We were interested in looking deeper into the process of death, how it affects the quality of our life, and how we can honor this natural process in a way that is healing and empowering for all involved. We had the pleasure of interviewing the fascinating and marvelous Olivia Bareham, Death Midwife, funeral guide, celebrant and founder of Sacred Crossings.
We just LOVE Olivia's fresh and sincere take on the opportunity death presents us to wake up to the brilliance of our lives and send our loved ones off to the next adventure with peace and acceptance.
"Death invites you to fall in love…it’s the fragility of life that makes you weep with helplessness.”- Olivia
What is a Death Midwife?
Death Midwifery as I see it, combines the role of death doula, spiritual counselor, home funeral guide and celebrant. A Death Midwife provides support to both the death journeyer and their family from terminal diagnosis to final disposition of the body.
The roles of birth and death midwives are very similar, both stand at the doorway between worlds. One supports in giving birth, the other in receiving death.
A birth midwife educates and guides a mother to be conscious of what is happening to her body, helps her to surrender, relax and to open fully so that she can give birth safely. After the baby is born, the midwife ensures mother and baby’s health are good and oversees the transition until the mother’s milk comes in which takes three days. A death midwife educates and guides an individual to be conscious of what is happening to their body; prepares them with tools so they can relax and surrender into the dying process and helps them to open fully to receive their death. After the last breath, the death midwife ensures that the body is cared for in a loving, sacred way and oversees the transition for the next three days until burial or cremation.
In what stage of a person's passing are you called in to work with the family and the dying individual?
I like to be called in when the person first receives a terminal diagnosis, but sadly this is not often the case.
Most people don’t consider their dying process until the last few days or weeks. They assume that they will continue along the path of happy and healthy and will one day be dead. This is not the case except in traumatic, sudden deaths. Most of us have a long illness and slow decline and there is much to learn about the dying process and many decisions to be made and things to put in order. We need to be prepared much sooner than the last few weeks of life if we are to experience a peaceful, graceful death without suffering. If we call in a death midwife while we are healthy and happy to educate and prepare us for our dying days, we can begin to practice techniques now that will ensure us a more peaceful transition when the time comes.
How do you prepare someone for their own death?
You can’t really prepare someone for their death. It’s the task of each one of us to do this for ourselves.
I have witnessed how most people die the way they have lived. People who are anxious and fearful in general, usually are anxious and fearful about their death, which increases stress and suffering at the end and leads them to reach for medication which can counter the ability to have a conscious dying experience. People who don’t express feelings, who withhold their love or their anger tend to do this in their dying process., This withholding also causes suffering because at the end, the physical, emotional and mental bodies all need to let go. Holding on, in any form, creates suffering. So we must become aware of the tendencies that don’t serve us in life and begin to open to new, kinder ways of being. In this way, we are preparing to die gracefully.
We must also practice being true to ourselves every day, we must get in tune with our bodies and have the courage to live fiercely in the present. When we are dying, we will be able to trust ourselves to go through this, we will know what we need, and be able to relax into the process. The goal is to live every day as if you were going to die.
When working with someone, I meet them where they are. I am their soul friend, I see their magnificence, their true self without judgment and help them see themselves the same way. If one can find total acceptance, profound forgiveness of themselves and others and gratitude for everything, they are in a far more powerful place to transition.
Can all start preparing for death in the earlier stages of life to lessen the fear of it when it approaches?
Everyone should be studying and meditating on their death. I think it should start in high school when we would be encouraged to study the temporary nature of our existence and how to die. This may not necessarily eradicate the fear of death, but will certainly prevent death denial and help ease us out of this death phobic culture.
The question I ask is, can you get to a place where you acknowledge and open to the fear rather than the allowing the fear to close you down, causing contraction and suffering? My goal is to be on such familiar terms with death that when she comes, I can trust her, relax into her and go peacefully with her.
What is your personal relationship to death?
I’ve become very comfortable with the mystery of death and the unknown about what lies beyond.
Its going to be a delightful surprise. Ive been contemplating it since a child. I’ve always turned toward it rather than away from it, I find it fascinating. She is my friend (I call it a her). I see her standing out there with arms outstretched, ready to greet me. Death is a birth. Maybe it's the Mother Earth, ready to receive me, my job is to just go with the flow. I'm going up a birth canal just like the one I came down in. And I was received by a mother’s love at birth so why wouldn’t I be received by love at death?
What are your ideas on where we go after death?
It's not a place, it's a state. HOW will you be after death is more the question rather than WHERE will you be. As I feel into it and know it, it's expansive and pure, it's almost impossible to describe in words, but I can get in touch with the feeling. It feels like an experience that is limitless, without my ego mind and it’s endless ideas. And that’s liberating!
Do you think we go back to the same space our soul resided before birth and after death?
That makes sense to me. My dad used to meditate on our Lava Lamp, he would call it the “soul pool”. We would watch together as the heated wax floated upward, broke gently apart, dropped to the bottom and rose back to the top to join together again. This continuous flow, this never ending motion of rising and falling is how he defined the journey of the soul.
