A nurse reveals how she became a ‘death doula’ and volunteers to help people ‘let go’ at the end of their life
Rebecca Green was devastated when she lost both of her parents before she turned 16, but she’s never been afraid of death
As told to
REBECCA Green, 46, is a nurse and lives in Edinburgh. She says:
As I sat on the sofa, tension filled the air.
‘What if the ambulance doesn’t get here in time?’ a man in his 70s asked me anxiously.
He was suffering from a chronic lung illness, which meant that if his condition took a turn for the worse, he’d need immediate resuscitation or he would die.
He had always been told by family and medics to keep fighting death, but I asked if he’d ever considered letting go instead.
Instantly, all traces of his fear disappeared.
He admitted he didn’t want to die, but had never thought of simply giving in when the time came.
As an end of life doula – or death doula – my job is to support people in facing their fears and coming to terms with their own passing.
As odd as it sounds, people tend to want ‘permission’ to die without upsetting their family, and as I’m a stranger, they feel more able to tell me when they’re ready.
Often chatting to them over a cup of tea at home, I encourage my clients to express how they feel, share memories and see the beauty of their lives.
If they want to die at home, I help organise it with family support and act as a link between their loved ones and the NHS.
I’ve never been afraid of death, despite losing both parents as a child.
Mum died of cancer when I was 11 and my dad died of a heart attack four years later. After that, I went to live with my aunt.
I remember being very angry – how could people carry on when my world had ended?
I wasn’t offered counselling, and while my school was sympathetic, no one wanted to talk about it.
At 20, I realised I loved being around people and didn’t want a typical nine-to-five job, so I trained as a nurse and started working in intensive care, A&E and later hospices, becoming familiar with the fragility of life.
But it wasn’t until 2010 that I became a death doula.
I mentioned to a friend that I’d love to take care of people through the dying process, and she told me she’d heard that people did that as a job.
While there are training courses, I decided to draw from 20 years’ nursing experience and my understanding of what to expect from patients living with a terminal illness.
I first started doing it through word of mouth, helping a friend of a friend, but soon began working with a local charity Pilmeny Development Project, which put people in touch with me. I’ve even had people contact me on Twitter.
Although it can be a paid job, I do it voluntarily, and it ranges from once a week to once a month.
Mostly it involves simply talking to someone, but I might run the odd errand, such as popping out for a packet of biscuits.
I try not to get emotionally attached – if my feelings are involved, I’d be doing clients a disservice. But of course, I’ve been incredibly saddened by their stories.
One man in his 50s was devastated he wouldn’t live to see his sons grow up.
As he spoke, I burst into tears and we were both crying together.
I’ve helped 12 clients in total, but I’ve never been with one when they died – usually I don’t find out until the family informs me.
It can be hard to balance the job with a social life, as whenever a client needs me, I’m happy to help – unless I’m nursing, which I still do full-time – so I’ve cancelled many nights out.
Sometimes it’s hard to switch off, so I make sure I unwind by going to the gym, painting or walking my dog Baloo.
Some partners have found it scary, but most were supportive.
Being a death doula has made me realise we take the time that we have for granted.
It’s about making the most of the simple things and doing what we love.
Life is so precious – don’t waste it.
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