As a hospital chaplain, Amy Wright Glenn has been present with those suffering from suicide, trauma, disease, and unforeseen accidents and has been witness to the intense grief and powerful insights that so often accompany loss. She weaves together memoir, philosophical inquiry, and cutting-edge research on death/dying to chronicle how we, as individuals and as a culture, handle everything from grief to mortality.
Glenn is also a professional birth doula with a deep and committed mindfulness practice who has thought deeply about the significance of human love and loss. She asks us to embrace the task of being present with what is -- through courageous and mindful expressions of compassionate presence -- and helps us to accept the fact of our own mortality on a visceral and emotional level, not simply as an intellectual abstraction.
Holding Space concludes by integrating key insights drawn from working directly with the dying into a moving and compelling meditation on the healing power of "holding space" for all involved in caring for the dying, a healing sorely needed in our culture at this time.
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a mormon dies
"Be calm. God awaits you at the door."
— GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ
My father shuts the door of our brown Pinto station wagon. He takes my hand as we hurry into a funeral home in Ogden, Utah. My mother and my younger siblings follow. We walk quickly. With three small children and a baby in tow, it takes a certain diligence on the part of my parents to arrive anywhere on time.
I'm seven years old, the eldest of my parents' children. Though I'm not a fan of wearing a dress, today I'm in a good mood. My extended family is gathering to honor the passing of a great-aunt I never knew, and this means I get to spend quality time with my cousin Hans. He is my favorite of all my cousins. I smile and strive to keep up with my father's long-legged gait. My Sunday shoes make quick clicking sounds on the sidewalk.
We enter the funeral home lobby. A framed photo of an elderly woman is prominently displayed on a memorial easel surrounded by bouquets of flowers.
"Who is she again?" I whisper to my father.
"My aunt," he answers. "She is your great-aunt, though you never met her."
My great aunt. I look closer. She is a stranger to me.
My attention shifts to the living. My cousin Hans is here somewhere. I look for him. Dozens of children — playing, crying, pulling on their parent's hands — are mixed into a sea of suits and dresses. We are a prolific bunch. By the time my parents complete their reproductive journey, I'll have six siblings. This isn't unusual in Mormon Utah. One of our neighbors has twelve children. Our theology firmly rests upon the centrality of love, Christ, and family.
My great-aunt's funeral involves lengthy eulogies and staid LDS hymns. I find it hard to sit still. I didn't know my deceased elderly relative and I keep scanning the room for Hans. Nonetheless, there's a lot of talk about death and that gets me thinking.
Already, at the age of seven, I believed that I once lived in the preexistence as a spirit child of a loving heavenly father and mother. Eventually, I needed to come to Earth in order to receive a physical body and be tested. I chose my earthly parents and was a "special spirit," because I was born into a Mormon family wherein I could know the restored gospel and live according to the ordinances required to return to my heavenly parents after death. At least that is what my Gran tells me.
After the service, people mill about for the viewing and reception. Finally, I see him.
"Hans!" I shout.
I run over to my cousin, six months my senior, my comrade-in-arms for adventure.
"Amy!" he replies. We hug. His warm demeanor brightens my spirit. I forget I'm wearing a stuffy Sunday dress. I forget we are in a funeral home. Hans is here! Now things will get interesting.
True to form, he whispers softly: "I have something important to show you." His tone is hushed, unusually serious. He takes my hand.
"What is it?" I ask, smiling broadly. Our adventure begins.
He leads me through the maze of conversing adults. Any lingering boredom dissolves. My heart beats with anticipation. What does he have to show me? We've never explored a funeral home before.
We quickly exit the gathering without being noticed. In particular, I am careful to avoid my mother. The sight of Hans and I together more often than not elicits a raised eyebrow of concern and a stern beckoning to her side. She would demand that I detail the itinerary of our planned escapade, for good reason.
I remember my fifth birthday party, when Hans convinced me that he knew how to drive. We climbed into his family's car and he prepared to take it for a spin. Never mind that his feet dangled far above the brake and gas pedals. Never mind that the driver's-side door was too heavy to close. Hans placed the car in neutral and it quickly careened down the sloped driveway, where open door met telephone pole.
