Thoughts on birth and death - and a small book review

I've been thinking a lot, recently, about reviewing a book I recently read called The Mercy Papers. This is a modern memoir written by a women close to my age, and it spans the last three weeks of her mother's life. It is a memoir of death.

Memoirs are my favorite. I cannot read enough creative non-fiction - it fuels me and brings me joy and understanding of things I might never know. Particularly, I am drawn to memoirs written by my own generation, and even more particularly - written by women of this generation. Robin Romm, the author of The Mercy Papers, was born and raised in Eugene, Oregon - where I went to college. This memoir takes place in Eugene in 2004. In fact, in the Fall of 2004 - right when I was hiding out in a damp corner of Eugene bringing a child into this world. This coincidence in time and place is interesting because, at the ripe old age of 28, I have yet to experience death in a close way. It has only barely entered my life, floating by in distant orbits, and never near enough to really hurt. This book made me think about this fact, and it made me realize that the closest experience I've had with death is actually with her beloved sister - birth.

The Mercy Papers is beautifully written. I read it quickly and with hardly any interludes at all - Romm's use of language and her talent as a storyteller are both bright and clear. What struck me most about this book, however, is that it is framed as a memoir of love and loss; and while it is, in a way, it is also a poignant illustration of our cultural fear of death. With modern Western medicine, and the "field of science" so heavily activated, death has (in America) become something we can (at times) stave off - it is an undesired endpoint, despite its essential function and its inevitability.

Romm's final days with her mother are filled with fear of the final moment - nowhere in the story does she acknowledge her mother's approaching departure, but instead she locks herself inside a headspace of "life vs. death" - battling for something so implausible that even her mother has acknowledged the concession. Romm is blinded by this fear, and in her final weeks medicates herself with Xanax, and refuses to "say goodbye" to her slowly-departing mother. As a reader, my heart grew heavy at every moment that Romm lost to fear, when time seemed so precious. I was, at times, astonished at the self-absorption that Romm commits to, thereby entirely missing out on the crucial crossover of her mother from here to there. A few others share this sentiment about the book, though largely Romm's writing is (for good reason) celebrated. She is good at her craft - and again, I don't blame her for this approach to is deeply embedded in our modern culture.

As I mentioned above, I have not experienced death closely, and so I don't feel entitled to speak much of it or its emotional impact on people. I know that it holds infinite gravity and trauma for those who are involved, and I am in a position of privilege to be speaking of someone else's experience. And because of this I want to say that my criticism is not of Romm, it is of a society that has created death as an opponent - one that can be manipulated, or that is completely disconnected from the rest of life. In my personal experience with birth, I traveled to the bridge - the open space beyond here - and so I, for one, know that it exists. I know thousands of others share this faith, and I think that this (though so very opposite of death) is an indicator of the full-spectrum of it all. I think it is a great weakness that our culture has chosen to dishonor death.

Now, I say these words at a time that death is plentiful and widespread. The death count in Japan is nowhere close to finished, and this is not to mention the other, smaller tragedies that are flooding the world at this particular time. I understand that death is not a bright and joyous portal to the next place in time or space - it is beyond anything I can say in words. (And so thank goodness for all you other brilliant women who supply words where I cannot):

I recently read two posts by Maria at Adelaide's Homesewn - her Thoughts on Grief - Part 1 and Part 2.  I recommend that you read both of these, as Maria recounts her own experience with death and grief in such a concise, eloquent way that it seems to apply soundly and reasonably to everyone.  I wanted an excuse to share these particular posts with my own readers, and this seems like an appropriate time to do it.

Finally, a friend of mine posted some of her own thoughts on birth and death online just today, and I wanted to share some of her words, as well:

When the birthing field has activated, birth is eminent. It can be prolonged, stress-filled and painful, but that is optional. For too long have we bought the painful birth story. This has been sold to us by master story tellers, weavers of deception. Truth be told, we have lost our connection to our mother, the giver of our physical  body. The intensity of what is happening is what is required to wake us up, which says a lot about where we are at.  The technocratic world has assisted beautifully in furthering our disconnection by plugging us into it,  rather than source (which is the only thing that can truly feed our souls passion). Not being connected keeps us lost in the matrix, wandering around disconnected from source wondering where love is and why we feel so alone. I know in my heart that we as a race can collectively wake up, or else I would not be sitting here writing this.

The time has passed for denial. We are in active labor. It is time to find the precious balance of getting our heads out of the fucking sand and really embodying the higher ways of being human, which ultimately makes us responsible. This to me means leaving behind all the things that hold us back at a core level. Just walk or dance away, put it in a pile and light it on fire, do what you must..just do it.  The walking part is important. We must physically move. This is what allows us to literally "move" through this process. When we walk away, immediately something new will come into view and allow us to build something else.  It is time to leave it all behind.  It is seeing what is happening, feeling it and then living from a space of  grounded authenticity-not fear. We have to leave the old ways behind to birth into the new.  We must surrender.

