Reflections on how giving birth and witnessing death open us profoundly to life.
When Ruth Marshall, the editor of the Network Ireland magazine, shared with me some of her experiences of her mother’s death, I was profoundly moved. Later, when she announced that a future edition of ‘Network’ would be dedicated to the theme of death, I decided to write of a very personal experience not only of death but of birth, in the hope that it may possibly help and encourage someone out there somewhere dealing with pain and heart-break. This experience happened to me 14 years ago, and radically changed my outlook on life.
In the early eighties, I remember my teacher, Irina Tweedie, announcing at a meditation, that a woman from our group had given birth. What she said next never left me and burned a deep impression into my being. She said, “She had no pain. She was in deep Samadhi…”
I was single at the time with no thoughts of childbirth, but I remember saying to myself. “If that’s possible, I can do it too!” And many years later I did just that! (I intend to write about this for a future edition of Network.)
Later, in 1990, when I became pregnant, I decided to consciously prepare both my baby and myself for the birth, together, we worked with meditation, visualisation and breathing exercises.
The act of giving birth consciously is no different from fearlessly walking a spiritual path. It is a question of trusting the process and then having the ability to hold a paradoxical balance of control and surrender in the same moment. Control, so that you don’t panic when overwhelming energies sweep you up and Surrender to the very Life Force that is consuming you. It requires great trust in The Process, the process being, life itself. In the case of childbirth, this process will happen regardless. Whether you like it or not, co-operate or not. the choice to go with it in full consciousness or not, is yours.
My first birthing experience was incredible. Daniel was born at home after a two-hour labour and I gave birth to him with no fear and no pain. I proved to myself that it was possible to control my response to the force of the contractions and to surrender to their intensity simultaneously. It was a great teaching and one that would prepare me for my next experience of childbirth with my daughter Anna.
My next experience of birth, two and a half years later, was to change me forever. Another home birth and labour started on the evening of Good Friday 1993. The contractions were very strong and I had prepared myself with meditation and breath awareness as I had done before, to ride the waves with single mindedness. Again I was able to stay focused for the 2 hour labour. But, when the big birth contraction came. Shock! Anna half emerged into this world feet first and she was precariously stuck. Neither in one world or the other, precariously balanced, neither born or unborn, poised between here and there.
I later learned that the time between Anna’s half emerging and her being fully born took twenty minutes. (This is a very long time in such circumstances.) This length of time was a complete surprise to me because I can only say that for me the experience went outside of time, as we know it. I knew in those first moments with my whole being that whatever was happening was a great teaching and the only requirement was not to panic, but to trust and surrender to the moment and to meditate. All I am able to say about that 20 minutes is that I was in a place of No time and No fear where, in fact, everything stopped and great peace and light prevailed. I was completely unperturbed by what was going on around me. Everything seemed to drop away. I was totally absorbed in a timeless moment. Nothing existed, not even me. There was no pain, no fear. It was as if everything stopped and all was great peace. There was no sense of linear time. In fact no sense of anything, everything was totally empty. It was as if everything was turned inside out, there was no me, no baby half-born, simply a great expansion.
Finally, the next contraction came and Anna was born, but because of the compression of the umbilical cord, she had been deprived of oxygen for twenty minutes and had sustained massive brain damage in those precious minutes. She was rushed to Holles Street maternity hospital and I followed ten minutes later. When I arrived there, the surreal nature of the whole event began to unfold. It was like walking into someone else’s film. I had just given birth and was suddenly dealing with a massive crisis. Anna, who weighed in at nine pounds ten ounces, was in the neonatal intensive care unit. She was big, strong-looking and extremely beautiful. All the other babies there were tiny, weak little things that could have fitted in to the palm of my hand. Fortunately, she had a name, we had been calling her Anna for weeks, my son had named her and had told me that they were already friends and that he was waiting for her, they had met he told me ‘through another door’. He was two and a half at the time. I too had intuitively known that my baby was a girl.