I vividly recall my Aunt Kris, Hans's mother, racing out of the front door of my home and rushing toward us. Addressing the severed car door lying in the front yard came later. Stopping the rolling vehicle and securing our safety were first priority.
Even before the birthday incident, my mother hadn't seen Hans as the most noble of influences. After all, he was the first person who showed me that people could eat their boogers. One day, he taught me how to bite my fingernails. "See, you don't need nail clippers," he said. Gratefully, such behaviors never caught on. However, the fact that I now understood such things were possible troubled my mother. The tearing off of a car door didn't help.
"You'll have retarded children," she retorted upon my declaration that I planned to marry Hans.
"My mom said I can't marry you," I later told him. "She said our children would be retarded."
Hans thought for a moment. Then he straightened his spine and declared confidently: "Well, then, we won't have children." Given the LDS emphasis on procreation, I remember being struck by how taboo, and how liberating, his idea was. Married without children? That's possible?
Despite my mother's misgivings and my cousin's affinity for mild forms of heresy, our family celebrated our treasured connection. As long as basic rules of safety were observed, Hans and I were given a remarkably wide berth for exploration. Even if that meant we were about to encounter a corpse.
Quietly, Hans and I walk down an empty hallway, leaving the din of family conversations behind. Then he pauses before a door.
"Here," he says. "In here."
We enter a dark space. It's another viewing room in the funeral home, similar to the one rented for our great-aunt's funeral. The curtains are drawn shut. The room is empty, almost.
"Follow me," Hans whispers.
We walk across the carpet toward an open casket. The body of a dead, elderly Mormon woman rests inside.
"Who is it?" I ask.
"I don't know," Hans replies.
We step closer.
She is a large woman, dressed in her temple finest. A modest application of rouge and lipstick adorn cold cheeks and lips; her white hair is perfectly set. The woman's family will be arriving later, but for now we are her only visitors.
We peer over the casket, two seven-year-old children encountering a dead person alone for the first time.
"Should we touch her?" I ask.
"I dare you."
"She has a big nose."
"Amy," Hans corrects me. "Stop."
So we stand very still. We hardly move. Yet we are breathing and she isn't. We can choose to be quiet; she can't. Her quiet is deafening and unalterable. Will she suddenly speak? No, of course not. Does she know we are there? No. Well, maybe. Is her spirit in the room? Oh, goodness.
"She's dead," I whisper, and Hans nods solemnly.
What does being dead really mean?
A door opens. The sudden cascading hallway light startles us. We've been discovered. Caught looking at the dead. And it's Uncle John. Oh, no. We are really in trouble.
Uncle John walks across the room, catching us in our clandestine viewing. Soon he stands directly behind us. We freeze. He places his hands on our shoulders and I prepare myself for a scolding. The three of us are quiet, for what seems like a long time.
Then Uncle John begins speaking, very softly. He speaks about death, the eternal spirit, and heavenly father's love. His words are kind. His presence is gentle. We are not in trouble for looking at the dead woman's body. Rather, Uncle John affirms that we stand on holy ground.
Thirty-five years later, I vividly recall my uncle's generous response to our funeral home trespass. I remember his LDS-inspired teachings, affirming that we are eternal spirits inhabiting mortal forms. We choose to come to Earth and experience joy, sorrow, birth, and death. One day, our spirits will reunite with our bodies for the resurrection and final judgment. If we live a life of truth and goodness, and dedicate ourselves to the salvific power of Jesus Christ, we have nothing to fear.
According to LDS doctrine, we live one human life. It is a life of tremendous significance, because it yields timeless consequence. Other world religions embrace the teaching of reincarnation, arguing that our souls have known multiple births and deaths. American author and meditation teacher Ram Dass writes: "The ego is identified with the incarnation, which stops at the moment of death. The soul, on the other hand, has experienced many deaths."
Did the soul of the dead woman that Hans and I discovered know other deaths prior to the one we'd just encountered? Perhaps her soul reincarnated into another physical form? Or is my uncle right? Did she experience mortality only once?
