Serving Beside Death, I Learned to Truly Live
How Working as an End-of-Life, Death & Mourning Doula Taught Me How to Live
I found myself working alongside Death quite by accident, at least on my part. Though I hear Death can be a stalker, so who knows what his story is.
Quite honestly, my tale began simply, and continued so, nothing more than a series of accidental happenings and events (if indeed there are such things as accidents). The trick is that simple experiences can combine together to create far more complex realities. And that, my friends, is what happened to me.
Over time, an array of moments and one-off events somehow stacked themselves to create what would prove the foundation for much of my work at the bookends of life. See, I’m a birth, postpartum & antepartum doula AND an End-of-Life, Death & Mourning Doula, and a Home Funeral Doula. In fact, not only do I do this work, but I’ve developed programs to help others learn to do so, as well. Ah! Life’s journey is such a mystery.
Landing on this path was never an intention. I’d dreamed of being a dancer, a writer, a physicist. Never a birth nor death worker.
Alas, Life — and perhaps Death — had other plans for me.
I was four when my five-year-old friend died of an asthma attack. I never understood precisely what happened — she was gone, a tree was planted at the school in her memory, people cried, and I found myself with one less playmate.
Two years passed, and my twin siblings graced the world with their presence, my youngest brother in hot pursuit 15 months later. Birth and babies filled my small world — fascinating — but I still couldn’t forget about this thing called Death. Nor was I meant to.
At 11, while visiting my grandmother, she discovered her tenant’s body. Lovely lady, who had possessed the same name as I. I’d had a better sense of what death was by then, but still, grownups seemed desperate to avoid questions or discuss what has occurred.
Was Death something to be ashamed of? Wait, no, that wasn’t it….perhaps, from what I saw of the behavior of grown-ups around me, something to be feared — and definitely not talked about. Sure you can shake your head and say, “Such a shame…” or “She was a fine woman,” but at the end of the day one was obviously supposed to ignore the big fat elephant trumpeting it’s way through the funeral parlor.
When I was 11, my best friend was to help me with my paper route one afternoon. However, the discovery of her mom’s body face-down on the hot oven door led to a number of folks missing their daily dose of news that sunny day, and to my assembling an even greater compilation of unanswered questions.
My high school years involved a significant amount of reading: birth, death, mourning, rituals and superstitions, a deep dive comparative religion, and even some dancing with writings on the occult. Through those same years I lost a boyfriend to throat cancer, 2 friends to suicide, another to a car accident.
I felt each death deeply, processing yet more thoughts.
Still, I moved forward; still I managed to find cause for joy in the world.
When 21 I had my first child, his brother arriving less than 2 years behind him. A complicated pregnancy led to my dying for a minute and 33 seconds, but fortunately I, and my unborn child, made it through. My world was again all about birth and babies — and I too grew to fear Death the way adults around me had. I’d already seen and experienced enough loss. Once I had children, I perceived how much deeper loss could permeate, and Death moved beyond something to try to figure out, rather, he became my enemy. I worked hard to ignore Death, to not think upon his cruel and seemingly random violence. I sought to fight him off with everything I had.
Death, however, will not be ignored. By 24 I’d lost my best friend to a senseless murder — wrong time, wrong place — just one of those things, I was assured. Two years later, and I was to again stare mortality in the face, this time courtesy of the “Big C” — a silent threat that creeps up and slowly steals the life out of you, one cell at a time. However, Death was not about to claim me, and kicked C’s ass, and sent Death packing.
Then, for a time, the losses ended. Could this be? Life, with uninterrupted good times? In time, there was the sad but not unexpected loss of an elderly relative, but no more violent or unexpected losses. In retrospect I’d see those days as some evil machination of Death, the quiet before the storm, for when I next encountered Death it was on 9/11/01. I’d grown up in NYC, and I had personally known 41 sweet souls lost that day, and the family and friends of still more.
As if. That were. Enough.
My brother, in an emotional response to 9/11, became a marine. After a number of years of dedicated service to our nation, he was heroically KIA on a medevac unit, and I discovered a whole new level of grief and loss. I’d already lost my best friend, other friends, family, and had even faced Death myself. My world went black. Within but a heartbeat of time, another major loss, and I can say with all honesty that I simply stumbled blindly through the months, then years that followed.
To this point, I’d been largely earning my income as a writer, inventor of toys and games, and life coach. I was paid to inspire, to teach, and to motivate. Yet, to perform such, one has to be inspired — and I, most certainly, was not.
I knew I was at a crucial moment. I risked becoming but an empty shell of the human I’d once been. I’d seen it before in others. What could I do to reconnect with life, while still earning a living?
