I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A different kind of volunteer

Bridge and reflection at Bagley Lake
It's taking me awhile to get started this morning, since the subject that's on my mind is not an easy one to write about. As I mentioned on my other blog yesterday, I attended the memorial for my friend Beth in the morning and have been thinking about it ever since. I learned some interesting facts about the dying process that have changed tremendously in the past few years, and it's really got me thinking.

We all have different ways of dealing with the fact that death comes to us all, some with religious beliefs, and others with just as firm a belief that there is nothing beyond this short life on Earth. The fact is, none of us will ever know with certainty, until we have passed through that veil. Either there will be life after death, or there won't. For some people, it makes a difference in the way they live their lives, thinking that a good life will be rewarded with heaven and an evil life will be punished with hell.

I listened to a podcast yesterday that was titled "Regrets," and two people were interviewed who talked about regrets they have had during their lives. One guy really amused me, and even though he was a bit rough around the edges, I could feel the person as being someone I'd like to know. He had made lots of mistakes in his early life and spent more than a decade in prison. He had had a tattoo of a question mark on his arm, and during his time in prison got it covered up with a swastika. He said the tattoo meant nothing to him, other than a sign of white supremacy. He knew nothing of the Holocaust, but after his release he happened to read an obituary of a Jewish man who had survived the extermination camps and described them. In horror, he realized that he was wearing the Nazi symbol and wanted to get it off, or covered up somehow.

He explained that now that he is getting older, he was worried that he might die with that tattoo intact. He said, "I don't want to die and have God see it." I smiled at the thought of what he might think about the afterlife. Whatever he might think, it's very different from my own ideas about how the universe works. The thought that somehow our bodies survive death seems very foreign to me, but I know that many people refuse to be cremated because of a belief that the body will be resurrected.

When my mother died, we (my siblings) were with her, and I remember being struck by how peaceful she looked right after she stopped breathing. We surrounded her head with flowers from the many bouquets she had received, and the memory of that scene will live forever inside my heart. But it wasn't more than an hour later that she no longer looked like my mom, but instead like an old shell that had been discarded. Shrunken and inert, the husk left behind, Mama was gone. I felt oddly comforted by all that, although I'm not sure exactly why. She was there, and then she wasn't, but that's just what I experienced from my own limited point of view. Today my memories of her are nothing like that, but of her being vibrant and beautiful.

Although it's always hard to lose a loved one, we almost always make it through, and time softens the edges of the grief so that looking back is no longer so painful. I've had plenty of chances to learn how that works, and I realize that even though the thought of my own demise isn't pleasant, it's no longer foreign to me. I figure that by the time I get there I'll be ready. For two years I volunteered in Boulder's Hospice program, and I learned so much and spent time with people whom I will never forget. And yesterday I found that yet another kind of program has come out of the Hospice movement: death doulas. Beth had one, and now that I know of them, I am amazed that it's taken so long for the idea to come to fruition.

The word "doula" comes from the Greek, meaning "woman who serves." I have always thought of one as a helper to a midwife, since birth doulas are common. It only makes sense that we have someone to help us through the end of life, as well as its beginning. A death doula helps the family members come to grips with the situation, as well as offer comfort and companionship to the dying person. I had thought that I might become a Hospice volunteer again, but now I'm thinking that I'm ready for the next step: to become a death doula. I'll let you know what I learn.

I found that right here in Bellingham we have a Death Café that gives people a chance to meet monthly and discuss whatever those who attend want to talk about regarding death and dying. The next meeting is on January 21st, and I will find out more then. From that link above:
Death Cafés are part of a global movement to challenge attitudes and raise awareness of how talking about death can enrich our lives. In the U.S., Lizzy Miles was the first person to offer Death Café in Columbus, Ohio, and the idea is spreading rapidly to other cities and towns across the country. 
I know it might seem a bit ghoulish to some of my readers to think about becoming a death doula, but for some reason I find myself drawn to it. I've been pondering for awhile what I might find to occupy my desire to take risks once I stop skydiving. This might be it.

It's taken so long for me to get this written that my partner has already left the bed and is making his own cup of tea in the kitchen. Mine is long gone, and although the nights are so long at this time of year that the sun is still a half hour away from rising, it's time to finish and get the day started. I hope that all this talk about death and dying hasn't been too depressing to my readers. I wish you all a wonderful week until we meet again.


John's Island said...

Good Morning DJan. Let me start by commending you for taking on tough subjects. On Sunday mornings I look forward to seeing what you are going to write about. Today’s topic is really hard and yet you handled it with the special kind of grace that tells me you could, if you wish, become a most appreciated death doula. (People reading this comment without reading your post today will find it ghoulish, but I assure them it’s a compliment.) In the not-to-distant past my spouse and I have lost 3 of our 4 parents. The one remaining has gotten close to death on one occasion that required hospice. What I’ve learned about hospice is that it’s one of the most wonderful and yet under-recognized life services available. Perhaps it is because this is such a difficult time in life that no one wants to talk about it? I don’t have an answer, but I do think that as we go through this evolutionary process (life) we will become more aware of the importance of providing some kindness and structure to our final days. So, I say thanks for today’s thoughts. And also, thank you for all of your comments on my blog. You are a kind person indeed. Wishing you a fine week ahead! John

Anonymous said...

To me, this was a depressing subject. I am not sure I would follow your route, DJan. Let's not talk about dying, let's talk about living. Life is for the living. Death will come soon enough.
Peace and blessings to all of us.

Far Side of Fifty said...