It gradually dawned on me what we were dealing with a massively brain damaged baby who had no motor or sensory impulses. In other words she would never able to move or see or hear. My heart was exploding and my brain was erupting. I had just given birth and was not prepared for any of this.
In many ways I was more than prepared. I had been actively involved with spiritual teachings for 15 years at that time. I was so glad of that. Much of what I had learnt was now to be activated in reality. Here was a real challenge. Could I walk my talk when the chips were down? Could I respond consciously or would I contract with the pain? Could I keep my breaking heart open? Could I be fearless and calm in the centre of this stormy nightmare? The choice was mine.
I knew deeply what the response to this challenge had to be. Like a mantra deep inside I kept reminding myself”, You have a choice. In your best moments and, in your worst moments, do your practice either, fall apart or, practice stay present… breathe. Feel the pain… feel it all… Do your practice, just like giving birth, surrender to what is and consciously respond “That’s what I did”. I meditated and breathed my way along what I knew was my Heart’s Path.
None of the specialists could tell how long Anna would live. They kept repeating, “It is up to her”.
She had a strong constitution. I asked that that she be kept comfortable. I did not want any medical heroism. I wanted Mother Nature to take her course.
Easter Saturday was extremely difficult. Waking up in hospital and slowly remembering that I was not pregnant and that Anna was fighting for her life. My brain was screaming and I was crying and yet my inner voice kept saying, “remember to breathe, feel it, don’t block the pain… practice”. The day was spent with Anna, her dad, brother and I holding her and loving her as much as we could. Our hearts all breaking. We told her we loved her and didn’t want to hold on to her, she was loved and we wanted her to be free.
Sunday was a beautiful day, the sun was shining and the doctor in charge said that we could take Anna home and that they would arrange for someone to bring out feeding drips and whatever was needed later that day. How long she would live was unknown.
Anna got to have the sun on her face. Later that day she died quietly lying between her father and myself. It was so sad. I have never felt such heartbreak. It was of all days… Easter Day.
According to some traditions it is beneficial for the deceased, to keep their body undisturbed in the home and to carry out rituals to aid the passage of their spirit into the next level of awareness. This we did. Whenever I looked at Anna’s beautiful little body I never forgot that, although she was a baby in earthly terms, she was a huge spiritual consciousness. I believe that this event was exactly as it was meant to be for all concerned. Sacred contracts had been made long before we came here.
My emotions were raw, I have never cried so much. I allowed all the feelings to come without censure. I wailed and screamed and my heart broke open. I also sang Old MacDonald Has a Farm with all the grunts and moos with my two year old. We all laughed and we all cried.
To add to the stress, a funeral and all that that entailed needed to be arranged. It couldn’t be done without a death certificate and to get a death certificate we needed an autopsy since Anna had neither been born, nor died in hospital. Easter Monday was a bank holiday and due to the kindness of certain people the necessary formalities were expedited.
Anna was to be buried in a family grave in Co.Wexford. We drove down the country with Anna in her crib on the front seat. On arrival, we put her in a little white coffin ourselves. Many people were gathered in her granny’s house. It was very somber. I said to her father that I felt urged to meditate and that he should come with me and bring pen and paper. We went to a quiet room and started to meditate. I was aware of Anna’s presence and let her speak through me. This is what she said:
“My name is Anna, and even though you don’t understand, I came to bring you love, and everybody that is here now, go into your hearts and feel this love. Just open yourselves up. It is not a question of allowing it to be there, it is already there. Just be very quiet and very still, just let yourselves feel and right now I am helping you to do this.
Things are really very simple. Don’t waste time, don’t reproach, don’t harbour negative thoughts., just be in your hearts, and even though there may be pain and sadness, love and the light in the universe is stronger than all the rest. The way the sunshine dissolves the mist and the day gets very clear….all of you….can get very clear.
