Stacy, a birth doula, wife and mother of three beautiful girls called me – she was crying – her 18-yr old daughter Zoe was dying.
“I birthed her in, I need to birth her out,” Stacy declared emphatically. “Can you help me?”
Her own experience of death when she was a child was ugly and painful. “I’m afraid for her younger sisters. I want it to be different for them,” she said.
Zoe was born with only half her heart and had endured endless medical tests, surgeries and hospitalizations for much of her life. Recently she had suffered a heart attack and a stroke and was now at home on hospice lovingly cared for by mom Stacy, dad Corey, friends Sierra and Dylan, nurse Elsa and two adoring sisters, Paisley, 16 and 8-year old Jaya. Zoe was the center of their world – they called her ‘Sissy Mama.’
“The girls adore Sissy Mama,” Stacy said, “They look up to her, they’ve journeyed every day with her. It is really important to me that they participate in whatever rituals we are going to do for her transition. When I learned that I could keep her at home and care for her myself, I called you.”
Stacy was a Shaman, a yoga practitioner and medicine woman. A fierce mother bear, she had carried this family for 18 years, she knew this day would come and knew exactly what she wanted and needed to do for her daughter. All she needed was support and a safe container in which to carry out this unbearable task. I could give her that. I could hold the container and give the freedom to take her daughter all the way home.
I asked Stacy how she envisioned ritualizing her daughter’s final farewell…
“I want it to reflect Zoe. She’s a silly, sensitive, lively girl. She plays three instruments and taught herself three languages, but she’s also a very private child,” she said. “She’s very sweet, very gentle and she hates being touched. I don’t want her touched by anyone – her whole life she has been in and out of hospitals and had so much done to her, I want the preparing of her body to be a private affair, just us. I don’t want strangers who don’t know her, who don’t know her story, to put her on a metal table in a morgue. She needs comfort, love and safety. She gave me all of the gifts that she did, and I need to do this for her. I need to keep her at home.”
I explained to Stacy that all of this was possible. I assured her that she would be the director of everything from this point forth, that neither I, nor any authority would tell her what to do or how to do it. Stacy had cared for her child every day of her life for 18 years. She knew exactly what she needed to do, for herself, for Zoe, for her family.
Two days later, Zoe took her last breath with Mom, Dad and her sisters laying on the bed beside her. Elsa the nurse called time of death and Stacy called Sacred Crossings.
‘Now what do we do?” she asked tearfully. I explained how to wrap her jaw and reviewed the closing of the chakras ritual and some of the precautions they should take while bathing her. I told her we would deliver the casket and art supplies and I would be there soon with dry ice. “You’ve got this,” I assured her. “Take your time. Zoe can stay home as long as you need.”
Stacy, with the help of her daughters and Elsa prepared Zoe’s body. They washed, anointed and dressed her, closed her chakras and draped her in her favorite Jedi robe with her favorite stuffed toy. Elsa helped Stacy cut locks of Zoe’s hair.
“I knew a week before she passed that I was going to take her hair,” Stacy told me. “Her hair was her thing – beautiful long, dark hair and I teased her that I might have to steal it to add to my dreadlocks. We joked about it. Elsa helped me cut it, I have half of it dreadlocked into my hair – and I’ll keep the other half to fill in over the years. She would love that.”
“I warned Paisley that it might seem scary to be with her dead sister, but I wanted her to be involved as much as she wanted to be. She was clear, she said, ‘No mom, I want to be there.’ She was protective of her sister and got right in there with the cleaning and bathing. Her dad went out to buy Jasper stones and Paisley helped me place the stones on her body, she helped wrap the shroud, change the dry-ice, everything.
Jaya just wanted to be close. While we worked on the shroud, she laid beside her sister as she had done so often in the days and weeks before. She just did what came naturally. It was right. It was beautiful. Just as Zoe would want. They were both really present and hands-on with every task. This was their first experience of death, they hadn’t been to any kind of traditional funeral/wake service before so they had nothing to compare it to. I’m glad for that.”
“I wanted to swaddle her like a burrito, but I wanted to add color. I wanted it all to be in tones of her favorite color blue. My girlfriend bought the muslin and dyed it and washed it and dried it and Paisley chose other fabric she thought Zoe would like. We did it together for our Zoe. We did everything humanly possible for her.”
