Why Birth Work Must Include Death and Loss Work
CW: This piece is going to discuss death, dying, grief, and loss as it relates to birth work. I believe that birth work includes death work, and while I approach these conversations gently, I also approach them directly. Please tend to yourself as you read this piece; take breaks as needed or try again another day (or not).
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What Full-Spectrum Means to Me
As you probably know, I am Birthing Advocacy Doula Training’s Founder and Lead Teacher. When I started our primary training, Full-Spectrum Doula Training, I was very clear about the need to include content and conversation around loss and death. We cover topics ranging from birth to food insecurity and access, to infant feeding, to postpartum, to activism and anti-oppressive practices, and during week 11, we focus on perinatal bereavement and loss. Find the overview of the Full-Spectrum training here!
Along my journey as a birth worker and birth neoterist, I have walked alongside people facing loss, as well as doulas who are supporting folks through loss. I have also walked through my own losses and grief. The reality is that death and loss touch everyone in complicated and layered ways, and I feel really motivated to continue to intentionally bring this reality into the birth workspace. In my own journey, I decided to get certified as a Death Doula, through Going with Grace, and join NEDA to dig deeper into that side of transition.
The full-spectrum of life includes death. It feels like my responsibility, and the responsibility of other doula trainers, to prepare the folks taking our training for loss and death simply because it is part of the experience of being human.
How Doulas Can Prepare to Show Up for Death
I want to make it clear that while full-spectrum doulas are trained in a wide range of scenarios and experiences, it does not mean that we have to show up perfectly. We are human! If you feel some fear or discomfort around this conversation, I get it! Each of our own lived experiences and relationship to death and loss have an impact, and it can take time to build competency and comfort in discussing death.
There are a few proactive steps you can take as a doula to be prepared to support a client through loss, and perhaps, you’d like to do this with a local doula friend or colleague– not only for moral support but also because we need more doulas we are prepared to show up for grief and loss! I’d suggest the following as a starting point:
Get familiar with hospital policies around pregnancy loss by calling the hospital and inquiring as well as researching or taking a class on infant loss. Check out stillbirthday and this course by Maternal Mental Health Now.
Call nearby funeral homes to learn what their costs for infant loss are; many of them provide discounted or free services in this situation.
Familiarize yourself with the legal aspects of transportation (from home to funeral home, from hospital to funeral home, etc.) so you can guide your clients in the moment.
Build a resource list of people in your area who provide free loss photography, counseling, postpartum care (if you do not), and other services.
Have a resource list of groups on loss, books, and other resources you can refer to your client.
Build a list of spiritual care providers that you can share with your client.
Additionally, as you are witnessing someone who is experiencing loss, you can ask them about the ways they might want to honor, celebrate, or remember their loss. I love this blog over at The Abortion Project that offers 12 rituals that folks experiencing abortion can honor their process. These ideas can be utilized by folks experiencing any kind of loss, and if you are a doula, you may like to pull ideas from this blog to offer to clients.
Folks may already have rituals or practices they lean on, or there may be specific cultural practices they are drawn to, or this whole conversation may be new. Ask your clients about their preferences and support them in processing or brainstorming if they’d like that support. Tools for honoring a loss could include photography, prayer, art, a meal, songs, planting something, or anything else that represents the loved one they’ve lost and/or the experience they are going through as a family.
Death Work Reading and Resource List
Below you will find a range of resources related to death, dying, and loss. Some are related to birth specifically, while others are not.
Empty Cradle, Broken Heart: Surviving the Death of Your Baby by Deborah L. Davis (This is on BADT’s Full-Spectrum reading list.)
stillbirthday: birth plans for birth in any trimester, certified Birth & Bereavement Doulas®, and support for the places where birth and bereavement meet
Postpartum Support International support for grief and loss in pregnancy
An Honest Exploration of the Work of a Death Doula, a BADT guest blog by Tanis Laird
Going with Grace: Simple, Knowledgeable, and Compassionate End of Life Planning, Training, and Support
Life, Death, Grief and the Possibility of Pleasure by Oceana Sawyer
PAIL: Pregnancy and Infant Loss Training
Let’s Do This Work Together
The Birth Neoterist is a space for talking about justice, healing, and liberation, and part of that is having these challenging conversations when we are able. I would love to hear your thoughts and if you have any related efforts you’d like to share with the community, please link them below.