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Holding Space for Birth: Lessons from Holding Space for Death

My husband’s Ruairi's Dad passed away recently, over in Belfast where Ruairi is from and my half-Irish children love to visit clutching their Irish passports in hand with pride. This meant Ruairi had to go over and navigate this on his own, which led to a lot of discussions between us in which he would describe what was happening over there while I held the fort at home. 

His death was not unexpected. He was in a care home and we knew he was deteriorating, but it still felt very sudden with a sudden downturn in the last couple of weeks. This being said, we took great comfort in the fact that Ruairi and his sister were with him at the moment he passed over. Ruairi said the staff at the care home were absolutely amazing and “held space” for his passing with great dignity and respect. I am certain their level of remuneration for such a job does not reflect the work they do adequately. 

Holding space is an art form. A lot of people simply do not have the gift of how to do it, and in conversation immediately have the knack of turning things right back to themselves. But there is no ego in holding space, and being able to do it well is a true gift to the world. 

One of the many deep conversations Ruairi and I have had over the past week or so was about the holding space for birth vs. the holding space for death in our society. When Ruairi described the rollercoaster of watching someone leave this earth and pass on, I made a comment along the lines of “you can see why I am so passionate about holding space for birth?” 

We seem to “get it” about death and our exit out of this world. 

We know about sacredness, dignity, and honour. 

We know about respecting the dying person’s wishes. 

We know about making someone as comfortable as possible. 

We know how to “bend” protocols as each person is an individual. 

Through my work in teaching pregnancy yoga and being a birth doula, I know with certainty that in the current healthcare system where women birth, so many of the women I work with would not describe their baby’s births as sacred and held with dignity and reverence and honour for the mother. It’s something to think about, isn't it?

It prompted me to to a little bit of googling about holding space for a dying person and came across this website of a hospice in Wales:

They wrote an article about holding space for the dying and suggested to do the following things:

Trust your intuition and wisdom.

Health care protocols are in place for a reason and yet, they do not need to be blindly followed. 

It’s okay to not know all of the steps.

Giving people too much information and instructions can leave them feeling overwhelmed and unqualified.

Don’t take their power away.

Even if you’re making decisions on the dying patient’s behalf, it’s important to recognize their wishes be honored. This is their journey and it is important to continue to make the person feel empowered by recognizing their wishes for treatment.

Keep your own ego out of it.

It’s tough to keep yourself out and thinking that you know what’s best.

Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness.

Be aware of areas where the patient may feel vulnerable, such as being naked while being bathed. Offering kindness and humility will help the situation and reduce the chance of the patient feeling shame and helpless.

Allow complex emotions, fear, trauma, to come up for you and the patient.

Allow them to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would.

Holding space is about respecting each person’s differences and recognizing that those differences may lead to them making choices that we would not make.”


How beautiful are these suggestions and how absolutely necessary is it to apply these to holding space for birth? If you are planning to give birth make sure each and every one of these is in place for you. Anything less is just not acceptable. 

So let’s summarise using the above suggestions for palliative care and apply it to how space should be held for that child coming into the world:

The mother’s intuition and wisdom is absolutely paramount. Trust it.

Intuition is intangible, you can’t quantify it or slap a statistic or risk factor on it, but it should be listened to with absolute reverence. Health care protocols are in place for a reason and yet, they do not need to be blindly followed. 

It’s okay to not know all of the steps.

Birth is a natural process of the body and it looks different for each mother. The neocortex memorising all the steps of birth doesnt let the body naturally find its own way of doing it and the reptilian part of our brain know how to so just let it be. 

Don’t take their power away.

This is the journey of the family and their child. It is important to continue to make the family feel empowered by recognizing their wishes for the birth of their child.

Keep your own ego out of it.

Enough said about the current healthcare system. 

Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness.

Infantilizing a birthing mother, not respecting her human rights and speaking to her in a degrading way happens all the time in the healthcare system. It should not happen when holding space for birth. 

Allow complex emotions such as fear and trauma, to come up.

I always say to clients when we work on releasing fear when preparing for birth that unfortunately fear of birth is so ingrained in our society and culture that it is near to impossible to eradicate every single fear and that fears can often come up during labour. This doesn't mean you can’t birth comfortably and feeling free of fear. If a fear comes up, recognise it, speak it out, and continue to breathe and let the birthing process unfold. 

You can see why so many birth doulas go on to be death doulas. It’s not something I am ready for yet, but you never know. One day. 

As a birth doula, I believe fiercely about holding your birth space with dignity, respect, reverence, and honour for you and your baby. Your baby deserves their birth to be sacred and you deserve to be held in reverence as you birth. Anything less for you and your baby simply isnt good enough. 



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