“Working with the dying is like being a midwife for this great rite of passage of death. Just as a midwife helps a being take their first breath, you help a being take their last breath.” ~ Ram Dass
I was a Death Doula.
I didn’t register this fact until this morning: I read an article about people volunteering to spend time with the dying in hospices. Transitions have always captured my attention. We have less control than we think or imagine.
The Second World War marred my father’s boyhood in The Netherlands. Food was scarce, and his health was poorly. The Red Cross sent him to convalesce with a family in Switzerland. Seventy years later, he’s still in touch with the family. But the scars run deep.
Dad recently confessed that he retired at 55 years of age as he didn’t think he’d make it past 65. He hoped to live to see the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Next week, we’re celebrating his 85th Birthday. He had no contingency plan for being here in his mid-80s.
Conversely, we’d joke about the day Mum would get her “100th birthday” telegram from ‘King’ William. I was shockingly unprepared to learn she had terminal cancer at the age of 69. I can still see her sitting on the lounge, examining her driver’s licence with finely lined fingers: “My license expires this year and so will I.”
She voiced similar thoughts that rattled me to my core. I was torn between hearing and acknowledging her and being an optimistic foil without minimising. It was an emotional tightrope, and I fell many times.
Years earlier, I was inundated with advice and aphorisms when my pregnancy began to show. Stories fell from peoples’ mouths unbidden. Unevenly stacked books and magazines on the subject annexed my bedside table. Women spoke of their experiences and shared the good, the bad and the ugly. But the topic of dying still resides in uncomfortable, hushed shadows.
We were lucky. The Queensland Cancer Council had a free counselling hotline, so I rang. And Mum rang. We had our own therapists. We also had nurses who’d come and check up on Mum, talk, sit, laugh, cry. A surreal blessing. So today when I read about Death Doulas or End of Life Doulas, I realised I’d already been one.
Mum was crystal clear: She wanted to die at home.
To smell the sea, watch her willie wagtail and hear familiar voices. I understood, having seen her struggle for two nights in a palliative care unit, that wreaked of despair and disinfectant.
One night, as she slept at the hospital, I spoke to a dying woman whose family had shunned her. I didn’t ask or probe or question. I listened. What I heard was deep sadness and the realisation that the only thing that matters is love.
I took Mum home for the last time.
Her best friend and sister from Holland visited. And when they left, and she’d said all her goodbyes, a calm took root in her bones. I wanted to help her have a ‘good death’, but I had no idea what that was or how to do it. I read On Death and Dying by Dr Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: “When your fear touches someone’s pain it becomes pity; when your love touches someone’s pain, it becomes compassion.”
It took time to let go of my fear, sadness and anger. I was pissed off: at others, the world, God. How could this happen to such a beautiful soul? It was bitterly unfair. And I railed. But her fear snapped me back to love. That’s all we had. That’s all any of us have. Death reminds us what’s important … the rest is mindless drivel. We waste days, months, years in petty battles, weighed down by futile grudges that keep us prisoners to the past.
Ironically, my mother died nine months after diagnosis. It was a profound privilege to witness her journey — physical and emotional, spiritual and mental — towards her last breath. I learnt and continue to learn so much from the experience. I hope that End of Life Doulas become the norm rather than the exception … learning to honour this passage that we’ll all navigate.
At Mum’s funeral, my son placed a coin over her mouth to pay Charon, the Ferryman. It was such an intimate, poignant moment. One generation farewelling another and the realisation that death is not the end but a new beginning.