This month, we’re launching a new series featuring original essays and articles from the women who inspire us. Joanne Cohen is a feminine healer, naturopath and birth doula who is typically present at the beginning of life. She shares her story about what it was like to be there to witness the end of one, too. — Autumn
My beloved grandmother, my Oma, passed away recently, and I was blessed to be able to fly to Philadelphia to be with her for the last day and a half of her life. To lie in bed next to her, whisper in her ears, hold her hands… (Oh, I loved her hands!) These last moments are so precious to me.
There is so much to say about my Oma. She taught me the joy of growing veggies and flowers. She gifted me with a love for Nature. She taught me the art of flirtation; she knew how to bat her gorgeous blue eyes. As a Holocaust survivor, she taught me that life is to be lived to its fullest and that every moment is one to be delighted. She taught me to follow my dreams and work hard. She showed me an epic love affair with my Opa.
This is her legacy that she passed to me and that I will pass to my children and grandchildren. Her blood runs in my veins. We are of the same lineage.
Death. It is so surreal, right? One moment I am speaking to her on the phone while she is wishing me a happy birthday, and within a flash, I am watching her take her last breath.
As a Birth Doula for 7 years, I always assumed that death was similar to birth but had never witnessed someone as they walked through this threshold.
In those last days with her, I wondered what she was feeling and experiencing. What was it like knowing that you were leaving behind your life and loved ones? And where is it that you go? I have strong spiritual beliefs and yet, realized that I have no idea what I believe about death. It is such a mystery. Truly humbling.
As a Birth Doula and Midwife Assistant for seven years, I supported more than 150 women as they crossed into motherhood. I always assumed that death was similar to birth but had never witnessed someone as they walked through this threshold. The first breath, the last breath, the beginning and the end: The cycle of life. Here is what I experienced:
There is a lot of waiting in death. My grandmother was diagnosed with stage 4 bone cancer one week before she died. The doctors said she would live another four months and in one week, her body shut down. Hospice was called to her home. My mom hired aides to be there in the morning and night. And we waited. We talked to her. She opened her eyes every now and then. She slept. Waited for the inevitable with no way to prepare for the immeasurable loss.
There is a lot of waiting in labor and birth. Waiting to go into labor! You never know when that is going to happen. Waiting once labor begins for the contractions to increase and strengthen. And then, women always asking, “Do you know how much longer this will be?” Waiting for the moment when a baby is born and a woman’s heart bursts open with love.
My Oma was completely cared for. She was bathed in her bed. My mom made homemade applesauce for her. My uncle gave her drops of wine. Her clothes were changed to housedresses she loved. We whispered love notes in her ears. We stroked her arms and held her hands. Nothing existed besides her.
A woman in labor, with the best support, is completely loved up. Nothing else existed. There was nothing as important as each moment. Taken care of so that she can focus on following her body and natural rhythms. She is massaged, sung to, whispered words of power and praise. All to fill her up so that she can remember her strength, courage, and beauty.
For 1 ½ days, I sat with my Oma. Nothing else existed. There was nothing as important as each moment. I didn’t use my phone or check my emails. In fact, this place of complete presence was so natural and beautiful.
The night before she passed, my mom and I took a walk and life was happening all around her apartment building. I felt like I was coming into the world after a long slumber, like I had forgotten what the outside world was like. And that it even existed. Little girls were playing on their bikes, people were grocery shopping, airplanes were flying in the air, a deer graced us with her existence. Life goes on while you are cocooned and witnessing someone in their last moments on this Earth.
Every time I leave a birth, I walk outside to my car and am amazed that while I had just witnessed a miracle, people were busy living their lives. While a woman became a mother, people were waking up to their alarm clocks, eating breakfast, going to work, and living their normal lives. How can that be when I just saw a being born and take her first breath? Life keeps moving no matter what.
This has been such an amazing, humbling, sad, beautiful experience. I got home to LA after eight days on the East Coast and there, on my dining room table, was a birthday card from my Oma. I opened it up and cried. Here I stood, having just gone to her funeral and now reading words she had written to me days before. How does my brain make sense of this?
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, they say that when you grieve, it means you have truly loved. Yes, this is true and I remember this when I miss her voice or presence.
Why am I sharing all of this? Birth and Death. The cycle of life.
1. As a woman, you are attuned to cycles. You cycle every month, and even if you no longer have a cycle, you are still tuned to the rhythms of the Moon. You understand that there are life cycles moving in rhythm throughout your life. And everything in between of your first breath and your last is a miracle.
2. You have the opportunity to leave a legacy. At some point, you are going to leave this planet. Death is the only given we have in this life. So, what do you want to be remembered for? What imprint do you want to leave in this short time you have here? Please take a moment to think about this. And begin to take actions towards this.
3. Life is precious. Death reminds us that there are no guarantees in life. Stop tolerating anything in your life. Don’t wait for things to be perfect because they never will be. Be courageous and take a leap. This is your life. Make every moment and every choice one that moves you in the directions of more pleasure, happiness, joy, health, and abundance.