The last thing she said to me was, "thank you."
A few weeks ago, a woman reached out to me from South Africa, asking if I could be her end-of-life doula. We spoke over ZOOM about thirty times and I can honestly say that a friendship grew, despite how short our time was together.
Her diagnosis happened unexpectedly, cutting her life short very quickly. She wanted me to help her with speaking to her family, so we had many group visits talking about her wishes, which they were all very receptive to. The conversations were deep, honest, and beautiful. It was an honor to be with them during this time and I felt incredibly blessed to have earned their trust, especially considering we never met in person.
I had many conversations with her as I helped her choregraph an end-of-life plan on her terms. I helped her with a musical play list, designing her last days, and preparing messages to leave for the people she loves. I also met with each family member privately, listening to them, supporting them, and helping them to prepare for her death. I handed over my tools, I talked about death and dying in an honest and clear way, helping to remove their fear, and to feel more confident in providing her care.
Everything that matters to me about this work was what I was able to give them. Human beings deserve to be cared for well when they are dying; to be heard, to have their thoughts and wishes, and even their fears validated. And when she asked me, “what can I expect when I die,” I told her the truth, even the parts that might be scary or uncertain… I told her and her family the truth so that they were not afraid, and not surprised.
I received a call last night that she died. I had talked to her every day for the past five days. I could hear her voice become weaker as she prepared for her life to end. I heard the peace she felt as she was taking her journey. She told me her wishes were being honored, that someone she loves was at her bedside every day, that her favorite music was playing, and that she felt cared for well and that was what she hoped for most of all. And her family were not afraid, they said all the things they needed to say, they supported each other beautifully, and they cared for her well. The last thing she said to me was, “thank you.”
Whether my role is as a hospice nurse, or an end-of-life doula, I put their needs first. I focus on listening, because I think all human beings deserve to be heard, but also because if we listen, if we lean in and truly hear what people need, we can honor their wishes and care for them well. And most importantly for me, is to hand over my tools so that those providing the care feel less fear, and are prepared for however things might go, and can honor someone they love and respect in a way they deserve.
After I hung up with her son, I took a moment to feel what I was feeling, which at first was sadness. Not because a life had ended necessarily, but because I realized that I would miss her, and that made me sad. I also replayed the last few weeks, remembering how it started, the journey we all took together, and those last days, and hours when we collaboratively came together to provide beautiful end-of-life care. I didn’t cry this time, and I’m not sure why… maybe it’s because I felt good about my role in their experience and that was enough for me. I will treasure the friendship with her and her family, and I will take this experience with me as I move forward and continue to do this work.
Each person I meet along my path, teaches me about life, love, kindness, and compassion, all of which are beautiful gems I keep safely tucked inside me. Each first hello, and last goodbye is a reminder to me that life is fragile and our time here is unpredictable. I want to be the last kind word someone hears, I want to be the kind of person that makes a difference for others, that inspires them, that reduces their fears, and that reminds them they are not alone. I appreciate life in a way I never have before, and I savor it all...
Please visit my website for my Best Three Months class, which helps you design your own end of life plan: https://www.thehospiceheart.net/best-3-months
Photo credit: @bobandmarge on Instagram. I encourage you to visit the photos that are shared there, they are gorgeous!