“Zoe laid on her own bed for three days and people came to visit. Everybody was nervous at first because they didn’t understand, it was unknown, unfamiliar – they were afraid of the unknown. ‘What do you mean you’re keeping her at home?’ they would ask nervously, but when they came and saw her in her bedroom, surrounded by her things, and how beautiful it was they were blown away. Even Corey wasn’t 100% sold until the day we prepared her, then he saw and he knew. Each person had their own time with her in her room, crying, laughing, and when they left they were speechless. It changed them.
I knew I had to wait till she left her body and it took three days. I knew this because her dog wouldn’t leave her side, but then on the 3rd day, he wouldn’t go into her room. I carried him in and he ran straight out, that part was the hardest because I knew that until her spirit left her body she would be with us. Now she was gone.”
“I could have gotten a beautiful hand-made casket for her but I knew I wanted my girls to paint and decorate her box, I knew I wanted them to put all of their love into what they wanted to offer her. Paisley spent hours in the garage painting her box, it was very therapeutic for her. Corey and I went to a metaphysical shop for stones to make into jewelry for the girls to wear and bought flowers and the girls made bouquets of tulips for all the guests at the funeral service.”
“Due to COVID we couldn’t invite too many to the goodbye ceremony, so only our closest of close friends could come – it was a sweet, simple service guided by Olivia and Alyssa, her Sacred Crossing Guide. We all got to say our final words and tied yarn around our wrists for memory bracelets (which I still wear 4 months later) and we made a huge prayer flag which everybody wrote a blessing on and we keep it in our window facing outside. We’re going to keep it in every home we live in.”
“Jaya helped cover her in flowers at the end. It was so hard to say goodbye but easier because we had done everything possible. I needed time to process, we all needed time, having her home for three more days really helped. I wouldn’t do it any other way for anyone I loved.”
“I’m so grateful for this experience, that I was able to give it not only to Zoe, but also to the rest of the family. Olivia gave me the platform to do death differently. My friend just lost a 6-year old son and his whole service was over so quickly, he was gone in an hour – she didn’t have time to think. She wishes there were people around who had offered this to her, she could have done what we did for her son.
A month after Zoe died, the girls’ guinea pig died and Jaya wanted to do a memorial just like Zoe’s. She wrapped her in a shroud and we took her to the creek to bury her and decorate her grave – it was lovely, this is all my kids know now.
We talk about Zoe all the time. The girls both have altars to her in their rooms – we light a candle at every dinner and call her in – Paisley lights it and Jaya blows it out. It’s our way of keeping her close. Our dear friends Sierra and Dylan stayed and took care of use after she died. They still call every day, I don’t know what we’d have done without them. You really need a team to go through something like this.
I think this work is my calling – my path. I’m really looking forward to taking the Death Midwifery training with Sacred Crossings. There needs to be a change, an awakening, this is a chance to do that.”
Blog post and photography by Olivia Bareham.
With deep gratitude to Stacy, Corey, Paisley, Jaya, Elsa and Zoe for their generosity in sharing this beautiful story and permission for sharing the photos.
Being very close to my sister, I am deeply touched by how involved Paisley and Jaya were in honoring Zoe’s life. Many of my relatives’ funerals have left so much unsaid or misunderstood, and seeing funerals done in this way gives me hope for our culture’s process around grief and loss. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story.
Wow this is beautiful! I can attest to how amazing Olivia is- and I can assure you that becoming a death midwife is one of the most humbling and honored roles you will ever have. Your daughter was deeply loved and I believe that when we die- we die in the way we lived- she lived with love and she died with love. Hoorah for you mama and dad and sisters. You have done a wonderful work for your sister!
What a beautiful testament to this family and to Olivia for sharing this sacred path with all of us. I’m so honored and looking forward to becoming a part of it in October. Infinite Blessings to Zoe’s family.
I’m so inspired. Thank you for sharing.
What a beautiful story – thank you for sharing this with us x
The most beautiful, inspiring and moving thing I have read in forever.
Thank you to you and to Zoe’s family for sharing Zoe’s story and pictures with us. This is so precious to not just read ABOUT but to actually see and understand the process.