in a conscious and intentional way. We can befriend death and plan for it in the same manner as we plan our births, graduations, and weddings. Death is obviously a time of great sadness, grief, and letting go. But it is also a time of celebrating and honoring the lives of those we hold dear.

Decorations for a casket
My mother died in my home on February 11, 2012. Was it only four years before that the extent of her dementia could no longer be denied? I was at work when she called me in a panic. She had forgotten how to lift her feet and walk. I rushed to her side to comfort her and called the paramedics who took her to the hospital for tests. After an MRI the doctor diagnosed her as being in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s. 

Just two years before, she was living alone in the house she had called home for forty years, where she had raised her three children as a single parent. She had created a comfortable home with a beautiful yard and rose garden. She was still caring for it all, managing her own affairs, as well as driving herself wherever she wanted to go. Old age arrives and change can happen fast. After she fell and broke her arm from tripping on her garden hose, she stopped driving, sold her home and car, and moved into a retirement community. She didn’t much care for it there, so she packed up and moved into an apartment, still living alone, with some help from her family. Soon our help and attention needed to be amped up, and eventually we moved her into assisted care. She died three and a half years later. She was confused, but she never forgot her family and friends. Sometimes she called me her elder sister’s name but she still knew it was me. Once she asked where her mama was and I told her that her mama had died long ago. She cried and thanked me for telling her because now she knew where her mama was.

In 2011, I had two intense dreams where I midwifed my mama through her death. I lost many friends that year and my kitty of fourteen years died. I deemed 2011 The Year of Death and built an altar that I placed in the Temple of Death at Burning Man. It depicted so much letting go, all of my losses and grief, along with my love and gratitude. I thought my mama would die in 2011 but she held on. On New Year’s Eve we celebrated her eighty-ninth birthday. In February she stopped eating and was drinking minimal water. We got her on hospice and moved her into my home. My brother and sister came with their partners. My husband was there, along with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Two of my girlfriends came from out of town to help. A few friends came to say their last goodbyes.

We read her favorite verses from the bible. Her great-grandchildren crawled into her bed and sang to her. Friends brought flowers and food, washed dishes, and ran errands. We laughed and cried and gave her all the loving we could in her last moments with us. We said our goodbyes. We told her she could go. She was peaceful until the very end when she struggled a bit with her final letting go. Those last minutes were difficult to witness but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. She died surrounded by her loved ones.

My husband and brother went to get dry ice while her daughters, granddaughters, and great granddaughters bathed her body. We added essential oils and rose petals to her bath water in a bowl that one of my sons, a potter, had made. After washing her body and hair, we dressed her, changed her bed clothes, and covered her in her special blankets.

I’ve always acknowledged that death is a natural part of life, but nothing came close to this understanding as when my mother died in my home, in the arms of her family. She stayed in the parlor, for the next three days, for her wake. My grandchildren were with us every step of the way, making art and writing poems. One of my fondest memories is of my ten-year old grandson running through the room where she was resting peacefully. On his way to pick fruit from the mandarin tree in my yard, he leaned over and kissed his grandmother’s dead body on his way out the door, and then upon his return with fruit in hands, he kissed her again as he continued on his way, back to his creative project. We sat with her, holding her hand, arranging her hair, crying, laughing, loving. The love continues after death. It doesn’t die when the body dies.

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My husband and a friend picked up her cardboard casket from the funeral home which we placed on the dining room table. I went to the fabric store with my youngest daughter for fabric to line her casket. One friend painted the casket and another brought magazines to use for a collage. We walked downtown and purchased various art supplies, and then for three days we decorated her casket. The grandkids worked for hours, keeping at it from morning till night. We all participated in different ways. 

On February 14th, Valentine’s Day, my cousin arrived just in time to join the family who had gathered to transfer my mother from her bed into her casket. We covered her in roses and added a few other personal objects to accompany her on her journey. The folks from the funeral home came and transported her there for her memorial service.

My eldest daughter made a lovely slide show with music. A good friend who is a minister officiated her memorial. My mother was a Christian and I wanted the service to reflect that, to honor the relationship she had with her God without being overly religious. It was perfect. Many family friends showed up, including her doctor as well as a married couple, who were not only my mother’s age, but were her childhood friends since kindergarten. My brother gave her eulogy and I spoke along with a couple of her grandchildren and great grandchildren. After her service we wheeled her body to the crematorium. My grandson cranked the church cart up to the appropriate height and we pushed her casket inside the chamber. I pushed the buttons that signaled the crematorium to burn my mother’s body to ashes and we returned home to share food and connection.

My parlor seems so empty now, without my mama there. There is an empty space in my life without her. I miss her, but I know how blessed I am to have had her in my life while she was living, and also as she was dying, transitioning from this life into the next with such grace and intimacy. When my son spoke at her memorial service he talked about how she gave, and gave and gave. I experience one of her greatest gifts as being in how she died. Her death has inspired me to educate and help others in this process, that they may know the blessing of not only caring for a loved one as they die at home, but in the continuation of care as they lay in honor after death. And this gift extends to my mother’s great-grandchildren, a gift that they will carry throughout their lives. They were an integral part of her living and her dying–not only as witnesses, but as personal and powerful participants in the process of caring for their dead.

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