July 8, 2016

A Different Kind of Death & Mourning Support

Holding Hands with Elderly PatientDeath and mourning doulas are among those actively re-imagining support at the end of life and beyond.  Increasingly, media features new approaches to support at this deeply intimate time of life, with focus on both the dying and the grieving, and these doulas are often a fixture of such profiles.  The media interest in this topic makes sense, as many feel distant from the messier, yet unbelievably precious moments these experiences encompass, and are eager to learn more.

Death and mourning doulas offer a pathway toward a more deeply connected encounter with death, be it our own end, or that of a loved one.  This is a connection many are craving within a society that’s become quick to anesthetize away most emotional experiences, be it through turning over the management of the circumstances to a designated “expert,” as we’ve done with birth and death, or to numbing painful experience through mind-altering prescriptions, which dull experiences that are less than “warm and fuzzy.”  Many, however, are beginning to realize this may not be the best approach to life’s ”intensities,” and they’re discovering that connecting to such moments in a deeply conscious way can deeply add to the body of experience that we call “being alive.”   “After all,” they wonder, “why would we look to dull the human experience?  Death comes quickly enough, no need to deny life before-hand, much less on the final march to the end of our days.”

What does this doula support look like?   Well, as there’s currently no national standard for these professionals, there’s a wide range of diversity.  I can speak, however, for those professionals trained through the program I run, the Momdoulary Death Doula Training Programs hosted at MourningDoula.com.  Ouur graduates are certified in their knowledge of our specific method, which approaches things a bit differently from that of many other death doulas out there, from what I’m told.

Our graduates are prepared to work as facilitators of more conscious, informed death and mourning, through a method of doula support built around a coaching model (think life-coaching), which ensures that decisions are made by the client, and not influenced by the doula’s preferences. Whereas other doulas often teach folks how to create a set end-of-life plan, for instance, our graduates focus on helping our clients develop a tool kit, from which they can select what best serves them when the time arrives, as here at Momdoulary, we don’t believe life usually goes as planned — and the same is true of death. So we prefer to be ready for whatever arrives, and approach all with flexibility, rather than encouraging our clients to create a specific scenario. This helps create the best circumstances for helping them achieve the best experience possible, no matter what comes their way.

Our graduates are trained in 6 different areas, to provide the skills for creating a comprehensive, flexible support for those they are working with. Those areas include:  End of life doula; death doula; mourning doula; home funeral doula; “What next?” loss coach; and Personal Organizing of Artifacts After Loss organizer.

However, an important note here is that afore-mentioned crux of the training, our “Coaching Model,” is actually used in all six areas.  The Coaching Model is a method through which our graduates support clients as they navigate the information overload that’s so common in our culture at this time, in order to allow them to curate the best-fit solutions and options for their family, and their own personal needs and desires.   This may seem a no-brainer, but for the majority in our culture, it is anything but simple.  We’ve been raised in an education system geared toward reinforcing the idea of “the one right answer,” as every standardized test reaffirms. Trouble with that, is that “one right answer” is actually the antithesis of the kind of thinking that encourages you to consider as many answers as possible, comparing and contrasting as you develop both vision and responses to circumstances and information.  As if this training toward “one right answer” were not limiting enough, we’re further acculturated to seek that “one right answer” from a “designated expert.” In the school setting most of us grew up with, that is the teacher.

But what happens when an individual graduates, and goes out into the real world, and faces real world issues, including death and grief?   We, of course, continue to seek what we’ve been condition to look for: the ”one right answer,” in this case the “designated expert,” who can tell us what to do.   This occurs in all areas of life – and it can cause deep anxiety, as an individual will quickly discover that there are a large number of ”experts” out there, and they often disagree.   Doubt me, and I’ll point you to experts who can “prove” a low carb diet is healthiest, while in the same breath pointing you to an expert who can “prove” that a high protein low carb diet is healthiest.

