What calls us to want to serve at someone’s bedside as an End of Life Doula? In my case it is death itself. My mother died of breast cancer one month before my seventh birthday. Although she passed with dignity and grace, I can only imagine how she must have felt on hospice knowing that she was terminally ill and would be departing at the young age of thirty-four with two children and a husband that she loved dearly. She did not have an End of Life Doula, nor did she have any rites of passage for her next journey, in this case death. Not only would my mother have benefited from having a special person to sit with her and help her with this transition, but also us kids and my father too. Perhaps becoming an End of Life Doula started a long time ago.
After my mom’s passing I was out in the backyard of our old home when I was suddenly surrounded by swirls of beautiful dragonflies. I was amazed at how many there were as they swarmed and circled about me. I shouted, “Grandma!” She came outside smiling and said, “It’s your mom Emmy.” After that she always gave me little dragonfly things to represent my mother’s afterlife.
My grandmother helped raise me and I am eternally grateful for the presence of her beautiful soul in my life. When she was ill in the nursing home with Parkinson’s disease I sat with her off and on. She suffered from dementia and terrible anxiety as she neared the end of her life. One afternoon I sat soothing her by gently stroking her head so she would hopefully rest. When I thought she had fallen asleep, I quietly got up to leave when she said as clear as day, “Wait, don’t go Emmy.” I said “Why not Grandma, you need to rest?” She stated, “Because I won’t be here when you get back.” She was right, and that was the last time I would kiss my grandmother goodbye. It wasn’t however, the last time I would talk to her.
It was an early Saturday morning, not long after I had last seen her, when I found myself dreaming. It was Grandma talking to me, giving me instructions like: “Don’t forget to do this, and promise me this,” and so on and so forth. I told her that I understood, and that it was okay to go now. I told her everything would be all right. I woke remembering the dream and drifting off again when the phone rang. My heart sank into my stomach and I knew, “It’s my father, my grandmother died.” Sure enough it was my dad calling to say my grandmother had passed. Later that evening I was visited by a red bird on my deck, Grandma loved redbirds. I remembered the dragonflies and whispered, “Hi Grandma.”
I believe I have been given gifts that were confirmations that our loved one’s are not gone forever, and most importantly that death is not the end. Since this time, I continue to have spiritual experiences and see magical reminders every day that keep me going.
I am in my junior year studying Contemplative Psychology at Naropa University with a concentration in Transpersonal Psychology. It was at Naropa where I started really contemplating death and the idea of becoming an End of Life Doula presented itself to me, sometimes thru literature, sometimes thru a peer. Finally a teacher suggested I would be good at it and I sought out the Conscious Dying Institute. I applied for a scholarship and was asked to share my story of this unfolding journey. I am thrilled to have this opportunity, and a little nervous. Aside from my mother and grandmother, I have never been at anyone’s bedside when they are facing the certainty of death. As scared as I am, I feel aligned with my purpose, and it feels right.
I want to help honor the transition that the dying face as a sacred passage, holding space for them and their loved ones so that they can feel supported in the presence of death and everything it holds. Stephen Jenkinson says, “You cannot treat suffering, nor can you manage it, nor contain it, nor make it less of what it is. You have to make a place for the things in life that you bargain for and benefit from and approve of” -even death. Death has called me to become an End of Life Doula and I hope you will join me on this journey.
Emily Risner is a student at Naropa University studying Contemplative Psychology with a concentration in Transpersonal Psychology, and also has studied Buddhist philosophies and practices. Before Naropa she studied Holistic Health and nutrition. She is level II Reiki certified,
a meditation practitioner, and enjoys yoga.