Have you ever noticed that at the very end of an exhale, before you breath in again, in that last moment of the breath, you kind of disappear? This is the sweet spot. My meditation is to hold my attention in that spot a while, so I can expand it and feel what it could possibly be like after death, pure peace.
Do you think the state we are in when we pass affects our after death experience?
I believe so, but cannot know for sure. I think that if someone takes the last breath in a state of profound peace, with arms/heart out-stretched to receive whatever is next, then that state of trust, acceptance and love will continue. And if someone is contracted with fear, kicking and screaming with resistance then likely that state would continue also. I like to also think that we are received with love, and that even the most fearful and angry are healed and soothed of their pain.
What are your ideas for reincarnation and the cycle of life on earth?
As I've journeyed on this death path, any belief I hold tight is just that, a belief, its not necessarily true.
I studied past life therapy because I had experiences of my past lives, and it validated what I already believed. It helped make more sense of this life. Recently, I came across a theory that nature never repeats itself. Life is like a river, an eternal flow, it can never come back to the same place. So I am not currently fully convinced on any ideas around reincarnation and where we travel to next. I do feel that the soul is eternal and it's fun to think about the idea that it may not be Earth we go to next.
What is the most amazing thing you have witnessed in your work?
I'm amazed at how I Instantly fall deeply and profoundly in love with the person lying there. It stuns me every time. How the boundaries dissolve and the ego melts and there is only one of us. I feel the potential of that limitless space, the space between worlds, the same space that appears when a women gives birth. In this place, the walls of reality start to change a little, and the potential to experience limitlessness, unconditional love and compassion is mind-blowing. My heart is cracked wide open, and it rearranges me. I'm affected for days.
In these moments, I am able to see the person for who they really are. When we are seen like that, it is profoundly healing, a person relaxes and puts down their guard. I witness them with no agenda, no opinion, no thoughts, just a wide open heart. In this moment, when I witness their soul as who they truly are and they see me recognize them, they usually visibly relax and are able to pass peacefully.. If we were able to recognize the true essence of each other in our daily lives, imagine how different our word would be. You cant help but be standing in amazement of the brilliance and true sacredness of being human.
Do you experience the supernatural when dancing the line between life and death so often?
I often hear people say things like, “can you pack my bag” or “is the train coming?” It is as if the soul knows it's going somewhere and the brain is trying to make sense of it. Another common experience is being met by people they love that have passed before. “My aunt is here in the room” or “someone is here waiting to take me through to the other side” Personally, I sometimes have a physical experience of them moving through me on their last breath. It is soft, sweet, gentle, but it's tangible and sometimes it happens moments before their last breath.
Are there any ways a family can help make a person's journey easier in these last moments?
It can be difficult for people to die when others are in the room holding onto them, physically touching them. People often leave when no one is in the room. I was with my mother when she died. She wasn’t afraid to die but she didn’t want to say goodbye. It’s hard to say goodbye for ever to the people you love. She was gripping my sister and I tightly, and I knew she was suffering with holding on but wanting to leave at the same time. When we moved out of the room she was able to go.
A a society, how have we lost so much ritual and knowledge around the process of death and preparing our loved ones?
In the old days, death was usually more sudden and frequent, people were more familiar with it. Now, because of modern medicine, death is more extended and we have become more unfamiliar with it. The families used to prepare and bathe the body, they were a part of the process. As the medical industry came in and prolonged life, we started to trust that someone else would take care of the process, and we could distance ourselves from death. When the Funeral Home industry appeared we handed over our rituals of being with the body and again lost the opportunity to really come to terms with death, to embrace it, be connected to it and to begin the grieving process.
Another factor may be that our lives are too busy to give up a month or two to be present with a dying family member. Many people miss the gift in death. There is a holy space we can fall into and this experience changes us from contraction to expansion not only about death but in many areas of our lives.
How do you empower a family with the process of death?
If possible, I encourage a family to hold a ‘Living funeral’ for their loved one while he or she is still present and able to enjoy the gathering of friends. This celebration of life is an opportunity for the one dying to receive the recognition that their life mattered and was meaningful. They can literally be filled up with love which allows them to relax and let go into their final journey.
After the transition, the Sacred Crossings (sacredcrossings.com) death midwives empower families to reclaim the healing ritual of caring for the body of their loved one right up until burial or cremation
We encourage a family to really take the time they need to be with the body so they can process the enormity of the event that just occurred. We invite them to bathe the body, anoint with essential oils, express gratitude for the body and encourage the loved ones to talk about who the person was in the world, what their unique contribution was, how they will be remembered. We close with a final ritual or ceremony.
I create a space for people to lean into the shock and grief and move through it. “Who am I now without my beloved?” is a big question for people. People feel closure and completion around the fact they did everything they could to help this person during their transition and honor their body right up until cremation or burial.
For more information about our Death Midwifery training program, visit: http://sacredcrossings.com/the-art-of-death-midwifery/ and for information on Home Funerals visit http://sacredcrossings.com/about-us/faq/
Rev. Olivia Bareham. Death Midwife/Home Funeral Guide and Celebrant and founder of Sacred Crossings
What are your experiences about honoring your loved ones? Let us know in the comments!