Excerpts from This Whole Wide World is Just a Narrow Bridge by Alissa Hirshfeld-Flores

A Longer Transition

When I awoke, in a clean quiet room in ICU several hours later, nurses and doctors were coming into the room, asking me questions, making sure I was “out of the woods.”  The doctors told me that they stitched up my uterus “like a pot-roast.”  I asked Danny what had happened.  He smiled tiredly and didn’t tell me immediately.  When he did, I didn’t believe him.  Apparently, when I was delivering the afterbirth, because of the way the placenta was attached, it ripped away a part of the wall of the uterus (placenta ecrita).  I bled profusely.  I lost 80% of my blood supply and received 8 liters of transfusions.  Danny told me how terrified he was.  “They asked if you had advanced directives.”  Despite being quite familiar with such things from my hospice work, I hadn’t realized I would need these things before giving birth.  The line between birth and death is indeed quite thin.  “You were hooked up with all sorts of tubes to a respirator.  I was coaching you to breathe,”  Danny explained.

In my woozy state, it felt like the Akeda story in reverse, the story in Genesis in which Abraham receives a command to sacrifice his son Isaac, but is then spared from committing the awful deed at the last minute by an intervening angel.  I had vowed to do whatever God wanted of me in exchange for a child.  But at the last minute, the angels took pity and spared my life.

The nurse brought Sophie in.  She was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I was devastated that she’d had to spend her first hours apart from me, deprived of a proper early attachment period.  She lay in a little glass-walled basinet near my hospital bed.  I loved watching her.  I also, frankly, loved when the nurses took her to the nursery to let me rest.  What would happen when it was time to go home?  Who would take care of her?  Where in the world was her mother?  . . .  Oh, yeah.

I’ve since thought about how wonderful it would be if there were a system similar to and as widespread as hospice, a care team who would come to the home to help care for the newborn as well as giving support to the parents.  True, there are postpartum doulas, whose job it is to support new parents and help with the baby, but they are not widely used (most people have probably not heard of such people —I hadn’t).  And they are not currently reimbursable by insurance.  Surely, this vulnerable postpartum period is similar to the vulnerability prior to a death: a time when all of the emotional resources of the family are challenged.  Research by Drs. John and Julie Gottman suggests that 2/3 of marriages suffer due to the stress that accompanies a new birth.  Divorce rates skyrocket in the first year after a child is born.  What a wonderful beginning it would be for new families to receive homecare after a birth.  How much it might help to prevent postpartum depression, child abuse and domestic violence, as well as lowering divorce rates.

An intuitive body worker whom I visited a few months after giving birth, as I attempted to heal from the physical trauma of what I’d been through, told me that during those post-birth hours I’d been suspended in a place between the worlds, similar to the place I’d been just after I’d been born, 3 weeks late, with complications.  Both times, I’d made a contract to remain here in this life.  She did not tell me why or what my purpose was.  I knew it was first and foremost to be the best mother I could be to Sophie.  To be a partner to Danny.  To be a good step-parent to Danny’s other daughters.  To be a good daughter.  What else I was meant to contribute, I’m still on the journey to discovering.  Perhaps I am meant to share my story and whatever lessons I’ve learned.  This birth experience certainly reinforced what I was learning daily at hospice about the tenuous, precious, unpredictable nature of existence.  This baby that almost could not come into existence almost took me out of it.  Here my mother was in a protracted dying process, whereas I was almost gone in an instant, after touching the origin of life.


Excerpt from Sitting Shiva

At some point, probably when my mother’s cancer had spread to her brain, I began to consciously wean myself away from her, as a baby weans from the breast, in order to make the ultimate separation more bearable.  I remember early in her illness, fearing that I would collapse without her.  Literally melt into a puddle, like the witch in the Wizard of Oz, and not be able to survive.  I had seen many women regress at the loss of their mothers to a place of complete helplessness, and I did not want this to be me.  Perhaps because I had seen my mother become depressed after her own mother’s death, and the effect that had on me, I did not want to repeat this pattern with Sophie.  And so, I prepared myself to live without her.  I began to cultivate older women friends as mother figures.  I began to call my mother less frequently for advice, and turn to these women instead.  Whereas Danny had been in some ways second to my mother as my most intimate relationship, he now became primary, as I confided in him more and more and in my mother less and less.  Over time, I learned to seek my own counsel, so that in times of turmoil and confusion, I turned less to my women friends for guidance and more to my intuition and inner guidance.  My mother, in her dying process, taught me this lesson of self trust.

Alissa Hirshfeld-Flores is a licensed marriage and family therapy, certified spiritual director, and former bereavement department manager.  She currently practices in Santa Rosa and specializes in grief and loss, life transitions, and counseling on spiritual issues.  Her book (This Whole Wide World is Just a Narrow Bridge, Infinity Publishing, 2011, available at Amazon) presents her reflections on what she learned from 12 years working at hospice, which corresponded with experiencing the intersection of the death of her mother, birth of her daughter, and own near-death experience post-partum.  While the book speaks candidly about death, it is ultimately a celebration of life.  Alissa has been a Hollywood consultant for grief-related films.  In her personal time, she enjoys laughing with her husband–a stand-up comedian–and keeping their daughter entertained.  She is currently working on a novel. Alissa also appears on Writer-Speak with host Mikala Kennan (a half-hour indepth interview).

Read our interview with Alissa Hirshfeld-Flores conducted by Tania Pryputniewicz, Birth, Death, and Hospice.



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