A Doula For The Dying, Part 2: 5 More things I learned while doulaing my dying father.
When I set out to be by my father’s side in 2012, I had no idea what to expect. My sister and I both lived in Colorado Springs, so naturally we caravaned to Oregon together. We talked about it a lot. What would we have to do? How would we help our mom? This was not a typical visit in any way. I felt ill-equipped and unprepared.
Once we arrived in Oregon, and we settled in, I began to discover just how similar labor and postpartum doula work is to supporting not only the dying man, but his family.
Here are 5 more ways I found that my doula work had prepared me for this in ways I did not expect.
1. Dying has a natural, typical process.
I will never forget the social worker who came to visit and explain the process of death to us as a family. It’s a lot like labor, where the signs of impending death get “longer, stronger, and closer together,” like contractions do. Like labor, the dying process is made up of stages, but they are not set in stone, and it looks different for everyone. No one can ever predict when or how the dying process starts, nor how or when it will end. You just have to wait and see. Like labor, when you are more familiar with the basic physiology of the dying process, caring for your loved one is a lot easier. It helps to have a general idea of what to expect.
2. The family needs support as much as the dying one.
Much like the expectant father, the dying man’s loved ones need education and support to help them navigate this painful, sometimes confusing journey. The social worker told us that we would all feel like we were going crazy, “but that’s okay–it’s normal crazy.” Pretty much everything we would experience would be typical of the dying process, but we would all feel as though it wasn’t. And that was normal. Dying is weird. So is birth. And for those who haven’t seen it, it helps to be able to hear an expert tell you that it’s all normal. This is a major role a doula plays. Supporting the father, partner, or family members through the birth process largely consists of smiling across the pregnant woman’s back and giving the thumbs-up to a dad who thinks the love of his life just might be dying based solely on the sounds she’s making. That calm professional presence meant so much to us as a family and enabled me to put on my own doula hat and love my family through the process.
3. Doulas are comfortable with bodily fluids and nudity.
My only regret in helping care for my dad is that I didn’t step up sooner to help my mom with the actual physical care. It took seeing my mom in tears, needing help to get Dad up off the floor for me to see the need for what it was. Dad was reluctant to let me help, because he didn’t want his daughter seeing him that way. However, Mom needed me. So, I gently insisted to Dad that he needed to let me do this for Mom’s sake. He agreed, and it didn’t take more than one trip to the bathroom together for him to feel okay about it. I happen to have a natural bent toward a clinical mindset, and I knew it wouldn’t bother me to help Dad get to the bathroom while he could, and when he couldn’t, to hold the portable urinal. It’s not much different than letting a pregnant woman lean on you while she’s on the toilet during labor, or hold her hair and an emesis bag while she throws up. It’s just part of life. And death.
4. Everyone involved has a vital role to play.
Part of a doula’s job is to understand the roles everyone involved in a labor and birth are going to fill, based on their gifts and what the mother needs. She assesses the expectations, then sees where she best fits in, and can enhance and help everyone’s roles. It’s the same at the deathbed of a loved one. Everyone has natural personality quirks and gifts and roles, and it is vital to let each play the part they are most comfortable with. Granted, we all have to step out of our roles once in awhile and make do, but generally, we each got to do what came naturally to us. Our kids even filled a role, keeping joy front and center even in the midst of our death watch. It was comfortable and seamless for the most part.
5. It’s not about me.
No birth I attend has anything to do with me. I am along for the ride, for better or worse. I am there to comfort, support, encourage, and anchor. I am not there to fight battles, rescue anyone, or to make a statement. My father’s death had nothing to do with me either. It was his journey, and I was there to comfort, support, encourage, and anchor as well as I could. I could have done a better job, I know, but I did the best I could with what I had, and I know that it was enough. It had to be, because I offered everything I had. We all did.
We each of us, my mother, sisters and I were utterly drained at the end of it all, but we had no regrets. Dad passed into his Father’s arms exactly the way he wished to: with minimal pain, at home in his own bed, surrounded by those he loved. We all of us were his doula team. And we didn’t even know it.
To read the first part, click HERE.
If you have lost someone, what would you add to this? Feel free to share your story in the comments.
Grace & Peace,