The Bereavement Doula

mary rose leslieDuring one of my prenatal visits I mentioned that I wasn’t sure if I should hire a doula for my second birth. I had been going to a number of doctors’ appointments and did not have much time to think about my needs or labor. There was so much to do to confirm Mary Rose’s “diagnosis” of trisomy 18, to plan for her birth and her death, to see specialists about her defects and to understand her illness the best that I could when medical doctors answered “We don’t know,” to my many questions. Midwife Gloria said, “You should hire a bereavement doula.” And I replied, “How could there be such a thing?” She suggested that I call Leslie Cuffee, and set up an appointment. She was known in her community as a doula who could witness the death of a baby. Leslie’s first birth as a doula was still. When parents need her to walk them through a difficult pregnancy, she is present.

Expectant mothers hire doulas to support them through their labor and after the birth. A doula often spends more time with the mother than a doctor or midwife. They preserve the birthing space and do their best to work with providers to keep the mother’s wishes for her birth plan in place. They also seem to be experts at back massage just when the contractions crescendo, and know of natural methods to work through the hours of labor.

When I met Leslie she told me that I would write a book about Mary Rose. I looked at her confused in my daze of shock and grief. “Forget your poetry and your novel. This is the book that will come first,” she said.  Leslie felt that there was a need for a book about life and death, a book that embraced all babies regardless of their expected outcomes. She is one of the few who held my daughter after she died and smiled, looking at her face. She accepted God’s will for Mary Rose and didn’t question my daughter’s value as a human being. Leslie told me of a birth where a baby was born with its organs outside of its body. She held the tiny body and told me that she was beautiful. I knew that Leslie would love Mary Rose in life and in death.

In her book Birth, Breath & Death: Meditations on Motherhood, Chaplaincy and Life as a Doula, Amy Wright Glenn discusses her spiritual path and her work as a doula and later as a chaplain.  Many birthworkers, be they midwives or doulas, turn to chaplaincy work. A doula holds the space for that newborn to be breathed. A chaplain holds the space for that breath to cease so that the soul can leave behind the sacred vessel of this life and journey on. It is holy work to witness the first and last breath. Wright Glenn writes “Learning how to live involves learning how to die. Love alone is the most potent power illuminating the breath’s journey in between these thresholds. Love is the key. Love is the dance” (47). Mary Rose has taught me to embrace death fully as a part of life. How could I honor her without honoring her death? How could I love her and hold her without freeing her to do the sacred work of her life from the heaven worlds?

Before I became pregnant with Mary Rose, I watched my aunt suffer and die from atypical meningioma. She was bedridden for close to 18 months, her body betraying her desires to move and travel, yet she held onto this life as if it was everything for her. It took her a long time to die. My pregnancy put my aunt’s “young” death at 64 into perspective, but I sometimes reflect on how gentle and peaceful Mary Rose’s passing was, as opposed to my aunt’s struggle and challenge to let go.

We are all going to die, though this seems to be what we fight most in our culture. Some of this is biological. The body will fight with all of its will and programming to survive, but there comes a point when we as a culture can take a step back and accept life cycles. It is not good to live and bad to die. Death comes to all sentient beings and we are transformed. Whether people believe in an afterlife or reincarnation, or nothing at all past the breathing of this body, our bodies will be vacated and they will go back into the earth in some form and become something else: the flower, the field, the air we breathe.

Mary Rose’s birth was long, but Leslie, my midwives and Sindy did not complain. They slept very little and walked with me as I gathered the courage I needed to let my baby go. In my body Mary Rose was safe, but once born would she breathe? Could she eat? The hours before Mary Rose was born were holy. We laughed, practiced yoga, breathed and cried. And when the moment came to enter this world and this life my daughter was welcomed and embraced.

Bereavement and birth might seem contradictory, but sometimes life on earth is short. I am grateful that there are women who are brave enough to face life and death in the quiet and stillness that seems lost in most of our fast-paced, post-9/11 world. In her poem “The Summer Day” Mary Oliver asks “…what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?” I plan to be present for the transitions that await me, for those I love and for myself. Like the doula, let’s be present for our babies, our parents, our loved ones and even ourselves. Let us bless the bereavement doulas and the chaplains and the ministers who aren’t afraid to hold our hands and wait with us as life breathes us, for the appointed hours.

Author: Dianna

DIANNA VAGIANOS ARMENTROUT is a published writer, teacher, workshop facilitator and poetry therapist. She graduated from Adelphi University’s Honors Program and earned her MAW from Manhattanville College. Dianna’s pregnancy with her daughter, Mary Rose, who died an hour after birth of trisomy 18, changed her life completely. Her blog, Walking the Labyrinth of My Heart, was launched in April 2015 as a way of offering support to others going through pregnancies with life-limiting and fatal diagnoses.

5 thoughts on “The Bereavement Doula”

  1. I keep reading this over and over. There are so many layers and so much depth to your writing. I’m forever changed by this experience and truely grateful to be in the presence of such wonderful souls as you each went through your process. Thank you for trusting. Thank you for having me. so much love to you and the family. – Leslie Cuffee

    1. May Mary Rose always bless you for holding her and loving her and opening your heart to her. Thank you, Sweet Doula…

  2. Amazed every day…my work as a doula first for many years before becoming a midwife taught me so much about the nature of birth and death being one and the same in oh so many ways. I supported families who were having the birth of a live baby and families who were birthing babies that would never breathe. All of these births are transformational, and the divine nature of transition from one life to another, no matter which direction it goes in, are opportunities for connection and tremendous growth.

    I was with my Grandmother way back in 1988 (eight years before entering birth work) in the days before she died. I have witnessed a dear friend’s death journey and I was with my father in 2007 when he died. The support required in these experiences is NO different than the support we give a laboring person through birth.

    Now as a midwife I see even more the close relationship between birth and death. We are witnesses to both with every birth we attend. We watch the birthing and the dying of so many aspects of one’s self. I have recently joined Amy Glenn’s group so the world continues to be small, dear Dianna. She mentioned you yesterday in one of her posts and I was instantly brought back to your own first birth and also to Mary Rose’s story.

    blessed be…

    1. Thank you for your sharing your story here. We are all connected in many ways and are held close in the circle that is life, even after we vacate these bodies. Mary Rose was the first death I witnessed, though I was close to my grandfather and my aunt for the time before their death. It is a sacred and holy passage. I read Elizabeth Alexander’s memoir about her beloved husband’s sudden death called The Light of the World and she talks about her husband being here and then the vessel without him, not him. It is a beautiful meditation on life and grief. Much love to you, Sweet Midwife of my son…

  3. What compassionate work, of both Leslie as doula and Dianna as writer. Assisting and witnessing birth from any world into another is the most heart felt service we can offer. Thank you, Dianna, so much for writing this article, and thank you, Leslie, for embodying it.

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