It is always an interesting conversation when I tell people I am a birth doula and a death midwife in training. People understand my fascination and commitment to supporting and empowering families in birth but when it comes to death their faces change. I am often met with questions like “why on earth would you want to do that? ” or “are you morbid?”
Interestingly the word morbid suggests an unhealthy mental state or attitude to something but I would argue the unhealthy aspect of dying stems from the death-phobic trauma culture surrounding it and our failure to make friends with our own mortality.
For starters our fear of the conversation in general and the decision-making processes surrounding death.
This means we end up with morbid statistics like 70% of people wanting to die at home and only 14% of people who want the palliative home care option arranged actually getting it. Simply because many people don’t know what their options are.
I wonder what it would look like if death became a conversation we could all joyfully have and plan for together – without the fear and with the communal goal of giving our loved ones the kind of departure they want?
Musician Ben Lee is also a death doula. In his workshop on death and dying he said “by studying death midwifery, I really came to appreciate that “the dying” are not “other people”- It’s us. Now. We are all dying, right now and in every moment of our lives. In a way, true friendship is simply being there for each other as we face our own mortality.”
So what is the death talk we need to be having?
Simply… it is a conversation about what the end of your life looks like to you.
It is personal and just like each birth and death in this world; it should be about individual needs and impulses. I’ve compiled five points to help get you started with only one instruction… where you can have fun, have fun!
- Talk about what kind of death celebration you would like. Go to town with this part: be as specific as you desire, talk about the music and where you would like to be put to rest. Talk about the food and the time of day. Whatever you would like to happen on this day express it!
- Go over any instructions for your medical care. Pay attention to instructions about what to do if you are unable to make decisions or unable to communicate.
- Discuss your last days – do you have any special requests? Perhaps you even know how your family could fulfil these requests for you.
- Talk about your end of life care. This should include organ donation and things like instructions for your social media accounts.
- Tell your family about the things you love: the music, your cat, and your favourite candles. Tell them in detail about the little things that might make you feel more comfortable or happier at the time. The things that will make you feel comfortable in your environment in your final hours.
It might sound a little silly but when the time comes… if loved ones are in a situation where they can be prepared for you these are the little pieces of information that will help them turn the time into a ceremony and a celebration for you and your life. It will help to make them feel useful and you will know everybody knows what you want.
Whether decisions about these details have been made or not, my role as a doula comes in to play with the small details. The little pieces of the puzzle that when put together help support a client to prepare for birth or death.
It is my job to pay attention to the environment and the individuals desires. This might be music, lighting, a familiar blanket or communicating with family and friends. I create a safe, loving and gentle environment – a nest – a nest to give birth in or a safe warm nest to depart from in death.
Doulas hold space for needs without judgment or opinion. We do not have an idea of what the best birth or death should look like. That part is up to the individual. What we will do is support their vision.
We are the nurturers, we do not offer opinions and we do not do anything medical.
We do work with palliative care staff and as Australia’s medical system moves towards more home hospital care, the role of doulas will become more known and available in Australia. If this kind of work calls out to you I urge you to go ahead and seek the training.
I highly recommend my mentor Helen and the college I trained with:
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