LDS doctrine teaches that we have always existed as "intelligences," that were then organized into gendered "spirit bodies" by heavenly parents. Our spirit bodies advanced as far as possible in the preexistence but could not advance further without the experience of mortality. Yes, our earthly journey is marked by both love and loss, and this is not by chance. Earth was designed to be a test, and the test of death is notably challenging. Yet the faith of believers softens death's blow. According to Gordon B. Hinckley, the fifteenth President of the LDS Church: "All of us have to deal with death at one time or another, but to have in one's heart a solid conviction concerning the reality of eternal life is to bring a sense of peace in an hour of tragedy and loss that can come from no other source under the heaven."
Contrast Hinckley's faith with the theory of scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell. According to Campbell, the creation of mythology — as well as religion — has its roots in our early recognition of the significance of death. While other creatures grieve, we alone seem to be the only species that can anticipate grief. We can imagine death even in the midst of birth and breath. And because we can imagine the inevitable end that awaits our conscious, mortal selves, we are filled with conflict. We assuage the pending fear and dread accompanying mortal musings with myth, religion, and ritual. Campbell states: "All the gods, all the heavens, all the worlds are within us. They are magnified dreams, and dreams are manifestations in image form of the energies of the body in conflict with each other."
Perhaps it doesn't matter if we embrace the teaching of reincarnation, in contrast to a vision that asserts we come to Earth but once. Perhaps religious rituals and beliefs are things we craft instinctively because the forethought of grief is too great a burden for our consciousness to fully bear. Or perhaps there is a God who designed Earth to be a test for our immortal souls. Perhaps.
Whether we weave stories about life after death to stem fears or affirm faith, what matters is that we weave them with love. As a child, I had no other reference point to which I could compare the LDS teachings of my elders. Yet I found love stitched into the tapestry of meaning provided to me by the adults in my life. As I looked at a strange woman's dead body, I felt the love that motivated my uncle's words.
Today, I no longer embrace the full scope of LDS doctrine. When I die, I won't be buried in temple clothes. The well-known Mormon hymn "I Know that My Redeemer Lives" won't be sung at my funeral. No young children will discover my embalmed body resting in the parlor of a Utah funeral home. Of course, observant members of my family pray my heart will soften and I will again embrace the entirety of the gospel taught to me in my youth. I am grateful for the love that inspires their prayers, and yet I am at peace with the path I've chosen. My worldview is no longer tied to the theology issued forth by dozens of well-meaning, kind, generous, conservative, and elderly gentlemen in Salt Lake City.
My childhood as a devout Mormon girl eventually led to my work as a scholar of comparative religion and philosophy. This led to my calling to hold space for profound transitions, as a birth doula and hospital chaplain. Perhaps it all started the day my cousin Hans and I encountered that dead Mormon woman's body. At the time, the teachings of the LDS gospel served as a healing balm, allaying any fear. Yet sirens of wonder, doubt, and discovery called my spirit forth. I began to study and consider alternative interpretations of reality. The tapestry of the worldview inherited from my family began to fray.
I remember the unraveling.
"My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness."
— THE DALAI LAMA
"Yes, I'll be sure to talk with her," my mother states politely.
I can tell the phone call is ending and I'm pretty sure the conversation has something to do with me.
"Thanks for letting me know. Good-bye." She places the receiver of our family's rotary phone back on the wall.
"Who was that?" I ask.
"The librarian," she replies.
Now I know the conversation has to do with me.
I'm a voracious reader. As a girl, I would line up my stuffed animals and read aloud to my captive audience. In first grade, I got in trouble for taking home more than the one-book-per-night allowed. I would sneak two or three or four books into my backpack until my teacher chastised me. Now, as a thirteen-year-old, my reading once again had landed me in hot water.
"The librarian called to let me know you are checking out romance novels," my mother explains. "She doesn't think it's appropriate."
"What do you think?" I ask.
My mother looks at me, squinting her eyes. She's thinking. As the eldest of her seven, standing on the precipice of puberty, I imagine her response will take a minute. I stand frozen, worried. I love the library and don't want a place that I experience as a sanctuary to become a place where I get into trouble.
