Why a Death Doula?
Why did I want to be a death doula?
I know it seems like a strange career path/choice but when I look back at my life or when I am explaining why I like “death” to someone it seems death has always been something that I was interested in. I thought I wanted to study religion at one time because the questions I had were about death and where better to find answers surrounding death than in the faith of others, or so I thought. It wasn’t until I was sitting in my “Death Doula” class that I realized it was death itself that held the answers on how to live.
My mother was an RN and so when I was sick as a child, her care of me was stellar. I mean I was safe and looked after and I had her all to myself. As a nurse my mother also saw a lot of interesting cases of trauma, birth, death and sometimes she would share with us some of her experiences of death. Those were my favourite stories. Those of death. Of how something would come over the room, or of how happy the person was just as they passed, or of how some people waited for their family to leave to die.
My father at around the time when he met my mother, drove 3 different vehicles for one person. The local hearse, ambulance, and tow truck. I used to love when he would tell stories of having to choose between the suit jacket for the hearse, the white coat for the ambulance or the greasy coveralls for the towing. This is of course how my parents met. My father either driving the ambulance or the hearse. On rare occasions, we could get my dad talking about calls he made with the ambulance and how one accident could involve all three vehicles/coats.
Years, later, I married a tomb stone maker. So our dinner conversations revolved around someone who had come into the office that day and their story. We spent a lot of our off time visiting cemeteries for work, for inspiration, or for fun. Our trip to Scotland was highlighted by visits to cemeteries where their tombstones were from older times than here in Canada, and they told stories of the person who lay below. Their story beginning on one side of the tombstone and then continuing onto the other.
When my daughter was a baby, we lived on the cusp of a noisy industrial zone which didn’t inspire the nicest walks. I discovered the short walk to the city cemetery gave us peace and quiet to enjoy our days together, strolling around. I soon discovered the silence and history of walking there with her asleep in her stroller, me smiling and saying hello to those grieving and gardening filled my days with pleasure and serenity. As a new mother it was those walks that kept me centered and happy during what can be days full of uncertainly and chaos.
My father is one of those great people who attend funerals or visitations for anyone who has touched his life in big and small ways. I always admired this quality and was so proud when he would accompany me to a funeral home of someone who died. I can actually remember meeting my future husband years before we fell in love, at a funeral home, for the man who employed both my father and his. His parents were away at the time of this death, so he came to represent his family. My father, always one to remind me of greatness when it occurs, told me how impressed he was that he came, alone, to represent his family. How my boyfriend at the time would never do this also struck a chord with me as well as with my father.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in January of 2013, it was the first time I looked at death through my own eyes. Although I did not die nor was I told that I would die then, having cancer, for me, was an awakening of how life really goes on in the direction it does without your influence. And it scared me. And it made me angry. And it changed me. As Audre Lorde so perfectly states in the last line of her book, The Cancer Journals, “I would never have chosen this path, but I am very glad to be who I am, here.”
It wasn’t until the death of my much loved mother-in-law in 2016 that I had firsthand experience with “being” with someone dead. I had been to the death beds of my grandparents before they died and sat with my mother while the hospital Chaplin came and prayed with my unconscious grandmother and watched her body relax and become comforted by his words and remain that way, or so I am told, until her death. I was the one who came up with the idea of having someone come and pray with her and I witnessed its strength and calming effect on a woman who was clearly agitated in her current state.
It was my husband who knew things intuitively that his mom was dying. Like how she was crying when we spoke of her death in her room even though we thought she was unconscious. Of how he left her to enjoy her best friends coming to sing for her and knowing that she needed that time alone with her friends. Of how he woke minutes before she died, knowing somehow that it was going to happen. And it was he who left soon after she died to get his dad so that he could say goodbye to his wife and on his way out, asking me to try and make her look nice for his father when he returned. So thoughtful. I thought and still think and how easily these thoughts came to him in his grief.
The summer before her death, I was in attendance when my great aunt died, at home, in her bed, with her entire family surrounding her. I was there to support my mother but also because I wanted to experience being with my family since attending visitations in the past had always led to reminiscing and laughter. Being there with this aunt, with whom I had grown up with as a first aunt and seeing her die in her bed surrounded by loved ones and how her death reunited some members, I was struck then at how foreign this death was in my world. At home? With family around having fun? Of taking time to say goodbye before she died, of being with her when she died, and then to have time with her after she died. It was hours before the funeral home came and got her. I thought this was a little strange but everyone was so happy to have time with her. I feared going back in the room at the time. My fear of the unknown, of “not wanting to remember her dead” and a feeling of giving her dignity by not seeing her dead again, all stayed with me.
Being alone with my mother in laws dead body was not something I felt comfortable with. I stood as far away from her as I could at first. The room felt strange. She looked strange. I felt strange. I wanted to honour her and to help my father in law out but not having to see the signs of her death, the struggle she went through all night as she died. I brushed her hair, I washed her face, I pulled the sheet up around her neck to hide the soiled sheets and the hospital gown. And it was hard work. I was afraid of her body. I was uncomfortable and even thought of leaving. To sit outside until someone could come and be with me. It was then that I started to sing. I sang the song her friends had sung for her the night before when I witnessed again, the calmness come to an agitated person and a tear that fell from her eye as they sang. Jesus Loves Me seemed childish at the time and it wasn’t until after the funeral I googled it because the women had sung verses that were somehow suitable to death.
Jesus loves me—this I know,
For the Bible tells me so;
Little ones to Him belong—
They are weak, but He is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
The Bible tells me so.
Jesus loves me—He who died
Heaven’s gate to open wide;
He will wash away my sin,
Let His little child come in.
Jesus loves me—loves me still,
Though I’m very weak and ill;
From His shining throne on high
Comes to watch me where I lie.
Jesus loves me—He will stay
Close beside me all the way,
Then His little child will take
Up to Heaven for His dear sake
Although I only knew the first verse from Sunday school so many years ago, I sang it with the sweetness and words I had heard the night before. By the time I had finished singing a few times, I noticed something strange. I had started out at one side of the room afraid, and when I finished I found myself sitting on a chair beside the bed where she lay dead, and I was holding her hands and touching her face, and feeling quite grateful to be there, alone with this amazing woman, doing good work, and feeling such peace and love. What happened was simple. I became comfortable with death. I had been given such an important job and I intended to do it despite my own difficulties - for my husband, my father in law but mainly for my mother in law. It was a glimpse into the world I had heard about around the dinner table and stories I imagined when reading tombstones. And it was a world I decided I needed to be a part of. But in what way?
My research led me to becoming a “Death Doula”. And sadly, it was not something people supported right away. I am empathic, emotional, and “changed from cancer” so much so that the new me appeared unstable. It wasn’t until 2 years later, as I was sitting in the class at the Institute of Traditional Medicine’s classroom on Queen W in Toronto, that I came to realize that this was exactly where I belonged. The course on Contemplative End of Life Care changed my life on a personal level, showed me I was finally among my “people”, and that “doing death” differently was something I wanted, no, needed to be a part of. I am on my way now - Filled with gratitude, hope, and a deep need to help others.