Yes, I think it would be wonderful for you to tend to the dying, it isn't something everyone can do. Some people are scared by death and prefer to not talk about it...some embrace it and are at peace with it.
I have no idea how many days or years I have left...it is a mystery to be unveiled.
I know I was someplace before I was born...someplace I cannot remember and it is to that place I will return someday. I prefer to call it heaven, it will be heaven for me:)

Elephant's Child said...

What a wonderful caring way to offer help to people when they need it. Love it.
Keep us posted please...

June said...

My mother stayed here at the end of her life and Hospice helped us out. I have to tell you . . . it was an experience for me like no other in my entire life. A good experience, even the last moments, when it was just Mom and me, and for all intents and purposes she was already gone.
Awesome, and not in the modern hackneyed way.

I think I could not do it with anyone else, but it certainly changed my feelings about dying and death. I recommend reading "Final Gifts," written by two Hospice nurses. Much of it was familiar to me, since I didn't lay my hands on it until after her death.

The Furry Gnome said...

Very thoughtful. One advantage of experiencing serious illness is losing your fear of talking about death with your partner. It takes away a lot of the fear, and helps you focus on helping the living. I wish you the best in pursuing this. Haven't heard of anything similar around here.

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Thoughtful and insightful post!

Lizzy Miles used to frequent our blog before she vanished to start the Death Cafe. Do report back. Am curious.

Keicha Christiansen said...

Hi DJan. The subject of death and how most people deal with it has been on my mind quite a bit lately since reading the book "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory'.

I found it fascinating and educational. It actually solidified much of what I already felt about how we as a society approach dying, death and the rituals surrounding it. I really think you'd like it.

I've heard of death doulas and Death Cafes. Many people find it morbid when I talk about such subjects, but to me death is as much a part of life as birth and the subject shouldn't be avoided. I'm curious to hear about your visit to your local death cafe.

Rita said...

I believe that being there for a person's death is just as intimate as being there for their birth. Beauty in both. What an honor. I have not heard of a Death Cafe or the death doulas--what wonderful ideas! You will have to let us know what you find out. :)

Gigi said...

I have never heard of death doulas or death cafes. It would take a special person to take on such a task, and you, I think, would be just that kind of person.

Arkansas Patti said...

What an interesting post. I did not know you had worked in Hospice. I have had a few experiences with that wonderful organization who helped friends and I think the workers are amazing people who bring not only care to the ill but comfort to the family. You would be highly qualified to be a doula whom it seems takes it just a bit further.
I have zero fear of death. My mother called death "life's greatest adventure as we know nothing about it but can only speculate or believe."
Please do update us on both the doula and the Cafe.

Friko said...

Depressing? Not at all. It’s high time that Death lost its status as one of the last taboos.

We are all going to die. It’s the natural end to life. So many people would rather not know that.

Those of us who have had serious illnesses already know how easy it is to slip from one state to the other; you have seen more death in your life than most, so I really think you would be the perfect doula.

But that you connect it with the risk taking involved in sky-diving surprised me. Accompanying the dying and bereaved and falling out of the sky seem to me to be diametrically opposed. One celebrates being gloriously alive and the other delves into the mysteries of death.

However, I suspect you know what you mean.

I look forward to reaading what you have learned.

BLissed-Out Grandma said...

You have found the next adventure, the one that will give your life new dimension. I have absolutely no doubt that you'd be a great death doula, should you choose to. My youngest brother has just entered hospice care. I admire the people who specialize in helping folks at the end of life, and those who love them.

Janice C said...

People avoid talking about death and dying but it is something that will come to us all one day. How wonderful to be able to help others at this time. I think you would be perfect in this role.

Dee said...

Dear DJan, like the first comment on your posting, I do admire the way you dealt so graciously with the subject of death and death doulas. You are a person who follows a quest to live the fullness of life. And so I am not surprised to discover that you might become a death doula. And I think you would be a fine one because you listen so well--yes your postings reveal this. You listen to nature and to the inward musings of your heart and to the joy and pain others experience. Also, you respect the beliefs of others and so could be of great comfort to anyone getting ready for the journey beyond death. I so look forward to you sharing more about death doulas. Peace.

Crabby McSlacker said...

I just heard of the whole Death Cafe movement recently, and it sounds like a great idea!

I've always feared death, being very attached to life and ego and not being the sort to buy into any simplistic religious myths that seem so blatantly wishful thinking. But I'm kinda getting intrigued by the more eastern/Buddhist idea that if you can transcend ego and self and see your energy as not "you" but as an integrated part of everything else... that then "you" never die. But I've got a long way to go before I transcend self! It still seems all to real to me.

Deb Shucka said...

I really appreciate your posts about our mortality. Because today is an anniversary day, and because I've been following Kara Tippetts, and because of my age, I think about death a lot. I'm not sure we can be fully alive if we don't own the truth that we're all dying. I'll look forward to hearing about your work as a doula, and about the cafe experience.

Linda Reeder said...

I'm a week late on finding this post, but it is more timely for me today anyway. We attended a very religious funeral service yesterday, for the husband of a long time teacher friend of ours.
Afterwards Tom and I talked a little about what we would want and not want, and how hard it will be when one of us leaves first.
I am not a religious person, even though I was raised to be a good Christian. I don't believe in an afterlife any more. I believe in living! Tom suggested I would want a big picnic for my send off, and I agreed, but I would have to go in summer so I could gave a garden party.
Talking about death is a good thing. Sure, when we are fixed on making this life the best it can be, it's hard to think about our own passing, or that of our loved ones. But death happens to us all eventually.
I think your desire to serve as an assistant in this final passage is wonderful. I believe you are the right person to do it.