Midwifing End of Life

We have all been midwifes at birth, whether friends and family are birthing babies in adoption or in a hospital room, or birthing graduations, birthing transitions, birthing new loves. Midwifes at birth bear witness to new beginnings. We need them to cheer us on, affirm us, bless us, listen to us, and sometimes, simply just walk with us.

We also need midwives at death, too. To bear witness to dying. To speak the truth of love, or confusion, or pain. Not the physical pain, but sometimes speak of the emotional pain. To ask about forgiveness and fear. To sit with. To simply sit with. And drink coffee, or tea with, or eat ice cream, or share a favorite meal. Someone I cared for in the early years of chaplaincy, made green tea and offered me her favorite cookies every time I visited. I came to realize over time that this ritual was as meaningful to her, as it truly was for me.

As a hospice chaplain, I’ve sat with hundreds of families, and sat with many people who were dying who had no family. In those sacred places I met people who had fears, forgiveness issues, had kept secrets all their lives, who had mental illness, and incurable diseases, who were dying earlier than expected, and some who were ready to die.

Just like as midwives at birth, midwives at death bring the places of honoring ritual, and the places of comfort and compassion. That morning coffee. Favorite candies. Birthday celebrations. Wedding anniversaries. Favorite foods. I once officiated at a wedding for someone who was dying, and the hospice team created a magical place in their home filled with flowers, a wedding dress, and a lovely reception. My patient died days later. While we mourned his death, we also celebrated the importance of honoring ritual at the end of his life that brought great joy in the midst of the mystery of dying.

Ritual making. How we make meaning in the every day. And I would suggest, that we need more ritual making at dying, than in our living.

I started adding anointing oils, and sprays made with essential oils into my collection of ritual making for end of life care many years ago, and discovered that the ancient rituals of anointing, of blessing, were a comfort to people dying, and to their family and friends who were surrounding them. This oil was protection. Of refuge. Of sanctuary.

As we birth Anoint, there have been many midwives on this journey… loving friends and so many colleagues, and many more midwives to come, but the greatest teachers have been the people and family I served and cared for. They birth Anoint too.

Bless us all on the journey of beginnings and endings.

ritualElizabeth Webb