It was a joy this morning to share the weekly call with one of our RTEOL community; it was just the two of us; Snowdonia meets Isle of Arran. One of the things that we were able to share was the experience of being in a rural setting; where everyone knows everyone; and the privilege that it is for us to be able to be in service of the dying and the dead in a place where you know who they are. In contrast to where I started out in East London sitting with the anonymous dying, who had no one and no one knew who they were; the homeless, the addicted, the wanderers and the misfits. Where you live impacts how you die; where you live impacts how you approach offering End of Life doula support.
How does your urban, rural, suburban environment impact your local culture of death and dying? How does it impact you and your feelings about death?
We talked about delineating the role of “doula” from our many other hats that we might wear. What is it that the Doula role entails? It is a holding role, a yielding, witnessing, space creating, “yin” role. We talked about how a doula attends to the “field” of the dying person (just as we do at births) and one of the things that we can do when working with a family is enlist the family and friends help in creating an environment around the dying person of peace: this might literally mean clearing clutter, giving the space a really good clean, bringing in plants and flowers, washing the curtains, setting up the bed. It means attending to the senses; what does the person who is dying like in terms of scent, light, fabric, touch? What kind of words does the person who is dying want to convey that they need in that space “peace” “lightness” “laughter” “silence” “be yourself” – this helps visitors know how they can be. Can anyone knit? Will they come and be part of knitting a blanket there? Can anyone cook? Can we fill the freezer and cupboards with good food for everyone?
This sounds immensely practical but it is working on the subtle levels; a family that is drawn together to create space for their dying relative is confronted with the reality of their death; the physical act of cleaning, clearing, cooking, preparing is a ritual in and of itself. What if someone struggles to enter that space? The doula sees them and gently hears them; encouraging them to speak out what resistance they might have. The dying person may not be used to being helped; they may need some support to ask for what they need. Their act of receiving is a gift they can give their family at this time. Allow yourself to be held.
How do you feel about receiving help and asking for what you need? Can we allow others to help us and see it as an act of generosity on both sides?
If someone is dying at home often the focus is, understandably, on the journey into the death itself. But practically speaking someone needs to be holding an awareness of how to tend to the body after death; a doula can be that person alongside friends or community that are not the next of kin; the next layer out. Speak to your district nurse or find a sympathetic funeral director; they can help with “last offices” (the practical considerations immediately after death) or they can advise, perhaps, on how family and friends can do it themselves.
In Scotland there is a tremendous charity called Pushing up the Daisies who are championing the idea of keeping the dead at home. There are also many tutorials on YouTube on how to make sure the body will be well kept between death and funeral. It may be that the body is at home for a few days but the funeral will take longer. You don’t need to use a funeral director for everything; you can pick and choose what part of their services you need (like their hearse for example).
Do you know the funeral directors in your area that are sympathetic to keeping the dead at home? Do you know who the key professionals are who are likely to have close contact with people dying at home?
The doula helps to create the environment; attends to the field (emotionally and energetically) of this space. So we are active; we are “doing” things but we are also holding and informing that space by our presence. The doula is grounded, the doula is calm. The doula has an amazing support structure of their own creation at their back: so they are not needy in that space. A doula has met their own needs first; rigorous self care.
The place and space is both physical and energetic; this is the field of our work. How we attend to that field is with our presence and compassion. Being the facilitator of the family in this we are holding space for their process of adjustment. It is one long ceremony; yearning to be remembered.