I thought back to births I’d been present at outside of the US. They were differnet, better. I decided I would train to be a midwife — that perhaps supporting the arrival of life, and the joy that entails, could breathe life back into me.
I discovered, however, that I preferred the more emotionally and informationally supportive role as the birth doula. In time, I developed my own method, combining other skills in coaching, conflict resolution, and parent education, to create the Momdoulary Method doula, a kind of super-doula.
Through this work, my own personal healing began. Yet, still, I had more to learn. So very much more.
When working in the wilds of the world of birth, one still encounters death — somehow it seems even sadder then, for loss is wrapped up in the hopes and dreams that a family had carried for many months. They lose not only a loved one, but the promise of a future dreamed together, lost before it even had a chance to begin. It amazed me to discover what a fine line exists between birth and death.
My extensive experience with loss, funeral arrangements, and supporting mourners, led to my being called upon time and again to not only parents experiencing loss, but well, anyone around me who was dealing with loss, or impending loss. Difficult work I was most honored to be a part of — how can one refuse such requests?
I soon began lending support at hospice as well. More death. More mourning. More lessons — so many more lessons.
The more I found myself working at the bookends of life, the more the similarity between the two stunned; more so, perhaps, the ways in which we hand off these intensely emotional, very human experiences over to others, so we don’t have to face the messy emotions they call up.
I understand the “why” behind it. These things stir us deep in our souls, birth and death alike. They call to mind our own finite time here on this earth. They grab hold of us and shake us up, unsettling even our most settled aspects of self. One can definitely be discombobulated by birth and death alike.
One’s heart feels it can burst, from love and loss alike. I’ve been there — far too many times it seems. And yet…is the ache of the heart truly a bad thing? Yes, it feels like Death itself, and yet…
I personally have found that the more loss breaks one’s heart, the greater the potential capacity to love. This seems a paradox, because perhaps it is. Yes, many will close off after loss. However, I have found that the heart reaches a kind of shatter point. The pieces lie there, burning embers all that remain, and suddenly your now formless broken heart catches fire — perhaps a very special form of grace; and because such a heart is broken and no longer contained in one specific shape, the fire of love grows wild and free, and the space that can be filled with such love is now so much larger than it was when contained inside the space of the formed heart. The very act of loving, and losing, has left us capable of loving further still.
I won’t deny it — I myself went the route of closing off for a time. For awhile I refused to invest myself in others — I think that is the first inclination of many. Yet life reaches a certain point, and you are left with either an empty shell, or you surrender to the experience, letting the pieces fall completely, which will then allow the fire of life to catch.
It is only when we can pull ourselves up and look mortality, Death, right in the eye, that we begin the true journey to living. For so long as we ignore the truth, run from the reality of mortality, the less we live.
For me, it was only once I genuinely faced mortality and reached a space of utter surrender, that that I reached a place where all I can do is find love, compassion, and beauty, where I’m so moved by the power of all that has been given to us, and cannot help but wonder at the joy of each breath, the beauty of all that we are, and that is in the world around us.
In such a space, you have no choice but to recognize the beauty and joy contained in every blessed moment, and you know, completely, that even the darkest of moments will reveal that there too is beauty, possibility, joy, love, all waiting there to be discovered by any whose heart and soul are open to seeing them.
I think when one reaches this point, there is a new level of authenticity that cannot be denied. Working beside Death isn’t simple. It culls from one the deepest of emotions, time and again. You can no longer hide from the reality of mortality. In such work, one discovers joy and grief alike — sometimes wrapped right around one another. For genuine grief, when allowed time to process, leads to a new dawn, new beginnings, and a whole cauldron of cliches one can stir around. The reality is, this work isn’t simple, but the reward for standing firmly in the fire and facing the truth about the human condition, is to know one’s own mettle, and to see the endless opportunity of joy ever-present in this reality known as Our Present.
I beseech you, make the most of each and every moment. Make peace with Life and with Death. Embrace the reality that we check into this world with a limited bank account comprised of life moments, yet we’ve no teller to let us know our balance. Each day could be our last — so let us live these moments as fully, as wonderfully, as humanly, as possible.
These are things serving beside Death have taught me about life. And…it is those who meet Death without having embraced these lessons, who are most disappointed to meet his acquaintance.
Thank you for taking the time to read a bit of my story. May you create an amazing life for yourself!
If you are interested in learning about working in the Death industry, visit www.mourningdoula.com, or in the birth industry, visit www.momdoulary.com You can also find my work on www.TheLiberationArtist.com Please click “recommed” if you found this article of value, and share it through your social networks!