Working With Death Helps us Live Fully: Death Doula’s Caring Partnership

By Zita Xavier

The end has been pronounced. The truth is a razor sharp knife that cuts through your mind and heart. It’s sliced through the dream of seemingly endless days and destroyed it. Ten thousand tumultuous emotions are waging war within you—along with the battle your body is clearly losing. You are lost. Your friends and family too are lost in fields of shock, disbelief, grief, helplessness, anger and loss.

“It’s not fair! Why me? I’m not done yet! I never got to….I just….Please give me a little more time….I promise I’ll….Oh Nooooooo!”

With all the loud inner voices demanding this truth not be real, how is it possible to go on?

“How can I do this thing no one has taught me to do before?”  

In an article in the New York Times, “At His Own Wake, Celebrating Life and the Gift of Death,” writer Catherine Porter describes how one man did it.[1]

“Tormented by an incurable disease, John Shields
knew that dying openly and without fear could be his
legacy, if his doctor, friends and family helped him.

Two days before he was scheduled to die, John Shields roused in his hospice bed with an unusual idea. He wanted to organize an Irish wake for himself. It would be old-fashioned with music and booze, except for one notable detail — he would be present.

…..Mr. Shields wanted his last supper to be one he so often enjoyed on Friday nights when he was a young Catholic priest — rotisserie chicken legs with gravy.”

At his wake, Mr. Shields ate chicken and gravy and drank beer with his friends and family, and received each one’s love. The next day, he died peacefully.

Choosing the time and date of his passing was possible by Canada’s laws, and a willing physician, family, and friends. Many of us in the U.S. don’t have the legal option or the needed support to choose when and how we want to die.

So who can stand with us in the uncertainty and fear when the truth arrives? The doctors and nurses are in and out attending to so many. Clergymen too have a flock to attend to. Friends, well-meaning as they are—may add to the burden and confusion with their own grief and fear of death.

Who will hold you and say, “I can help you here. It is time to surrender, to stop fighting and let go.”

A fortunate and all too few of us know about and have access to the compassionate and clear services of a death doula. People in this emerging profession are answering the call to provide essential non-medical spiritual and emotional care for the dying.

What do you most need in this torrential time of the complete undoing of your entire life?

From a Death Doula perspective, what you need most is PRESENCE. Deep and engaged listening, without preconceived ideas, judgments or agendas. Acceptance and the willingness to follow your lead, listening without probing, inviting you to completely explore and reveal to yourself your needs, your desires, and your fears. To be able to unburden yourself.

In the Death Doula Training through the Conscious Dying Institute, you enter a skillfully guided and expertly held container for a deep exploration of these waters which we all enter at the end of our lives.  In the safety and openness of the circle we learn and practice the skills of deep presence, and learn tools for the practical and emotional support needed by patients and families before and after Death comes. We enter into a sacred passage together and for two sessions totaling eight days we engage in deep sharing, skill building and ritual. These deep dives help us remember our initial impetus to join the healing profession and support us to rebirth ourselves into our fullest expression of life and service. Here we develop the true capacity to be with others in the complexity of their dying time.

Death Doulas do not learn a prescription for what constitutes a good death. Through the process of facing our own fears about death, engaging in our own life review and healing, the intuitions of our hearts are unleashed and become the guide to afford the possibility for the patient and family to experience incredible healing and grace through the dying process. The depth of these trainings allows concepts to become real, living processes within us which can be shared with others.

You too can be part of the change towards a culture where death is kinder, more meaningful, and offers the possibility of transformation. You can be the person who heals through listening, who helps the patient review and glean meaning from their life, who helps them come to completion with unresolved issues, who helps them realize and create a plan for their own dying time, who helps them feel safe and as comfortable as possible, and who supports their families and loved ones as they pass away.

In a 2016 article,  “What End-of-Life Care Needs Now: An Emerging Praxis of the Sacred and Subtle published in the ANS: Advances in Nursing Science Blog, Tarron Estes and William Rosa, MS, RN, LMT, AHN-BC, AGPCNP-BC, CCRN-CMC clearly state the needed and emerging changes in end-of-life care.[2]

“As the tsunami of aging population grows, and medical technical care alone misses the heart of caring, so does the cry to “Occupy Death”, to create care and healing at end of life and “Restore Death to its Sacred Place in the Beauty, Mystery, and Celebration of Life”. It is no longer enough to expect death with dignity; we must strive toward evolving human-centered care. It is not sufficient to ‘do no harm’; we must deliberately create healing environments guided by the spiritual autonomy of the dying one.”

This is the sacred profession of a Death Doula. You are needed now more than ever. Join CDI for trainings this fall. Working with Death teaches us how to live fully. We can see clearly what is unimportant what is essential. It cracks open our hearts so we can love and live fully.

end of life doula