“And the seasons, they go ‘round and ‘round and the painted ponies go up and down. We’re captive on the carousel of time. We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came and go round and round and round in the circle game.”
~ Joni Mitchell
I started out as an adult believing that I would work with people in one way or another. I graduated from the Social Service Worker program at Sir Sandford Fleming College in 1992 and assumed I would work in the mental health field, as this was an area that interested me. I also knew that I wanted to work with women specifically. In 1998, I came upon the Doula Services Association of BC exhibit while attending a women’s health fair in Victoria, BC. A Doula is a woman who provides continuous emotional and physical support to a woman and her partner during labour, childbirth and the postpartum period. I knew, in that moment, that I had found my calling and I proceeded to take my training a couple of months later.
Since becoming a Certified Doula and prior to my “retirement” in 2003, I had the privilege of attending over one hundred births. I attended births in the hospital and home and I worked with Obstetricians, General Practitioners and Midwives. I had witnessed highly medicalized births including cesarean births as well as all-natural, low intervention births. I always felt it to be an incredible honour to sit with the labouring mother, sometimes for short and intense periods as is the case with precipitous labours and more commonly for many hours and even days as is the case of a long, prodromal labour. I was very sad to hang up my doula hat but my life circumstances did not allow for me to continue this work; an unpredictable job that includes being on-call almost continuously and being away from home for many hours and even days at a time.
In November of 2010, my paternal grandmother, Pearl Keon, became ill and it wasn’t long before we knew that she was most likely not going to get better. She was moved from the medical floor to the chronic floor at the Renfrew Victoria Hospital while she waited for a bed to become available in a long-term care facility. Although the doctors and nurses were positive and encouraging, my mother, who is a retired nurse, felt that Grandma was not going to be with us for very long. At the age of 91, it was as though her body was shutting down even though her spirit was still alive and well and sparkling.
Because my mother was a Registered Nurse for forty-three years, she and my father made the most loving and selfless decision on Boxing Day to bring Grandma to their home for end of life care. We were overjoyed to know that Grandma would be surrounded by those who loved her most and that she would spend her final days basking in the warmth and familiarity of a home where she had spent so many joyful times in the past twenty years. How many birthday celebrations, Christmas’, Easters and family dinners had she participated in at this home? My mother created a space for her in the dining room that is made up mostly of windows so that Grandma could look outside and be close to the kitchen. We played Irish music for her, displayed photos of her with my Grandpa, pasted cards and drawings on the wall from friends and family and we took turns sitting with her round the clock. Family and loved ones offered to sit and help out and soon my parent’s home became a sacred space where this amazing Matriarch was living out her final days.
In that week, I learned a profound lesson that, like labour and birth, dying can be hard work. This very natural process takes time and a smoother transition often involves the loving support of trustworthy caregivers. As I spent time sitting with Grandma, I reflected on how similar the care is when one helps to usher in a new soul as in birth and when one helps to send a soul on its’ way. My sisters and I gave birth at home and I thought of how we had taught my mother about giving birth at home and how our mother was now teaching us about dying at home.
There were so many parallels in the care given in birthing and in the care given in dying. The care given to Grandma in that last week of December reminded me of the things that I did during hundreds of hours of labour. The skills of a birth doula can be easily transferred to the skills required of those walking alongside the dying. These skills include but are not limited to: continuous emotional and physical support, assistance with personal care, soft voices and gentle touch, a calm environment, protecting the space, soft lighting, background music, the display of familiar things like photographs, offering sips of water or ginger ale with a straw, assisting with nutrition and feeding and sometimes simply knowing when to do nothing but sit quietly and be present. I remember smiling to myself when I wrapped my Grandma’s cold feet in a heated rice sock; the same rice sock that had comforted countless labouring mothers many, many times before. Grandma died peacefully on January 1st, 2011, surrounded by two of her children, her daughter-in-law and three grand-daughters.
As with all of the births I have attended, it was an honour and a privilege to help “doula” my grandmother through the dying process and to be there in that moment when her soul was no longer with us. I am so grateful that my parents were in a position that they could not only provide this care to my grandmother but that they gave this opportunity to myself and our family. To witness how incredibly sacred, respectful and beautiful the dying process can be is something that I consider so very positive and life changing. I feel very blessed to have been a part of these two transitions that all of us must go through in this circle of life.
** Originally published in the Whitewater Cobden Sun newspaper in Julie Keon’s weekly column “One Woman’s Words” April 2011 **
© Julie Keon 2014