“Not quite sure where I am going, but it's a journey I know I must take.” - Denis Pryce
When I was young, I wanted to be a nurse or a model. As I grew up, my ‘career’ aspirations changed with every passing grade level. I did finally settle on a career; I would bequeath my working soul to communications and public relations. It was honest work and truth be told, I found it quite easy.
My mother was a beautiful writer. She was always writing. She wrote poems for each of the births of her four grandchildren. Those poems hung proudly in their rooms. From time to time, you could hear them reading it aloud to themselves. My mother’s writing brought comfort to her grandchildren. Especially when she was gone.
I guess I came by the writing bug honestly. My father was also a writer. Not as polished as my mother, nor as neat. My mother had journal books filled with words. My father had scraps of paper. Anything could be used. A napkin, a cereal box turned inside out, an empty space on a grocery flyer, and even his kitchen wall. Years ago, he had tried to pull the old, ugly wallpaper off the kitchen wall. He only succeeded in taking off the top layer. What was left behind became his living ‘notepad.’
When my father died, it was unexpected and quick. My mother had passed away two years earlier. She struggled long and hard with lung cancer. We all knew she was dying. My brother, sister, and I took turns supporting her in the last years, months, days, and minutes of her life. That seemed normal. We were fortunate to have the time we had to come to terms with her death.
When my father died, there was no time. He and I had just come back from a trip to Northern Ireland to visit his granddaughter. He was a little under the weather while we were there, but he chalked it up to the flu shot. When we got home, he booked an appointment with his doctor who suggested he wear a heart monitor vest for two days, so they would know better what was going on.
He called me one day and told me he couldn’t breathe. I told him to sit down and wait for me. I would be right there. I got to the house, and he looked old and weathered…most definitely not the man I knew him to be. He was at the pool swimming three times a week, he walked 5k daily, rode his bike 45k and back twice a week. Certainly, he would be okay, and we would just get some antibiotics and be on our way.
Two hours at the hospital turned into two weeks. I visited every day. We typically had dinner together. One evening when I got there, the doctor arrived and told him that he had stage four lung cancer and that there was nothing more they could do. They would discharge him in the morning.
My brother was sitting in a chair at the side of his bed. My father lay on the bed with an oxygen tube in his nose. I excused myself saying that I needed to ask the doctor something. I smiled and told them I would be back in a moment. I walked past the nurse’s station. My hands over my mouth preventing my sobs from coming out. As tears streamed down my face, I stopped walking and crumbled to the floor. I could not catch my breath. My hands dropped to my side and the sobbing began.
My dad returned home, and the palliative team stopped by shortly before lunch. My father’s palliative doctor was awesome. He was kind and he and my father got along well. The palliative nurse was fabulous. She gave me her cell number and told me to use it if I needed anything. I never did use it. I didn’t want to bother her with all of the questions I had.
From the time my father left the hospital, to the last breath I watched him take, 12 days had passed. I cannot express to you or even myself, the loss I felt, still feel. I stayed with him till the end. I busied myself with cleaning the house. I started piles of things that could be donated, things that could be thrown out and things I knew my brother or sister would want to keep.
Days afterwards, I played the events of my father’s death through my head. The way everyone showed up that night. How the doctor rushed in and said we needed to get him started on midazolam so he would be comfortable. How he had just finished his leg exercises and now the nurse was getting him all geared up for death.
If I had a penny for every time I think about that moment, I would be rich. That moment, standing and watching all of ‘it,’ the death of my father take place, would be the moment that set me on my journey to become a death doula. It would shape my ‘purpose,’ and my reason for being.
Some people spend copious amounts of time and effort on ‘finding’ their purpose. Books have been written to help people find their purpose. Seminars, workshops, retreats, and any other means of discovery can be used to help people find their purpose. As a death doula, my purpose will be to humbly accompany the dying to the very edge of their last breath. I will walk in stride with them and help them plan for and experience a good death. I will accompany the bereaved along their path of healing.
My father unknowingly authored his obituary. The night he was dying, I pulled together all of his ‘writings.’ Little scraps of paper with thoughts, words, and sentences jotted down on them. I’m sure he never intended it to be his obituary. I’m even more sure that he never intended it to lead me to my purpose. I’m not quite sure where the journey of being a death doula will take me, but I KNOW I must take it!
Sionainn Pryce-Hynes is a death doula candidate with Home Hospice Association.