I am embarking on a new path. My work as a funeral celebrant serving families who are dealing with the death of a loved one, has ignited an interest in end-of-life care that has lain dormant for many, many years. Death isn’t something that I have been afraid of or shied away from in my life and I know where that stems from. My mother was a nurse for over forty years and as children we listened to her stories of patients dying and I recall how she always told the stories in such a way that the dying process, although mysterious, seemed so natural and sacred.
There were things she observed over and over. She would tell us that, “Oftentimes they wait until their loved ones are gone and then they die” or “This woman waited until her son arrived from far away and the moment he was there and took her hand, she exhaled for the last time.” In addition to hearing these accounts, my sisters and I often sang at the funerals of our local church and we attended many wakes of people whom we didn’t know personally but who maybe didn’t have family to pay their respects. Thirty-five years ago, people would die at home and my mom would send my sisters and I to deliver food for a weary family needing nourishment. It was all a natural part of growing up in a small, Ontario town. When a family pet died, the neighbourhood kids gathered round while we performed a makeshift funeral and burial. It wasn’t until I was much older and living in a city that I recognized that this was not the experience of all children.
My interest, though, in end-of-life care began in high school when a progressive teacher offered a course called Death Education as part of our Man in Society class. Granted, this teacher was the brunt of many jokes and when I look back now, I realize how much courage it took for her to not only offer a class with this title but to offer it to a bunch of teenagers. I will tell you, though, that it is probably the one class I remember and that impacted me deeply. I recall going on a field trip which involved a bus trip to Ottawa to visit Tubman’s Funeral Home. Can you imagine a class of 15 and 16 year old students filing into the funeral home and trying to behave seriously and respectfully? The tour even included a walk through a visitation room complete with the open casket of a woman named “Mrs. Bobolink” (yes, I even remember the deceased woman’s name!). Some of the students had never seen a dead body before and fled within seconds the moment their brain registered what they were in the presence of. We were shown the embalming room and educated on all aspects of preparation and handling of the body after death. It was a memorable class to say the least.
A few weeks ago, I came upon an accordion file of articles I have clipped from newspapers and magazine over the years and it was interesting for me to see the number of death-related items I had kept over the years. One in particular was entitled, “Funeral Homes Help Diminish Grief,” a handout given in that Death Education class in high school. A subtitle reads, “Funerals are for the living…….they cause us to come together in a way we otherwise never do.” That simple phrase stuck with me and I carried that belief with me over the passage of time.
In my early years as a birth doula, I was drawn to hospice care and I wondered if it would be a bizarre combination to be assisting with ushering souls in and out. In the end, I just never seemed to get around to exploring this desire any further and my birth work kept be busy. In 2003, I became a mother and that became my main focus for many years especially considering our daughter’s medical fragility.
So here I am today……….a fledgling. It is strange to be in the beginner’s shoes after so many years as an experienced birth worker but end-of-life care is calling to me loudly; no longer in whispers. I am half way through my hospice volunteer training and I have taken the plunge and enrolled in death midwifery training which will begin January of 2016. I intend on using this space to write about my learning and reflections as I move forward in this direction as well as share aspects of some of the ceremonies I get the privilege of taking part in. Stay tuned as I track down my old high school teacher for an interview and write about things that perhaps most of us think about but don’t dare say outloud. I hope you will come along as this doula leaves one end of the life spectrum for another.