Being a Death Doula

I do believe there's a special place in heaven for caregivers. Earlier this year, I talked about being a caregiver to my grandma who's battling liver cancer and dementia. It is really hard work. Having to center your life around the needs of another person (who is not your child) takes a lot of sacrifices. Over the past few months, my grandma's condition has gradually gotten worse and we've now moved into a hospice phase here at home.

There is a hospital bed with a remote to control her upright and downward positions. There's a tv on the dresser-drawer in the front of the room, an oxygen tank in the corner, and a portable toilet in the other. I've filled the room with different kinds of flowers to bring life into it. Without them, it looked so dull and depressing. We've moved a lazy boy reclining chair into the room so whoever is sitting with her can be comfortable. I've even placed a back massager in the chair for other family members to get a massage while they visit the room.

A doula (doo-lah) is a companion, who is not a healthcare professional, who supports another individual through significant health-related experience, such as childbirth, miscarriage, induced abortion or stillbirth, or non-reproductive experiences such as dying. The responsibility of death doula feels like a very sacred role to take on. Sitting in my grandma's room most of the day feels like living in an in-between space where both life and death exist.

In this room, the veil is very thin. Sometimes, she wakes up and talks about seeing her mother, how her mother is calling out for her. It's surreal to see her like this and also have compassion for her experience. When I see her sleeping during most of the day and waking to respond to something I didn't say, I just observe, remain calm, and try my best to understand.

Everyone's dealing with the reality of her impending death in their own way. Sometimes you can feel it in the air. There's anxiety around having to hold our breath and wait for her to take her last. Sometimes it comes out in how we speak to each other in irritated, sharp tones. Sometimes we don't speak to each other at all. Other times, we get together and share laughs around a board game, knowing we're all getting some much-needed healing.

To see her fragile bones beneath her soft, hanging skin and cloudy eyes that don't seem to focus much anymore give me such respect for the youth and vitality I possess right now. I now move with more awareness than before. I notice how my legs strongly go up and down the stairs without heaviness or hesitation. I notice how easily I breathe in and out. I notice every pull and tug when I'm doing yoga and I thank my body with so much more sincerity.

To be a death doula takes an appreciation and a deep understanding of death. Death is every day. Death is all the time. Every time you take a breath out is death. Every time you go to sleep, in a way, is death. There cannot be any life without death, Death is renewal. Death is release. Death is the other half of a whole system that exists in every life-form. To know this, and understand this completely, is a rare feat.

Most of our views of death center around grief and pain and loss. We must begin to teach ourselves a more sustainable view in order to live more freely. We must learn, somehow, to become friends with Lady Death and respect her position.

I Have a Rendezvous with Death BY Alan Seeger I have a rendezvous with Death At some disputed barricade, When Spring comes back with rustling shade And apple-blossoms fill the air— I have a rendezvous with Death When Spring brings back blue days and fair. It may be he shall take my hand And lead me into his dark land And close my eyes and quench my breath— It may be I shall pass him still. I have a rendezvous with Death On some scarred slope of battered hill, When Spring comes round again this year And the first meadow-flowers appear. God knows 'twere better to be deep Pillowed in silk and scented down, Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep, Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath, Where hushed awakenings are dear ... But I've a rendezvous with Death At midnight in some flaming town, When Spring trips north again this year, And I to my pledged word am true, I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Source: A Treasury of War Poetry (1917)

I believe a death doula's purpose is to make the transition a beautiful one. That's what I would want someone to do for me. It's a blessing that my grandma is not experiencing an enormous amount of pain these days. I make sure she's comfortable by giving her herbal tincture remedies, using aromatherapy in the room, and being intuitive about her needs based on what I can see. I'd like her transition to be one filled with love and peace.

I can admit that it's not always easy. Sometimes, I have to take a break and go camping in the forest on the river and totally tune out. I find so much healing in nature, and I gain the strength I need to carry this heavy role. I do a lot more painting and sketching than I used to, finding that art is a great way to use this fragile "in-between" energy. The process of dying is something that can only be reflected in art, I believe.

I like to think that the role of death doula has been placed in my life as a positive karma deposit that I won't harvest until sometime in the future. Basically saying, I'm being blessed tremendously by being a tremendous blessing to someone else. It's a cute thought that keeps me going on tough days. One day, my role will be fulfilled and I'll have to move on to another. This happens to be one I accept with grace.