With the holidays approaching, it is a fitting time to think about dying. It has long been known that more people die in winter than any other season, but a 2010 review of nearly 60 million U.S. deaths showed that Christmas is the single most common day of death, with New Year Day close behind. Dying, like life, can go poorly or well, and those who know it well are in a position to make an important difference. In the last few decades a new type of health professional has emerged whose contributions to dying resemble—of all people—those of a midwife.
For millennia, midwives have cared for and assisted childbearing women throughout pregnancy, labor, birth, and the postpartum period. Particularly for women who have never given birth before, the support and experience of a midwife can reduce anxiety and confusion, decrease pain, and at least at times, even make the experience more peaceful.
The parallels between birth and death are numerous and remarkable. Like birth, dying is often associated with pain, uncertainty, and fear. In both cases, there is lots of waiting, certain signs occur reliably, and the final timing is not predictable. In neither case are health professionals in control. In death as in birth, patience, kindness, and privacy can make the experience more healing, bringing out more of the good and less of the bad in people. And a health professional with appropriate training and experience can do a lot to help patients and families negotiate both transitions.