My earliest encounter with death was when I was around 6 years old and I asked my mother what happens after we die. We had a non-religious home, and I’m not sure what I was expecting or hoping to hear, but it sure wasn’t what she said: “Nothing happens, there’s just nothingness”, she replied casually. WAAAHH! I was thrown into a panic and an existential crisis. The idea of “nothingness” frightened me – would I be aware of being nothing? Yikes. And a conversation would’ve been helpful, but I clearly got that she did not want to continue. The next encounter was when my grandmother died and I saw my mother cry for the first time, so I knew something big had happened. Then, she wouldn’t let us go to the funeral because, I suppose, parents try to protect their children from… what – sadness? Real life…?
I discovered doula work in a roundabout way. I earned an M.S. degree in Education and have worked in various health & human services and women’s health positions over the years. And then… I had a homebirth with my healthy and beautiful daughter; this existential experience changed who I was in a profound way, including deep reverence the human body’s innate wisdom. I was so impressed with myself and my ability to actually give birth naturally and at home, that I was spurred on to becoming a childbirth educator, and later a birth doula. I still attend births whenever I’m lucky enough to be invited!
Albeit unknowingly, my mother once again sparked my interest in exploring dying and death. I was with her as she was (at the ripe old age of 93) in an inpatient hospice. As it was my first time being with someone who was dying, I was struck by the similarities between the birthing and dying experiences. One of the nurses had been a midwife and we had an amazing conversation about my observations. The epiphany led to my desire to begin working with people at the other end of the life spectrum – death. Subsequently, I became a Hospice & Palliative Care Volunteer with several different agencies before discovering End of Life Doulas, who worked much in the same way as how birth doulas serve women and their families. I took the INELDA training and became convinced of how important providing this care to dying people and their loved ones is for everyone involved.
In 2017, I worked with my first client who chose the Medical Aid in Dying option, which had become legal in California in 2016. Just a few days before the date she wanted to take the medicines, her hospice social worker serendipitously found me through a presentation on my doula services that I gave at her senior living community. This client had no family or friends in her life who could assist with preparing the meds for her. I knew nothing about assisting in such a situation, but I didn’t hesitate in taking it on, realizing she had no one else to help her and figuring I could study and follow the (thankfully) thorough instructions the pharmacy had left with the meds. Plus, the social worker was present as much as she was permitted, so at least I wasn’t totally on my own (but I quickly learned how important it is to work in a two-doula team). All went (thankfully) well — I was able to help her get her final wishes met to end her suffering and die peacefully. Since then, I have continued to assist others who choose this option, as I firmly believe that people coping with a terminal prognosis have the ultimate right to explore all of their end of life options, to have the final say in defining the limits of their pain/suffering, and to be able to choose for themselves how and when to die, and in a humane and dignified way. Both the dying person and their family/care partners deserve excellent support and assistance throughout this uniquely challenging dying experience.
Living in the East Bay with my two senior kitty-boys includes puttering in my home and patio garden, reading, visiting with friends and watching old movies, and it offers many walking paths with beautiful sights and breathtaking views – in other words, lots of opportunities to “notice the everyday miracles all around me”.