Being a Native American tribal member, I’ve only known our traditional ways of taking care of the family who have lost a loved one and how to honor the person who has passed away. Some of the things I can mention are that community members will show up at the house of the family who has lost someone and will be there to support them. People go to great lengths to help by caring for them and their homes by cleaning, cooking and feeding the family and the visitors that stop by. In short, we never allow someone to be alone. After a person has been buried, we come back together as a community to share a meal and stories of the loved one; celebrating their life.
I had heard about the Death Doula training from a friend and was excited to see many similarities of the training as compared to what we do traditionally. It also seemed to fit my desire to help people in regards to wellness through aromatherapy and herbalism. I felt that this was another way to aid people in healing during such an emotional time.
Last weekend I had the immense honor of attending a Death Doula I class facilitated by Ashley from A Sacred Passing. This class provided attendees with knowledge of how to, “support community members to better support their friends and loved ones during the end of life process.” We learned how to carry out some of the basic requests of the deceased and be there for them before, during and after death. This included holding sacred space for them, washing of the body and body preparation, active listening and companioning.
Right away we learned the valuable lesson in the difference between a Death Doula and a Death Midwife. Though they represent different sides of the same coin, the Midwife has additional training above and beyond that of the Doula. Some of the services they both perform are:
- Supporting the dying person and their support network
- Assisting in outline and carrying out death plans
- Staying with the dying person throughout the dying process
- Providing emotional support and comfort along with facilitating communication
The Midwife can also:
- Assist with a vigil or wake, paperwork, transportation
- Aid in facilitating the body for burial or cremation
- Advocate for families navigating the medical system
Coming from a general acceptance of death being a natural part of our life cycle, I never realized how taboo the subject was until I attended this class. We were given a two-sided handout that listed all the American euphemisms for death and I realized they represented the avoidance of saying the word; because if you discuss death, you have to acknowledge that it happens. Personally I believe we also use euphemisms in conversation as a way to be mindful or delicate in taking with someone who had a death in their family.
One powerful section we covered was about the actual process of dying. It answered so many questions. The instructor graciously granted me permission to share some of the information as it helps to explain so many things we don’t know or don’t talk about. Here are summaries of some of these changes:
- Food and Fluid Decrease: The body slows down, creating less of an urge to eat or drink. Don’t force someone to eat if they are not hungry; this is natural.
- Decreased Socialization: People become tired and tend to prefer fewer interactions.
- Sleeping: The body will crave more sleep; let them rest and do not talk about them while they are sleeping as chances are they may hear you.
- Restlessness: People may become restless and make repetitive motions; this is ok. Reassure them if they seemed unsettled.
- Disorientation: This is a natural occurrence and not necessarily a hallucination or medication reaction. Be careful not to mess with medication without the guidance of a medical professional as you may cause more harm than good.
- Incontinence: The body is beginning to relax and cannot hold the bowls or urine.
- Urine Decrease: People will urinate less due to decreased food and water intake. The urine will be dark and may smell due to being concentrated.
- Breathing Pattern Change: The respiratory system is slowing down and breathing can become labored, shallow, irregular, fast or slow.
- Congestion: The throat is relaxing which can cause congestion; this may sound upsetting to others present. Prop the person up so the secretions can move downwards.
- Color Changes: The circulatory system is slowing down causing the person to become hot, cold or discolored.
- Permission to Go: Some people may hang on, waiting for approval to go; reassure them that it’s ok for them to move on.
From there we were taught how to properly wash the body of someone who had died and it was such a moving experience. It was conducted with such tenderness and reverence for the person and made me feel like everyone should be treated so. Considering that we wash a new born baby, why not someone who is newly born unto death?
It was also quite the experience to learn how to hold vigil or a wake from someone. We practiced this with each other in the class of how to hold sacred space for the other wholeheartedly; it moved us all to tears to have such love and attention bestowed upon us. For the vigil or wake, the focus is entirely on the person who has died. You are honoring them and holding space for their body while their spirit is in the last remaining stages of departing.
However you process death, allow yourself time to grieve and mourn, but also allow yourself the time to heal. Also take the time to celebrate the life of your loved one for you were blessed to be a part of it.
It was such an honor to attend this class. I highly recommend that others take such a class in order to demystify the process of dying and death. And should you chose to use it to help others all the better! I have included a link to A Sacred Passing for additional information as well as a poignant poem about birth and death.
Until next time, enjoy life to the fullest and celebrate each and every day.
A Sacred Passing
Parable of the Twin Fetuses