Death isn’t something to fear, it is a natural part of life that we will all inevitably face. And although it is difficult and confronting, we should be there when the ones we love are nearing the end.
My first experience with death was with my Nan. I sat with her in her final days, in her final moments.
Olga (my Nan) and I would tell stories and reminisce about memories we had together. I would play her songs from her favourite musician, Vera Lynn. I would also swab her mouth to keep it moist and rub cream on her legs and feet.
From these actions I noticed small physical reactions in her. I could see something in her eyes when she registered what I was doing and what I was saying. I knew she wanted me to be there and I know she knew who I was.
It was difficult, I would cry a lot. I have never cried so much in all my life. I told her I loved her, that I’d miss her but that it was also ok for her to let go.
In the minutes before her death I noticed a noise, a ‘death rattle,’ a sign that her passing was imminent. I picked up her hand and felt the energy leave her body. It ran through her arm and into my hand which was holding hers. I had never felt anything like it, it was incredible. It was then I knew she was gone.
Afterwards, I sat with her a while longer, held her hand and spoke to her. I told her that I would see her again and I truly believe that I will, in another place and time.
It was this experience that led me begin my training to become a Death Doula.
A death doula, like a birth doula is there to offer support and compassion through a specific time. For those people who have no family or friends to be with them or who have chosen not to be, death doulas like me can step in to provide that assistance and make the process as comfortable as possible when a person is passing away.
A death doula, like a birth doula is there to offer support and compassion through a specific time.
Training to become a death doula isn’t like a conventional course where there is a set curriculum. It involves open conversations about your own personal experience with death, it explores what death doulas do in different countries and societies, the morals and ethics around death, your responsibility as a doula, interactions with the person who is dying as well as their family and friends. There is also the learning that goes with how to have conversations with the person who is dying to ensure they are comfortable and feel supported and how to help carry out their end of life wishes like funeral plans.
Although there are many elements to the role of a death doula, primarily I see it as listening to those in their final days and hours, hearing their stories and memories is significant in this natural process. It offers them a sense of comfort, a security that there is someone who is there whose sole purpose is to assist them and their family to carry out their final wishes which are not always straightforward or easy.
Having this support to carry out these wishes has never been more important than now. With COVID-19 restrictions on funeral numbers, death doulas can ensure those in attendance are who the person who has passed had wanted. While it’s not always a simple or an easy process, it is necessary.
The experience of carrying out the death doula role is emotional, it is a mixture of often very strong feelings. From a euphoric energy as that person passes, sadness that their loved ones will now experience this loss, pride that they have taken the step over to death; it is intense and complex.
From a euphoric energy as that person passes, sadness that their loved ones will now experience this loss, pride that they have taken the step over to death; it is intense and complex.
A death doula can play an important role in the process of death and of dying for the person who is and for their family and friends around them. There is still a stigma around death or talking about it in Australia. Often people view it as taboo to talk about death, which makes sharing that I am a death doula a source of great curiosity or intrigue, especially because I am a bloke who is also a tradie. It is a dynamic that people often can’t quite initially grasp.
When I do explain it, I say that I am a midwife but for those who are dying and that as a man this process is important, valuable and powerful to undergo. Usually when I say this people understand and appreciate what it is and what I do. But we have a long way to go to make this more mainstream in Australia. Here it is currently only a voluntary role, not a paid vocation, but things are changing in other countries around the world, including the UK where it has recently been become a paid profession so hopefully it will soon happen here too.