Real Death

Leer este post en español.

I saw Coco. I went to see it the day after Christmas with Yeyo and the rest of my family. I was two months pregnant. I actually really liked it. I cried at the end, thinking about how we would soon be a bigger family with a new baby. I also heard a lot of grumbling in Oaxaca this year about the commercialization and Disney-ification of el Día de los Muertos as a result of this and other films. As November approached, there was a tangible shift in the energy of the city. Every hotel was fully booked and flights were impossible to find. The place was going to be a full capacity and that made me nervous.

Don’t get me wrong: I love everything about this holiday. I love the colors: purples, oranges, yellows, fuchsias, black. I love the costumes and parades and the building of altars. I love the solemnity and the celebration all tied up in one paradoxical package. It’s the pretty much the only holiday I celebrate all year. But with all the hype in the U.S.A. about Day of the Dead in recent years, Oaxaca has become somewhat of a mecca for foreigners during these days. And this time around, well, I have a very different relationship with death than I did before.

IMG_1598I carried my baby’s dead body around inside of my womb for days before we knew that he was gone. I gave birth to death. Before Rafa, no one close to me had ever died besides my grandparents. And now the person closest to me, in every sense, passed away while he was still within me. What does this mean? It’s something I’m deeply curious about.

A friend of mine recently shared with me that her daughter had a stillbirth a few months before I did. While her daughter was in labor four hours away, my friend had an important work commitment that she needed to attend. It was an event for women with booths for people to share their work, talks, dialogues and different activities. She told me that the whole day, she had the urge to grab a microphone and blurt out to everyone: “THIS IS NOT REAL LIFE. What you’re doing here, what you’re talking about: this is not IT.” When I look around my town and see a bunch of foreigners with their faces painted and drunk teenagers with marigolds affixed to their heads supposedly “celebrating death,” there’s a part of me that just wants to run around yelling at people: “THIS IS NOT REAL DEATH!!!! You do not know what death is!!!” (Which may or may not be true.) This past week, I completely understood the urge that my friend had to grab and shake people, illuminating their ignorance with our frustrations.

MadreHijoCalacasThere is an aspect of death that it seems to me that we are unwilling to look at in our modern, Western culture: it’s intimacy with life. The two are literally interdependent; one cannot exist without the other. They are like twins in the womb, two parts of the same whole.

We would much rather look at and be connected to life. It seems to scare the shit out of us to actually dance with death. Which might be one of the reasons we seem to struggle so much in the dying process and with the actual dying itself; especially when it comes to pregnancy. When Rafa was alive within me I felt like the world was so happy for us, so elated about the prospect of MORE LIFE. No one ever mentioned how death was right there, all the time. There is always the possibility that the baby will die during pregnancy, labor or delivery. Isn’t that always true? If we are living, death is right here at our side.

It’s become clear to me that every birth, whether to a living child or a stillbirth, is also a death. In his moving book The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise, Martín Prechtel dedicates an entire chapter to our first grief: birth. He says, “This heaviest of losses comes to all of us when we as babies in the womb lose our mother’s heartbeat when we are born. Ringing through our bodies before and during the amazing giganticness of our births, each of our mothers’ heartbeats disappears when we enter into this cold, noisy, and sometimes not so friendly world.”

When we are born, we say goodbye to our life within the womb and we go through a sort of death. We also say goodbye to our identities as pregnant women and then some women welcome a new identity as mothers to living children. Some do not. Many more than we know about or acknowledge. As my friend and new mother, Kailea, wisely commented a few weeks after the arrival of her son: “Birthing and being born are inherently natural and also quite traumatic.” Perhaps this is because both life and death are so fully present at any birth.

The cycle of life and death is, of course, biological as well: it’s messy and gritty, there are strong smells and textures. It is visceral. Sometimes when we talk about life in a figurative or metaphorical sense, we forget that we came out into the world through our mother’s vagina (or directly out of the uterus in the case of a C-section). There was blood and poop and sweat and mucus. All of this and more are often present in the process of dying and death. Rafa'sBodyBut we live in a world so sanitized and fearful of our own biology that we often prefer not to look at this fundamental aspect of our existence. The same is true of death. We can see dancing skeletons and paint our faces like calaveras (and I do!) but we block out bluish skin of the dead; we’d prefer not to think about what a lifeless body really looks and feels like. I will never be able to erase the memory of holding my perfectly formed dead son against my chest, covered in blood and amniotic fluid and sweat. This is life and death. Really.

A few weeks back, an organization that works with pregnant and nursing women posted a photo by Lacey Barratt on Instagram of a mother holding her stillborn son immediately after birth (see above). It was a deeply moving photograph. In the comments, some women suggested that the group should have posted a “cover photo” or a trigger warning to allow individuals to make a more conscious choice about whether or not they wanted to see the image. Many women who have had stillbirths commented that it was very validating to see our experience shared in this way. It was not in any way re-traumatizing or difficult for me to see. And some were deeply offended by the fact that other people wanted to literally hide the experience with a warning or cover photo.

While I didn’t want to get into a debate on social media, what I longed to write was:

“It is not my intention to hex anyone’s pregnancy with this comment. However, it seems to me that the reason many women are asking that there be a trigger warning or cover photo for this image is that they are afraid that something could go terribly wrong in their pregnancy. And, understandably, they do not want to believe that this is a possibility. But the fact of the matter is that this could happen to them. Their child might die in utero or during labor or shortly after birth. So I guess my question is: why don’t we just come out and name that? What you’re seeing right here, this mother and her dead baby: YES, this MIGHT happen to you.”

Of course I don’t wish to fixate on the possibiliity, but would naming it cause perinatal death rates to increase? I somewhat doubt it. I wonder what it would be like to discuss this possibility even in birth preparation classes, to talk about it more openly when it happens or share our fears about these issues. How much worse off would we be if we simply looked death gently in the eye throughout this process of gestating life and said: “Yes, I see you there. You are here with me too, even as I create this being inside of me.” We’re so afraid that we’ll be triggered by real life and real death but, in the end, what else is there? Are we actually protecting ourselves by not seeing them, not acknowledging the messy, chaotic nature of life and death? What do we have to lose in embracing the two sides of this coin in their raw, unedited, un-disney-ified beauty?

CaraMuertosWhile painting my face and neck like a skeleton just the other day (yes, I recognize the irony of this), I kept remembering: Rafa had collarbones, he had tiny vertebra, one stacked on the other, he had ribs and a little skull. All his little bones were burned in an incinerator and then put into a wooden box. That urn sits on the altar to our dead this year and I lie at the foot of that altar. Honoring. I honor death not just in its beautiful, mysterious, mythical sense but also at the most basic, biological level. I know that any of us could go at any time. And when the time comes to die, I want to be able to welcome death, in all its stinky realness, as the friend and companion it is.

4 thoughts on “Real Death

  1. Thank you Aerin, for this piece and the photos. Thank you because I am so in need of others of the acknowledgement of loss and death, of our body’s way of asserting the truth of our half-life-half-loss state… our own fragility and the fragility of every cell, their lives, their death. As I age, I see that very very slowly, I am dying. I also see how vibrant and alive this makes me. Thank you for making us all more real! xoxo

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    1. Thank you, Fran. That’s thing, right? Seeing our dying only makes us more alive… and living fully might invite us to also see with more willingness, openness and acceptance, our dying. Love that. Yin and Yang.

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