I feel humbled in the face of these realities really. I am writing all of this in a state of inspired passion, because I want to live. I am thankful for all of life. I feel so much beauty in my heart dreaming of all the things we can create with each other.  I also know that we are not alone and can remind and empower each other in this. There is nothing freaking comfortable about where we are. Ultimately, how perceptive we are to the enormity of what it is we are doing will determine how we translate this process as transformation or suffering. We are vulnerable babies in the birth canal and our mama is struggling to give birth. Her labor is intense and her pain is great. The lingering question is how will you assist her in birthing you?*

I suppose at the end of all of this, I don't have a succinct closure, or something to sum it all up. This is all just an open platform of my thoughts. I loved reading The Mercy Papers, although I was saddened by the writer's view of death. I am endlessly grateful to authors who can so eloquently share with me an experience that belonged to someone who was not me. I feel like this can teach me so much more than I could read in any type of textbook. Stories are what teach my heart the things that exist on different planes.

And on this note, I was recently inspired (first by Amber, then by James....and by other various sources) to write my birth story. I am, in fact, slightly shocked that I never wrote it down. And then I worried that I was too late  - my son is 6 and approaching 7. But I realized that it is not too late, and if I don't do it now, he'll just keep getting older and one day it might actually be too late for real. So I am working on that, dear readers, and I hope to soon share it with all of you.

Thank you for reading all of this. xo

*By Rue-Anna Sullivan

All art by Sylvia Ji


  1. This was an inspiring post, Sadie. You brought up so many thoughtful things, where do I start to respond? I absolutely understand where you're coming from about the modern fear of the birth/death gate. It is a very powerful place and we tremble at the threshold. That's my favorite part about birth though, standing on the precipice- when life is just so real you radiate.

    I haven't seen anyone die before but I know that the place is the same and so the experience can be, too. It's tantamount to my deep fulfillment over giving birth versus another woman's "eh, it was okay once the drugs kicked in and I didn't have to experience it". Death can be beautiful, I am sure of it. It must also be a great and overwhelming tide that we succumb to. *sigh* I am much closer to the baby gate than the death one, though, that's for sure. Some lessons will just have to wait (knock on wood)

    Thank you for sharing the artwork and telling us a little bit about the book. I was moved by Rue-Anna's words! I found myself saying "Yes! Exactly!"

    If you felt comfortable sharing it, I would absolutely love to read your birth story. My telling of my daughter's birth story is in a book (how cool is that?) and I haven't written my son's down yet. Maybe it's time for it, eh?


  2. gorgeous post, sadie. and that artwork!
    i was there to see my auntie pass away about 10 years ago, and i have seen a few babies be born in my work as a doula, and there is a huge connection and a lot of similarities in their experiences. i think you've really made an insightful post here. thanks for sharing. i love memoirs too! i'll have to get this one.

  3. Very beautiful Sadie. I didn't realize how eloquent of a writer you were until I read so many paragraphs at one time!
    I am very much with you, floating out there on the periphery of real tragedy, real grief. It's never hit home too deeply. All older people (I actually have three living grandparents still!) or people who, though dying tragically young, weren't close to me.
    But that hasn't stopped me from thinking about death almost daily for as long as I can remember. Striving to get over the terror of it. Reading Buddhist texts and novels and new age books and whatever might give me a perspective that I didn't already have.
    These mass deaths, like Japan, are so hard to take. I have been struggling these past few days not to give over wholly to the darkness. I'm too empathic, it's almost as if, in lieu of experiencing my whole true grief, I take on everyone else's.
    I love the idea of birth and death being merely the entrance and the exit. I read somewhere, "Death is not the opposite of life, it is the opposite of birth."
    Thanks for this post Sadie. Much love sister.

  4. this was an amazing post!
    i was there when my grandma and my grandpa died. although the sadness was overwhelming, i found that watching someone die is an experience beyond words. much like birth. when they are gone, the body is just a shell where the whole person used to be. it is hard to witness such an event and not believe that there is more.
    3 years ago my mom woke up to find her husband dead next to her. he was 50. the shock and grief that she has gone through is horrible. i'm reading the year of magical thinking by joan didion. it's about grief. might be a good follow up to the one you just read. i find it very truthful and realistic. i plan on giving to my mom next, i believe she will relate to it on a much deeper level than myself.
    it seems like death, along with many other life experiences, is one of those topics people just don't want to talk about. i wonder why that is? i wonder how i would be if my parents, husband or god forbid one of my children died.
    anyway, this was a wonderful thought provoking post. i can't wait to read your birth story. i plan writing one as well for this upcoming birth. i hope to journal through the beginnings of the labor, so i remember how i felt :D

  5. thank you ladies for providing your thoughts, as well. you all are making me think even further upon this subject and bringing whole other pieces to the table. i am excited to write a future installment on birth and discuss it with all you intelligent beings of love and light. anne - i have read The Year of Magical Thinking and i loved it. so very powerful and joan didion is a mastermind. very fierce. xoxo

  6. p.s. claire, i would love to read your birth story! which book is it in? and is it online?


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