Life Lessons From Women Who Work With The Dying

“Death is not the opposite of life but an innate part of it. By living our lives, we nurture death,” wrote Japanese author Haruki Murakami.
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People often struggle to find the words to talk about death, despite it being one of the only certainties in life.
There is so much more discussion of living life to the full than of what happens when it draws to a close. Living in a country with an ageing population, in the grip of a social care crisis, makes a shift in this conversation more pressing.
Death doulas, who offer support for dying people and their families in a non-medical capacity, are doing exactly that. By being a companion for the dying, doulas – who often come from palliative or social care backgrounds – hope to empower people at the end of their lives, enabling them to talk about their feelings and make their own decisions.
Also known as end of life doulas, the small but growing group aims to make death as positive an experience as possible.
And as it turns out, working around death can have a powerful impact on the way you view life. Refinery29 spoke to three death doulas about what they have learned about life through their work.
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Felicity Warner, 58, Bridport
When you work in death, as I do, it teaches you how to live your life intensely, fully and richly. In our day-to-day lives, we don’t think about our deaths until we really have to. Then it comes as a real oh-my-God-moment. People are scared of mortality because they fear the loss of self. There are deep questions to answer: Do I just vanish? What happens to me? What is the meaning of life? It’s better to engage in these questions early on, rather than leaving it to the last minute.
It would also be incredibly helpful if, as a society, we talked about death more, and we introduced it earlier into the school curriculum. At the moment, the fear of death is a growing taboo, rather than a diminishing one.
As a soul midwife I’m a holistic and spiritual companion to the dying. I look at the undercurrents of life. I often ask people to imagine the very best death they could have and we fine-tune it together, a bit like a birth plan. (In many ways, dying is very similar to being in labour.) Talking about your own mortality helps you squeeze every bit of juice out of life, because you get a rounded perspective.
My grandmother, who brought me up, died when I was 14. She had a traumatic death – in a horrible old-fashioned hospital with no comfort or tenderness – and it influenced me hugely. I remember thinking, ‘Why do we treat dying people so badly?’
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I used to be a health journalist and wrote a series of articles about young women with terminal cancer. I got to know them incredibly well and was with some of them when they died. The depth and intimacy of being with someone in that space is so profound – I knew that was the work I wanted to do.
I started volunteering at a local hospice – comforting people with techniques such as massage, meditation and breathing exercises – which eventually led me to pioneer the role of soul midwife about 12 years ago.
Working with death teaches you how important it is to have good relationships with those you love and no unresolved anger. There is a Navajo saying that sums this up: ‘Today is a good day to die; everything is in place.”
My own mantra is: “I’m a spiritual being, having a human existence.” I’m not religious but am quite spiritual and believe there will be something after my heart stops beating. As physical bodies become very frail, an inner blossoming often happens and people start to become a lot more “spiritual” – they feel a connection to something bigger than themselves.
Death is like stepping out of an old pair of clothes. Changing your perspective on this can help you from falling off the edge when you are having a black moment.
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Caroline Dent, 58, London
The author Stephen Levine said that when you are near your edge, you are near your truth. You can’t get nearer the edge than talking about death.
I started working at a death café about three years ago. The death café is a sharing space where people might talk about personal experiences of death, reincarnation or suicide. All the superficiality of life gets stripped away there. They find it so liberating and look more alive when they leave.
I keep death at my shoulder. There isn’t a day or hour in which I don’t think about it. It’s very focusing; I constantly question how I want to spend my time, what is important to me and what isn’t. We all think we have time, but we don’t know how much.
I’ve always been drawn to darker conversations and the shadows of people. I find that once you give people an opening, they really want to talk about death – and they enjoy talking about it.
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I had death anxiety as a child but didn’t tell anybody. I was scared of being alone in the dark and ghosts; the idea the world would carry on without me when I died terrified me.
I used to volunteer with suicidal and terminally ill people. When I heard about doula training, I immediately knew I was going to do it. I look back at my life and see a path that led to it.
As an end of life doula, my aim is to create a holding space for a dying person, within which all feelings are permitted. You can’t stop somebody suffering, but you can be there with them in their suffering, so they don’t feel alone. Just saying ‘I hear you’ is very powerful.
What a lot of people don’t realise is that, on the surface, dying people often seem well supported. But that person might not be able to talk to anybody close to them about how they are really feeling because they don’t want to upset them. As someone with no historical relationship with a patient, they should be able to tell me anything.
Lizzie Neville, 44, Salisbury
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When a friend of mine was dying a few years ago, I was aware that I felt very comfortable talking to her about it and how she felt. I could see that having somebody to acknowledge she was dying was a great relief to her.
Sadly, death has become a taboo subject in the modern world, as people would rather talk about sex than death.
Once people know you are dying, you get treated differently. People are often frightened and don’t know what to say, so say nothing, and the person dying can become quite isolated. The role of a doula is to support the dying and their family through their journey.
For the past nine years I’ve volunteered in a hospice. One day, while doing some research, I came across doula training on the Living Well Dying Well website and knew this was the vocation for me. From the moment I enrolled on the course I never looked back.
My role as a doula can be very varied. Sometimes you may visit a client and sit and talk, other times you may be helping to plan their end of life care and funeral. Sometimes our role is supporting family members who are looking after the person dying. It’s a stressful time for all, and having a constant presence from a doula can be very beneficial. We encourage our clients to keep doing what they enjoy and maintain a good quality of life.
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This work has totally changed my perspective on life. I have become very grounded and rarely get upset or angry now. Family, close friends and making memories are most important to me.
I take time out every day to just stop and look at the world. It sounds a real cliché but I stop and watch the clouds, or a bug – the things we take for granted. When somebody knows they are dying, feeling the wind or sun on their skin is really important.
My friends and family used to think I was a bit weird doing this type of work, but they have accepted that this is who I am and really respect what I’m doing.
Obviously I'm emotionally affected when a client dies. I don’t show it in the doula role because you need to be rock solid for the family. I go home, have a good cry and then let it go. If you hold onto it, you won’t be able to provide the support that’s needed. It’s an emotional rollercoaster at times but I adore doing what I do – it’s very fulfilling and rewarding.
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