This post was was originally published at https://www.preciousdays.ca/blog and has been updated and republished with permission.
When we start out in life, everyone likes to guess what we will "be" when we grow up. We become young adults and many of us spend a lot of time trying to find our way. Comparing, contemplating, dreaming, working, and hoping. We lose a loved one perhaps, or maybe experience our first heartbreak or rejection. Things sometimes just don't go as planned. Well, usually things don't go as planned! For a while, things were sailing along rather smoothly for me. I thought that the difficult stage of my life was maybe behind me. Haha! Yeah right!
Every stage of life has some difficulties, don't they? A few years ago, in my early forties, I was hit with a shocking reality. Years of manual labour and an autoimmune disease had taken somewhat of a toll on my physical abilities. I lost some independence for the first time, and it was eye-opening...to say the least. I have never been one to shy away from a challenge, but this felt different. It took a while, and I had to grieve this change. It took more time than I would have liked. Once the smoke cleared, I pulled myself back together somewhat. I watched, listened, and waited for the universe to help me find my way. I am ever so thankful that she has delivered.
I have spent a good chunk of the last decade in hospitals with loved ones. Weeks in ICU and cancer units, bedside with those nearing the end of their lives, and I have attended more funerals than I wanted to at the time. Somehow though, I was always able to pull some peace from the experiences. I could learn something, help someone by remaining calm, advocate if needed, and observe.
A friend online shared a post from a death-positive page. This is a movement to bring about conversations around death. To remove stigmas, to make talking about dying, death, and all things related more widely accepted and welcomed. It did not take long once I started reading further into this movement before a light went off.
Not just a little light, a big one! Was the caregiving I had done, both as work and for the love of family, preparing me for something? Had the tragedies, losses, and this empathic nature of mine finally found a home? I felt like I had, and I still do. I immediately set out to find out how I could be of service to others in end-of-life care.
That is when I learned about end-of-life doulas/death doulas also called (in some places where allowed) death midwives. They offer a holistic approach for people facing a life-limiting illness, or are near death and for their loved ones. I signed up with the Home Hospice Association to take its Death Doula Certificate Program. I have signed up to volunteer with a local palliative care organization, and I am soaking in every bit of information I can.
But what exactly does a death doula do?
What don’t they do?? They may help with advanced care and death planning. I am still amazed at all the options out there that I was not aware of before. What a comfort it could bring to a dying person to be able to speak frankly about their wishes and vision for their death. Not just their funeral, but the days leading up to and including the experience of active dying.
Leaving a legacy for loved ones, or a gift to a charity can be a special tribute for those left behind and for those dying. It can help bring meaning to long days. Perhaps a culmination of one's life's work, or memories they wish to share. Leaving your family your health history, if nothing more, can be a very helpful gift. The possibilities of how one wants to be remembered are endless.
As an end-of-life/death doula, sitting vigil bedside as someone is actively dying can be a comfort to their families. It is a time when questions can be answered, worries can be lessened, and the natural act of death can be understood a little more. When medical interventions and cures are no longer the appropriate or wanted course of action, having a knowledgeable and compassionate guide to help along the way can be invaluable to the dying person and their loved ones.
After one dies, those left sitting around the bedside, their friends and family still have a long journey ahead. A death doula can continue building on relationships that have formed, offer their gentle support, share helpful resources, and continue to follow up to help the grieving. Worrying how survivors will fare is often a great concern to those facing death. Knowing there is a plan in place to bring comfort to those left behind can be a way for one who is hanging on in turmoil and to find some peace.
I learned early on in life that setbacks are not seen as blessings until the tools they give us are called into action. As I've journeyed to become a death doula, I feel very empowered and humbled to know that I carry these such tools and can use them to serve others in a most sacred and meaningful way. We don't talk about these things enough.
As a life-long learner, I am sure to be forever challenged in many ways. Helping to bring awareness to topics surrounding dying, death, and bereavement will be a good portion of my practice. We simply do not talk about these subjects in healthy ways enough. Death is as sacred as birth, yet we whisper around one and celebrate the other; I would like to help change that.
I must thank Home Hospice Association for all of the training, guidance, and opportunities they have provided. I look forward to continually learning as I support my community, the dying, and the bereaved with dignity and care.
Anyone interested in becoming a death doula can register for HHA's Death Doula certificate program here. The next training weekend is April 28-30, 2023.
Bonnie Carpenter is an end-of-life/death doula in Winnipeg, Manitoba who offers both virtual and in person assistance, you can learn more by visiting her website https://www.preciousdays.ca/