Be open and trust and be silent from time to time.
I tell you nothing more. That’s that. It’s as simple as that.
Bless you all and I go in peace.
With all my love, Anna”.
We went back into the crowded sitting room and I read this out. Anna’s presence was palpable. Everyone felt it. The undertakers, wanting to protect us from pain wanted to screw down the lid of the coffin. I did it for them. I needed not to be buffered from my feelings. They wanted to carry the coffin from the car to the grave. I told them that since I had carried her for 9 months that I would carry her then. it was the saddest thing I ever did.
Standing with family and friends at the graveside was bleak. Everyone was silent, no one knew what to say. When my little son tugged at my coat I knew again there was a choice, either to stare into a black hole or to follow Life. I felt more insistent tugs. I looked around and said, “I have to follow life”. So, Daniel and I ran off and played chase in the cemetery.
The day after the burial, whilst walking in the countryside and feeling emotionally raw, my breasts became engorged with milk. There was no baby to feed. It was so terrible. The pain in my heart and body was overwhelming. I felt really alone and yet really connected to Life. I kept on breathing and crying and meditating on what was… Surrender and control got me through. I cried everyday for weeks. It was a heart breaking, hormonal time. I went with it, not blocking whatever emotions erupted. I just kept letting my heart break open.
Gradually the emotional intensity played itself out. Grieving is a process that needs to be expressed. It is part of the natural order of emotional integration. If grief is not allowed to play out naturally and the flow is blocked. The whole energy turns inwards creating emotional, psychological and physical problems for the bereaved. Meditation, not medication, is the required remedy in such circumstances.
Life should never be stopped by death. Six months later I got pregnant again and had a wonderful, quick, easy and pain-free birth with Jack. Thirteen years on, I am blessed with two wonderful teenage sons; two great friends; two spirits in form; mine to love, to teach to be free but never to possess.
Life is mysterious . We live it without necessarily understanding it. Maybe we think we understand the bigger picture from time to time, maybe we don’t. As it happened, a pregnant friend was actually with us during Anna’s birth. She witnessed the whole event and decided not to have a home delivery as planned, but to have her baby in hospital. She had had a perfect pregnancy. On her due date, she had a small show of blood and duly went to hospital. On arrival the doctors could not find her baby’s heartbeat. A scan showed that, very recently, the placenta had become detached and that her baby was dead. Her womb was filling with blood and the baby’s head was acting as a plug. The baby was induced and simultaneously she received a massive blood transfusion. Her perfect baby daughter was a fresh stillbirth.. If she had had the baby as planned, at home, she too would have died and her other six children would have been motherless. Anna in some way saved her life.
Life, Our Teacher, through Grace, lovingly breaks open our hearts, always offering opportunities for growth. Spiritual progress in life is possible if we learn to stay consciously heart-open, allowing love to flow, embracing our deepest fears and pain, and not contracting back into heart-closed, emotionally defended habitual modes of being. Life then is rich and intensely focused. I have learned to treasure the alchemy which transforms pain into compassion as it lovingly and deeply connects our hearts with all forms of life. If we avoid pain we avoid life! Mindful awareness of the fleeting nature of life and the ever-present nature of death gives life an added richness and intensity. We wake up and The Now becomes potently real. The buzz of a bee, the sight of a flower by the roadside, a sunrise, a songbird. The smile of someone you love. Ereything gives joy to the heart!!
Death, as birth, is to be celebrated. It is a powerful change of consciousness. It is part of the great, inevitable movement towards love. There is no reason ever to be stuck in grief. Flow with the pain. Love needs to flow and flow!! Birth brings Death in its wake. Like it or not! It is our choice whether to live in fear and heart-contraction or to embrace Love’s movement consciously or not.
The great paradox prevails. Life is full of suffering it is also overflowing with love, That is a lesson for us all…
The inscription on Anna’s grave-stone reads, “Anna. Born and died in love and light “.