Why I Am A Death Doula

being a death doula May 20, 2020

I am often asked, “How could I work with the dying?” and “Is it terribly depressing?”

I respectfully reply:

it is more precious to be present for those in need -

to look into their eyes and feel their heart,

so that they feel seen –

to stay open – open –

to eradicate judgment

from my heart –

The first moment, thirty-five years ago, I held a dying woman in my arms  there was no turning back. I was home!  My heart and soul found a path that filled me with an inner peace I had not yet known in my life. I was not scared. She slipped away in my arms with a gentle exhalation. I wept and held her! Then I wept more!

Death continues to inspire my life. Mortality teaches me true gratitude and the finite existence of my life. We are gone in a whisper. Yet, the essence, memories, feelings, and spirit leave a heart print in our souls. I am reminded that each breath I take is a gift that will not last. I am left with the option of cherishing each breath or not.

My life is always transformed when I touch death – each time, I catch a glimpse of the great mystery. I find meaning in life, love, and this experience we called being human.

A poignant example of how death helps one to transcend fears and transform life was evident in my work with a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor Lore and her two adult daughters:

I had spent more than eighteen months working with a venerated Holocaust survivor, mother, and grandmother therapeutically focused on her terrors of the Holocaust and her fears of death. Up until this time in her life, she had never spoken much about her pain, loss, and suffering that resulted from being in a concentration camp, separated from her family as a young child.

As time passed in our many sessions, she began to remember those traumatic states of mind. She courageously faced the fears she could recall about the Holocaust and death she witnessed. However, her eldest daughter, as we neared the mother’s death, became more frightened and anxious about her mother’s imminent passing. She wept, “I don't want to be near when she dies. I can’t handle this.” The eldest daughter shared that she was unable to be present when her father died some years before. She had never been near death and reported that she became physically ill at the thought of being close to death—let alone her mother’s death.

When her mother was in the final hours of her life, I asked both daughters if they desired to be present at their mother’s death.  Exhausted, both physically and emotionally after hours of care, they said their final good-byes at midnight and silently left their mother’s side.

After I read stories from Graceful Passages (by Stillwater and Malkin) and orally shared my poems from my heart, kissed this matriarch good-bye, I too headed home to rest as I sensed death was very near.

As I prepared for bed, the phone rang. She had died. Directly, I drove back to my client’s home to begin the rituals of honoring her transition. Both daughters appeared, with the eldest standing at the door. We embraced and slipped into silence, tears, and reverence.

After a brief time, I asked permission to start the end-of-life rites. At this juncture the youngest daughter did not show any signs of fearing death. Her fearlessness became even more evident by her participation in the after death rituals of bathing, anointing, adorning, and dressing her mother for final dispensation (burial). I inquired if the eldest daughter wished to be present or wait for us in the living room. I placed a chair for her halfway into the room and halfway out in the hall. She chose to sit in a chair at the edge of the room. She had chosen to sit at the threshold of her emotions.

For the next two and one-half hours the youngest daughter and I bathed her mother, anointed her body with lavender oil, combed her hair, dressed her, and adorned her with jewels and flowers. The eldest daughter, still sitting at the edge of the room, held tightly to her mother’s socks as we worked.  I waited until all the rituals were completed and then I tenderly reached my hand out for the socks. She held the socks ever so tightly near to her heart and said, “I would like to place the socks on my mother.” My breath escaped, as I understood what an unfathomable transition this was for her. Tears flowed down all our cheeks.

Two months after we buried this beautiful woman, the eldest daughter shared how being present at the end-of-life rituals, touching her mother in death, liberated her from her fears concerning death. Life became ever so immediate and precious. She also shared how peaceful she felt and the constructive changes she had made in her life since her mother’s death. This was something that she was unable to accomplish before her mother’s death experience. She touched death—literally, emotionally, spiritually, and transcended death back into a more meaningful life.

The question: How can I do this work?                                                         

My answer:  I cannot not do this work!

With love from my heart to yours,
Dr. Deerheart