No wonder we’ve a culture which, regardless of being one of the wealthiest, freest cultures in the world, is haunted by addictions, depression, anxiety disorders, and suicide.  This situation is enough to drive one mad!  The very wealth of information we’re provided by an endless array of “designated experts” can cause our mind to kind of “hiccup” when it goes to make a decision.  Kind of like getting a “this does not compute” message, if you will.   You’re looking for the “one right answer” from the “designated expert” yet you’re encountering an array of them.  How can this be?  You weren’t trained to weigh and consider options, rather, our entire educational system is based on regurgitating back the one right answer a designated expert handed to us.  One and only one.   We were not given the tools to manage the society we’ve inherited.   This may seem like a digression, however, it is highly relevant – stay with me, you will see.

Why is it relevant? Because those facing death today want more. They demand more. They are all too aware of how limiting it is to repeat the same old patterns that have been done before, and they have seen the price we pay when we do things from habit, as opposed to discerning what is best for us at any given moment. They see the writing on the wall, and they have grown restless, all too aware that we can do better, far better, when it comes to both death and mourning.

Let’s consider a few things here: Embalming didn’t become common until the Civil War, when a method was needed for preserving a body to transport home.  Soon thereafter, it became customary to call a funeral director to manage embalming and the funeral, which has now begun to take place in a funeral home. A new habit had taken root, reinforced by those who had grown to realize how profitable it was, and well-met, perhaps, by a country who was exhausted from dealing with so much death, in a war where brothers were often on opposing forces. Perhaps they felt needed for a time to disconnect from death.

Lo and behold,  things have continued to develop along this path. We now turned to a “designated expert” to handle most things for us.  We essentially began outsourcing the care of our dead, rather than bathe, dress, and wake our loved ones in our homes.  It is interesting to note that we’ve done this in almost all areas of life: birth, education, exercise, eating, and so forth.   It is also interesting to note that in many of those areas, we’ve not made as much progress as we should.   Too, it’s worth considering that once upon a time, experts told us the world was flat, the Earth was the center of the Universe, eggs were bad for us, coffee and chocolate were bad for us, and that radium was healthy, and should be ingested in food, and worn on the body, for good health (that one not only failed to be accurate, but killed people).  Makes you realize that oftentimes the experts don’t know that much more than we do. But this time, I digress.  Let’s get back on track here:

Though today we have wonderful refrigeration methods which keep a body “fresh” beyond expiration, if you will, people still automatically call the funeral home, and request the “designated expert” take over, for quite honestly, they know not what to do.  I mean, that’s what we do, right?  Call in an expert, right?  I mean – we can’t handle things ourselves.  Especially not death.  Death too often triggers a desire to quickly check out emotionally.   We feel flummoxed in the face of death (our own or that of another).

However, this is not because we cannot manage it, but rather because, by the very nature of recent generations “outsourcing” death, we no longer know the basics.  Feeling helpless, we pick up the phone to dial for help.   However, is this the best course of action, and is the path of the designated expert even the best one?   I mean, embalming when there is refrigeration, and when we know the toll it takes on the environment, not to mention those doing the work?   Of course not, in most cases (though not always).  This is purely an example of a failure to evolve with times and technology.   Such behavior is nothing beyond habit – and especially the now deeply ingrained habit of calling in the “designated expert,” and the trained helplessness we’ve acquired.   Ooops.  There I did it.  I said it: The trained helplessness.   That, folks, is really what we’re seeing here.  We’ve been trained into helplessness, to the point where we automatically turn things over to experts, checking ourselves out of the equation beyond a quick cursory show.

Now that you’ve explored those considerations, let’s return now to how our coaching model is the crux of our training method:  Just as we wouldn’t try to tell someone how to live, we don’t believe it is up to us to tell someone how to die, or how to grieve, or how they should care for their dead.  Rather, we train our graduates to provide the highest level of information, and physical and emotional support, while doing so through the filter of the coaching model.  Essentially, they are trained to help their clients walk through the many options and opportunities that accompany death and mourning, helping them curate the best-fit options for their needs.   We focus on encouraging our graduates to view this as highly personal; what fits one family, may well not fit another.

