By Marianne Delorey, Ph.D.
“I’m the one that’s got to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to.”
― Jimi Hendrix, rock guitarist, singer and songwriter.
A good friend of mine, Betsy, has recently decided to become a death doula. Once she read about death doulas, she was immediately drawn to the field due to her professional and personal experiences being both a caregiver and helping people transition in their final days on the road of life. While I have been in eldercare for 35 years, I had not heard of death doulas, so I decided to investigate.
Just like with childbirth, a doula is at its heart an advocate. A death doula can serve multiple roles for a dying person, but most of all, they are there to support the person and help them achieve the best possible outcome for them. Everyone is different, so every death reflects the individual needs of that person. A doula might help with any number of concerns, including:
- Making sure the person has access to legal resources so they can get paperwork in order (wills, powers of attorney, health care proxy).
- Talking through different options with patients about where they want to die, how they want their services to be handled, how they want their body handled.
- Bringing in counselors or clergy as needed.
- Filling in as a health care proxy if there is no family who can handle the role.
- Working with family to help them understand the decisions that are being made.
- Running interference if the family does not agree with how the patient wants things handled.
- Helping the patient come to terms with death and finalize anything they wanted to do before leaving this world.
Betsy looked at this list and decided she can do most of the work already. But she did take a hard look at her own life and decided that before she started coaching people on the last point, she needed to fix a few things in her own life.
Betsy had always difficult relationships with her own parents. She recognized that part of the reason was that she did not have good role models. She had watched her mother go ‘no contact’ with her grandmother and refuse to see her even when she was dying. Betsy decided she did not want to follow in her mother’s footsteps. While she knew she couldn’t fix their shared history, Betsy decided that she was going to repair the parts of the relationships she had with her parents that she could.
Betsy started from a place of empathy. She let her parents know that she knew how hurt they were. She saw how they had been mistreated by their own families. She traced the path of hurt and showed them how that hurt showed up in her life, too. She explained that in order to heal, they needed to create a new future that reduced the problematic behaviors that fed that hurt.
Her father, in particular, listened thoughtfully and validated what she had experienced. He may not have agreed with everything, but he cared enough to tell her that her feelings mattered. That conversation made a difference and Betsy noted, “I’m not angry anymore.”
Not all relationships are fixable. Some roads have so many potholes that it just isn’t safe to travel. But victory looks different for every relationship. Sometimes, victory is not “I’m sorry.” Sometimes victory is, “I wish I could have done better by you.”
Death and dying is a time to grieve, not only the loss of the person, but sometimes the loss of the person you wish you had. Sometimes life gives us the opportunity to reconcile these two realities so that we can say goodbye with a breath of kindness.