Death in Life

“Death came out of the womb with you, but with

the excitement at your arrival no one noticed….”

John O’Donohue from ‘Anam Cara.’


I have been blessed to be at the births of two babies in the past three and a half years, two sisters, first Ellie and then Mattea three years later, to parents of dear friends, Danielle and Kevin. Much to my surprise, I noticed the presence of death at both births, nipping at the edges of a process that for the most part was straightforward.

The parents hoped their first baby would be born at home, but at two weeks overdue, and low fluid levels in utero, the doctor recommended an induction, which naturally meant a hospital birth. Our doula team of four set about making sacred space in the hospital room, blankets and pillows from home, an altar with prayer flags and candles (battery only, hospital policy!), and photos of Danielle’s Mom and grandmother long passed on but always present, inspiring playlists and wireless speakers, delicious treats and nutritious sustenance.

Danielle laboured all night and we encouraged and massaged, chatted and slept. All the while the beat, beat, beat of the baby’s heart suffused every moment. The heart rate monitor would at times get displaced as Danielle moved with the contractions and the sound of the baby’s heart would stop momentarily. The gadget would then be repositioned until the heartbeat could be heard again.

Every couple of hours Danielle’s cervix was checked for dilation, and each time the midwife said, “we are at three centimetres,” then, “four centimetres,” then “four centimetres,”then “still four centimetres.” The baby was not progressing down the birth canal. Danielle was tired. She finally succumbed to an epidural, and slept for at least an hour.

I watched the deepening concern in the eyes of the nurses and midwife. Conversation among us was subdued. Not progressing, what did that mean? The room was mostly quiet except for the reassuring sound of the steady beat of the baby’s heart.

It happened in a moment. The sound of the heart beat stopped. The silence was deafening. The nurse did her usual fiddle with the monitor strap on Danielle’s belly. No luck. She tried again, asking Danielle to turn on her side. No heartbeat. I knew the absent heartbeat would register at the nurses’ station, and sure enough, the door opened and three women entered, swiftly, quietly and assuredly, with a similar confidence to a surgeon when she makes the first incision through skin with a scalpel.

Kevin’s eyes locked into mine. Ripples of uncertainty criss-crossed between us. He looked away to check the monitor screen. The signal was flat. He looked back at me. I tried to convey reassurance. I felt death nipping at the edges of life in those moments though I had no way of knowing how close it was. I remember thinking In births across centuries and cultures, some babies don’t get to enter the world. Death claims them for no apparent reason.

A probe was quickly inserted, an internal monitor, closer to the baby, no obstacle of skin or muscle. Again, Danielle was asked to turn to her other side. Seconds stretched to what felt like minutes. I noticed I wasn’t breathing. I could feel the rush of fear move from my stomach to my chest. I felt the force of my own will to live, my will for her to live, pushing through membranes and blood to reach her. Don’t you dare, death.

And then the beat, the blessed heart beat returning, as before, steady, regular, insistent. A collective sigh was audible in the room. Not long after those moments Danielle and Kevin were readied for surgery, and baby Ellie entered the world through a Caeserian section.

When our doula team finally got to meet Ellie, the excitement at her arrival certainly did push away any thoughts of death coming out of the womb with her. However, I remember watching her breathe so effortlessly and thinking about the finite number of breaths she would have in her lifetime, like we all have, and I silently wished her a long, long and good life.