In recent conversation with a long -time friend who has extensive background in hospice, ministry, massage, art and writing, we were exploring the idea of her being a death midwife who would be with someone when they pass. She has the compassion and necessary presence to be of comfort and support to those who are preparing to cross over from this incarnation to whatever awaits.
So many people, including therapists, have a difficult time handling death. It is the final frontier, a landscape of the unknown. If we are willing to examine our own beliefs about mortality, we are better able to serve our clients.
Stories from The Other Side
Even with the proliferation of books that speak on the subject written by those who say they have crossed that threshold and returned, fear and uncertainty remain.
One such is Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Near-Death Experience and Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander, MD. Alexander succinctly describes the experience on November 10, 2008, when he fell into a comatose state, from which only a small percentage of people emerge. Seven days later, he returned, carrying memories that included meeting a deceased birth sister he had never known existed.
Another is The Toltec Art of Life and Death: A Story of Discovery, penned by don Miguel Ruiz; author of The Four Agreements. In 2002, he had a heart attack that placed him in a nine-week coma. He too emerged with a vision of what may exist on the other side of this life. His background in medicine and metaphysics were firmly in place at the time of this experience, so he was less inclined to be skeptical about what unfolded for him.
A third comes from the death defying experience of Anita Moorjani, Dying to Be Me: My Journey from Cancer, to Near Death, to True Healing. In this self-revelatory tale, Moorjani describes her four- year battle with the disease that ultimately led to organ failure. While in her own near death state, she comes to recognize the impact of her early conditioning on her health and when she returned to consciousness, she bewildered her medical team with her complete recovery and the stories she had to share about what she says transpired.
From a mainstream psychological perspective, these stories may seem incomprehensible. Consider that much which we now accept as possible in the realm of human understanding was once discounted as ‘ideas of reference’ and ‘magical thinking.’
Melvin Morse, M.D., is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Washington. He has studied near-death experiences in children for 15 years and is the author of several excellent books on the subject: Closer to the Light, Transformed by the Light, Parting Visions, as well as his most recent release, Where God Lives. His interest in the subject of what happens once the heart stops beating, was sparked by rescuing a young girl who was ‘dead’ for 19 minutes and when she was revived, she informed him “Don’t worry, Dr. Morse, heaven is fun!”
Death Doula: Midwife at the End of Life
Dame Cicely Saunders a British physician was the founding mother of the hospice movement, which has long been the gold standard of care for those at the end of life. The origin of the word which is akin to ‘hospitality,’ harkens back to medieval times when it referenced a sense of shelter.
Dr. Saunders who had been treating patients since 1948 saw the need of palliative care for those who were facing their final days, as well as offering support for their loved ones who were on the journey with them.
In 1967, she created St. Christopher’s Hospice in London. It is a team approach that includes a physician, nurse, social worker, chaplain and aides.
Having experienced the services offered in the last months of my parents’ lives, I am moved by the dedication it takes to do this sacred work. With humor and grace, they interacted with us as a family, offering a safe place to laugh and cry, to reminisce and create new memories. Highly skilled and fully human all at once.
Consider the qualities you would want in a person who would be with you as you took your final breath:
- Comfort with the idea of death.
- Knowing when to speak and when to listen.
- A witnessing presence.
- Allowing your death to be peaceful.
- Helping to create your environment as you would have it which might include music that soothes you, pictures that are comforting to look at, your treasured objects around you.
- Culturally competent and knowledgeable about your personal beliefs about death.
- Patience with the process.
- Ability to be of support to your loved ones who may be struggling with their own feelings.
- A sense of humor about all aspects of life, including death.
- Knowledgeable about the stages that precede passing.
- Nurturing touch.
I have also lost loved ones, including my husband, both parents and friends over the past few decades. Each experience has helped me to hone my skills and forced me to come face to face with the inevitability of death. My spiritual beliefs and training as both a social worker and ordained interfaith minister inform my view and make me sensitive to the needs of others who are grieving their losses, both in anticipation and in the aftermath.
I have been at the bedside of my husband, father and nursing home residents at the time of death and with a few others shortly prior. Each time was different and each one had a flavor as unique as the person experiencing it. As therapists, if we allow ourselves to be fully human and ride the waves of emotion that honors the preciousness of our own relationships and those we have with the population we serve, we will be more fully present to the reality that everyone is ‘on loan to us’.
Singer-songwriter Charley Thweatt offers a song called You Will Die Someday, with the moving line, “Take your time when you’re being with people. What’s another minute to you?” and “What matters is how we live.”
Those who hold vigil with people who are about to make their exit are offering sacred service equally as important as those who are present at the moment of our initial inhale.
An extensive list of resources is available for therapists and clients to assist in moving through what is both a profoundly beautiful and poignantly painful human experience with as much grace as possible.