Unlike many other death doulas and those who call themselves death midwives, we do not advocate for a particular political or spiritual agenda, and work to avoid recommending any one approach over another.  Rather, we focus on coaching people through the process of curating the most highly personal answers for this deeply intimate moment in their lives – and then providing the support they need as they create that, and most especially, to hold the space for it.

While I personally find green and natural burial to be a necessary evolution given the increasing population on this planet, and while I’m particularly drawn toward the intimacy and healing that exist in a home funeral, I would never advocate for this to be the answer or solution for all.   The beauty of America is that we have freedom of choice.   This needs to remain the case in the funeral and death industry – and it is something we stand by and promote.  So, while you may hear some death doulas out there advocating for an end to funeral homes, or an end to traditional burial, or putting an end to embalming, we are doing nothing of the sort.   We believe everything has a time and a place, and that different people, and different circumstances, call for different responses and choices.   Rather, we are calling for – and training our students to provide – the creation of highly personalized, deeply intimate connections to death and mourning, that impart the level of dignity and respect crucial to the human experience – in all of its messy, achy-breaky-hearted glory.

These are the final pieces I feel need to be shared here:   Unlike many in the traditional funeral industry, we don’t try to distance ourselves – or you – from death.   While we may refer to someone as “the dearly departed,” we are far more likely to talk about “the dead.”  We keep it real, we feel it important to do so, in order to allow people to process the experience in an authentic way.  Again, everyone is different. Some may need the more ambiguous language, and there’s nothing wrong with that – our graduates are trained to pick up on such things, and to first and foremost honor the dying and their family, by responding to their needs, rather than the doula’s personal beliefs.

The same is true of the dying process.   This is an important note, too:  While we help people explore possibilities for their forthcoming death vigil, it’s from the angle of the space we will together create.  We train our graduates to avoid creating a “Death Plan,” as the one thing work as both a birth and death doula have taught me is that life almost never goes according to plan, and indeed, the phrase, “Man plans and God laughs,” is one of the truest I’ve ever encountered.   The reality is that the so-called “Death Plans” many promote are shaky at best, in my opinion.  The truth is, some people find firm touch painful at death; some people are very out of it at death; some people can’t smell essential oils at death; some people may actually want to be alone, and wait for everyone to leave the room before they die; others may want someone totally different with them in the 11th hour, and some may wish to hear the rain falling, rather than Mahler’s 9th at the time of their death, and the entire death plan becomes moot.   The trouble, of course, is that the dying cannot register complaints upon completion of service.  They can’t confront one with, “You led me down the wrong path, I didn’t really want X playing, or X present, and that darned massage hurt like the dickens!  How could you lead me through the process of planning my death, how was I supposed to know what I would want in reality, until I arrived in those hours?”

That is, in fact, why we eschew any kind of formal Death Plan beyond knowing who you want present, and the types of comfort you want available.  Rather, our graduates are encouraged to work with people to explore their favorite things, what is most precious to them, what they wish could be different, and to work to create some signals for communication, while focusing on preparing the emotional and physical space for the death vigil.   The deepest aim is for the death doula to be deeply present with the dying, and with any loved ones present, and to create the space for those loved ones to bridge the gap that our cultural divorce from the realities of death have created.   Our coaching model and training program aim to, first and foremost, create the space for deep presence at death, and in the mourning period as details are addressed, while providing any informational, physical, and emotional support that’s needed.

In doing so, the dream is to demystify death and dying, so that people can continue to connect more deeply, and to experience richer journeys, in both life and death.

I encourage you, talk with your loved ones today.  Explore end of life issues.  Find ways to connect, and to face the common finality we all share in common.  In mustering up this courage, you will find that you will be better prepared to handle all that comes your way, for you will have looked the ultimate reality in the eye, there’s nothing left to hide from, and everything to live for.

If you’ve the heart for it, I also encourage you to consider this line of work.   The training isn’t very expensive, not for a whole new carer, and the work is remarkably fulfilling for the right individual.  If you’re interested, just click here.