In stark contrast to my family home, where nine of us share a small and rather chaotic three-bedroom abode, the library is quiet and organized. I can lose myself for hours there. Memoir and nonfiction fascinate me most, but there's an entire wall dedicated to romance novels. Lately I've been drawn there, too.
"Does your mother know you're reading this?" the librarian asks. She holds up a romance novel found in my stack of books to check out. The cover features a scantily clad, buxom maiden falling into the muscular arms of a shirtless, handsome rescuer.
"I can read what I want," I politely reply. Can't I?
Reluctantly, the librarian checks the romance novel out, along with the rest of my selections. Yet it's clear that her concerns remain. I leave the library wondering what other library books are forbidden to thirteen-year-olds.
"Mom, what do you think?" I ask again, breaking the silence.
What's so inappropriate about reading love stories anyway? Even she occasionally borrows sexually descriptive romance novels from our neighbor across the street. I know this because I've read through them when no one is looking. That's where I first found myself aroused by erotic details of sexual expression. That's where I got the idea to check them out at the library for myself.
"You can read the Harlequin romance novels," she states solemnly. "But not the others."
I obey her. I don't check out the egregiously descriptive romances again. But soon I realize that every Harlequin romance is a rather boring variation on the same theme.
An independent, beautiful woman meets a troubled, sexually charged man. Over time, her independent streak is reined in. She is seduced by his prowess. He, in turn, falls in love. Pick up the next Harlequin and press Repeat. Autobiographical accounts of courageous women overcoming real obstacles were far, far more interesting.
So, I returned to reading memoir. That's how I found Joni.
The summer of my fourteenth year, I read Joni: An Unforgettable Story by Joni Eareckson Tada, an evangelical Christian quadriplegic artist who paints by holding a brush in her mouth. Her story stirs deep emotion in me, and the book impacts me profoundly. I'm in tears as I consider Joni's terrible diving accident that left her paralyzed at the age of eighteen. Trying to place myself in her shoes, I wonder if I could find purpose in living if I lost the ability to move my body. How would I cope?
Joni finds strength in her faith. She describes an emotional born-again Christian experience that lifts her out of the dark depression that followed her accident. I resonate with the purity and intensity of her religious expression, and decide to write her a letter.
The next day, I pen my admiration. I describe how I found her book in my local library. I explain that I'm a fourteen-year-old Mormon girl living in Utah. I thank her for her courageous heart and mail my letter to her publisher.
A few weeks later, I hold a rather thick envelope in my hands. Joni wrote me back! Of course, she would have had to dictate the letter, but that doesn't dilute my excitement. My letter reached her and touched her enough to inspire a response. And from the heft of the envelope, it seems she has a great deal to say.
My excitement soon morphs into confusion. Reading her lengthy typewritten missive leaves me shaken. Rather than reacting to my response to her book, Joni warns me of eternal damnation. According to Joni, I am a member of a dangerous and misguided cult. I must swiftly renounce the faith of my forbearers and embrace "true Christianity." If I don't make radical shifts in my theology, my soul will burn in hell. Joni's letter is an anti-Mormon polemic and it's the first one I've ever read.
Excerpted from "Holding Space"
Copyright © 2017 Amy Wright Glenn.
Excerpted by permission of Parallax Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 A mormon dies 29
2 The unraveling 39
3 Mother 55
4 Working with fear 69
5 Hungry ghosts 89
6 Little good-byes 107
7 Prayer 121
8 You make me brave 137
9 Making meaning of loss 157
10 Listening to the dying 171
11 Strong as death 191
12 The doula path 203
Interview with amy wright glenn 220
Discussion questions 226
Appendix a Planning your own vigil 228
Appendix b Care practices for pregnancy loss support 232
Appendix c Helpful resources 244
For further reflection 246
About the author 254
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Aging... it's something we're all doing, yet never talk about. Afterall, who wants to contemplate their own mortality? This book was a very gentle, yet thorough read with lots of great insight and helpfulness. Being mindful is something I've always aspired to, but with admittedly little success. The personal stories captured within these pages helps take the discomfort of the practice and sabotaging thoughts out of achieving my mindfulness aspirations. Great read! I would highly recommend!