What do end-of-life doulas do?
Awhile back I received a call from a woman who was dying and searching for an end-of-life doula. While I feel confident in the work I do, I know that not all personalities mesh well, so before agreeing to work with her, I suggested we talk over ZOOM and get to know each other. I truly believe we became the best of friends after the first five minutes of the call. It was as though someone magically brought us together. We laughed and we cried during our two-hour conversation, and of course I agreed to walk alongside her on her journey.
Stella was forty-seven years young, and she was raising two teenage boys on her own, because her husband had died five years prior. She reminded me of Stevie Nicks by the way she dressed, and I was admittedly a little envious. Her house smelled like Palo Santo, and was decorated much like mine, which was a mix match of every moment of her life that brought her joy. We listened to music, we shared stories, we laughed, and we cried. I fell madly in love with her.
She hired me to help choregraph her last few months, but to also help guide and support her boys, who were really struggling with losing their mom. I spent hours with her finding out what her wishes were, where she wanted to be, how she wanted to be cared for, who she wanted there, and how she wanted to be celebrated. After I collected the necessary information, I sat down with her boys and asked them if they wanted to work with me to make sure all of her wishes were honored. I thought that if we did it together, if they were a part of putting it all together with me, maybe their grief and sadness would be a little less. It was the best decision I made, because their input, was perfect.
I had a few private moments with her sons allowing them the space to share their fears, their concerns, and their sadness. We went on several walks collecting rocks, shells, leaves, feathers, and other little items and made the most beautiful mandala for her on their porch. During those hours we talked about her, what they love most about her, her gifts, and her legacy, and what they will miss most.
The one thing she wanted most of all was a celebration of her life before she died. She wanted all her friends and family there, with specific music playing, and food shared. After getting a list together of the music she wanted on her playlist, her sons put it together along with a slideshow of the photos of her life. It was lovely. I helped them to hand make beautiful water-color invitations and once finished, I took them to the post office. I have put many envelopes in the mail slot before, but these felt like treasures and needed to be handled with care, so I waited in the long line and handed them to the person behind the desk. He told me I could have put them in the slot… I told him that was not an option.
Everything was ready, the boys were as ready as they could be, and the party was planned. But she suddenly took a turn for the worse and weeks turned into days, which rapidly turned into hours. She was dying. I was grateful I could get there in time, but just barely. The three of us were gathered around her bed, we played her music, she was in her favorite kimono robe, and I did her hair just as she asked. She didn’t have her party, she didn’t have an ocean view, but her wishes were honored the best that we could do for her. Thankfully we had made sure that her boys were going to be cared for well, and all her affairs were in order.
She died with the three of us at her bedside. She looked over at us and said goodbye, closed her eyes and she was gone. One of her sons whispered, “I’m sure gonna miss you mom,” which made us all cry. We sat there with her for about an hour before we called the hospice nurse. We did a beautiful candle lighting ritual for her, sending her love and peace on her journey, we bathed her and tucked flowers in her hair, and we said goodbye.
Unfortunately, I was unable to attend her celebration of life because I was dealing with my own personal loss, but her sons sent me photos and shared every beautiful moment of the day they honored her well.
I received a text message today from one of her sons to let me know that they had sold her home, packed away her memories, and they were both moving to Oregon to be with their family as planned. He said that before he met me, he had never heard of an end-of-life doula before, and he wasn’t too sure about me, but wanted me to know he was grateful for the time I spent with them, and he gets it now why their mom wanted me there. I asked him what he thinks of doula’s now…
He wrote… “Everyone should have a doula with them when they are dying. The way you cared for our mom, and the way you listened to her, and tried to make her wishes come true, made us feel so happy. You always asked us how we were doing, and you included us in everything you did for her, and you made us feel a part of it all and that was very important to us. People need to know that what doulas do, is make death and dying less frightening, and kind of normal. Knowing you were there with us made it so much easier for us.”
What do end-of-life doulas do? They make death and dying less frightening… I love that. And yes, death and dying are all a normal part of life, something we are all going to experience. But you don’t have to do it alone. I was her doula, not her hospice nurse, but I worked with her hospice team, and I was there for her boys every step of the way… they never felt alone, and their fears were reduced quickly. And most importantly, most of her wishes were honored. That is what doulas do.