If you would have asked me or many of the women I work and study with that question a few years ago, most of us would have been stumped. However, since then, we’ve all taken the plunge into this previously obscure line of death work.
I heard my death doula call in 2017, soon after I decided to leave mortuary school. Thankfully, before I quit the program’s classwork, I had the opportunity to interview a local death midwife about her work. Her desire to educate the public about death and death planning inspired me to look into the field.
After a year or so of research, I was gifted entrance into Quality of Life Care’s online death doula mentoring certificate program from my parents. Since starting the program, I created Gather the Leaves LLC, an end-of-life care business that serves pets and people.
I also had the opportunity to interview two women who practice in the alternative end-of-life field. Read on to discover what we do.
When Deanna Cochran’s mom was diagnosed with gastrointestinal cancer, she was distraught for two reasons: Cochran was upset because her mother was very ill; and as a hospice nurse, Cochran had insider knowledge about the disease.
Cochran knew that the people who came into her care over the years experienced a lot of suffering before receiving hospice care. “This fear was in me with my mom,” Cochran says.
“I thought, ‘holy cow… I know what people deal with before they get to hospice; [and] my mom doesn’t want to be on hospice.’”
Cochran knew her mother was going to die, that her mother did not want to die, but that death was inevitable. So, Cochran implemented a unique care program.
Cochran did everything she could to keep her mother out of the hospital. Cochran helped implement a palliative care program (specialized medical care for people with a serious illness) for her mother. “There was no medical system set up for [palliative care] where she was, but we did it on [our own] with friends, family, and my mom’s physician,” Cochran explains.
Cochran’s mom ended up dying within five weeks of receiving her diagnosis. When she died, Cochran realized that she and the team she helped form had “midwifed” her mother the way birth midwives help expectant and new mothers.
In the past, Cochran had received exquisite care from birth midwives during the birth of her second child. The midwives, with the help of a good doctor, helped Cochran heal from the trauma she experienced during her first child’s birth.
“When my mom died, all of that flooded back because it was so traumatic,” Cochran says.
“[And] I [saw] first hand how traumatic advanced illness and dying is for people in the medical system. [So, I thought I could] be like these birth midwives, and provide healing from some of that trauma.”
Cara Schuster didn’t know anything about death doulas, death midwifery, or green burial until a few years ago. “I was going through a personal journey and doing some shamanic work [and] my practitioner had told me to do a week-long journey,” Schuster says.
“During that journey, I came across death midwifery.”
Prior to learning about alternative death work, Schuster didn’t have a lot of personal experience with death besides losing grandparents, pets, and friends. “I don’t think I experienced anything more than your average person at the age of 40,” she says. “I did lose my father when I was a baby, so, I did have a very interesting concept of death from a young age.”
What death doulas do
Death doulas provide a wide range of services; all are non-medical. Some doulas only “sit vigil,” meaning they provide emotional support and a caring presence for the dying and the dying’s family. Other doulas enter a client’s home well before hospice is involved and provide practical help in the home. And some doulas are well-versed in helping people plan for their death; they prepare advance directives, wills, and more.
Since I only recently completed my coursework and started volunteering for hospice, I tend to provide practical services. However, as I gain more experience and sit bedside at more vigils, I will expand my services accordingly.
Currently, Schuster, who is a certified death midwife and doula, considers herself an end-of-life guide because she is not helping people transition. “It hasn’t been my experience thus far,” she says. However, Schuster knows her work is ever-evolving.
So far, Schuster has assisted two families with home funerals. Both of those families had different needs she helped met. “I was with one of the families for a week off and on and was present through the transition of the passing—I had known that person for 20 years,” she adds.
Cochran has practiced as a death doula since 2005, but has worked as a registered nurse in end-of-life care within and outside of hospice since 2000. She currently trains end-of-life doulas online and in-person at various workshops and conferences throughout the United States.
Many people tend to wonder how death care industry workers “do it,” and I get it.
Death, loss, and grief are incredibly tough things to deal with. However, most any death doula or end-of-life caregiver will tell you that their work has many redeeming qualities.
“The elation I have felt from helping these two families—there’s nothing that can compare to any of the work I’ve done,” Schuster says.
“It was incredibly fulfilling.”
Cochran adds that she continues to do this tough work after 18 years of service because it’s her gift to give to the dying. “I’ve tried to not be a hospice nurse and death doula more than once because maybe I had seen too many people die within a couple of days…” But she says that feeling never lasts.
“What I’ve realized in all this is that I have to care for me, because that thing inside of me that wants to help you doesn’t go away,” Cochran explains.
“I have so much to give. It’s a gift from God—I have nothing to do with it.”
And although I’ve yet to serve an actual client through the dying process, my studies and volunteer work through hospice compel me to agree with Schuster and Cochran’s sentiments.
This work isn’t easy—human emotions and death are often messy. But the support death doulas, midwives, and guides provide families can truly help many people find some peace and closure during an indescribably hard time. And that’s beautiful in its own way.
Talking about death is hard. And usually it’s really, really hard. Maybe it’s because—much like the process of dying itself—it requires us to be vulnerable, to be honest, to come to terms with a denial we engage with, to varying degrees, our whole lives.
“Death happens to everybody, yet somehow we’re surprised by it,” says hospice and palliative care specialist BJ Miller, MD. “I’m shocked at how many patients and family members have not only had to deal with the pain of sickness and loss, but on top of that they feel bad for feeling bad. They’re ashamed to be dying, ashamed to be sick. There’s a horrible unnecessary suffering that we heap on ourselves and each other for nothing.”
The more intimate we get with the idea of dying, the closer we come to folding it into the fabric of our daily lives, the better off we’ll all be, Miller says. Advice on how to die well is really no more than advice on how to live well, with that unavoidable reality in mind.
A Q&A with Dr. BJ Miller, MD
Q What is a good death?
It’s a deeply subjective question, and the best way I can answer objectively it is to say a good death is one that’s in keeping with who you are as a person; a good death is consonant with your life and your personality.
For example, most people say they want to die at home, that they want to be free from pain. That usually means not having a bunch of medical interventions happening at the end. Effort is put toward comfort instead. But I also know plenty of people who say, “No, no, no. I’m the kind of guy who wants to go down swinging,” or “I’m looking for a miracle,” or whatever it is. And for them, a good death may very well be in the ICU with all sorts of interventions happening, anything that’s going to give them a chance, because they see themselves as fighters and they want to go out fighting.
Q What’s the role of hope in dying?
Hope is a beautiful, powerful, and very useful force. It’s what gets most of us out of the bed in the morning. It’s not a question of whether or not you have hope; the question’s more: What do you hope for? The work is harnessing your hope for something that’s attainable or for something that serves you.
When I’m talking to a patient, and I ask them, “What do you hope for?” If they say, “Well, I hope to live forever,” we can label that a miracle pretty safely. I can say, “I’ll hope for that, too, but if we don’t get that, and if time is shorter than you want, then what do you hope for?” Because hope needs to be qualified. So they’ll say, “Ah, well, if I’m not going to be around much longer, well, then I really hope to make it to my grandson’s graduation in the summer,” or “I really hope to get through the World Series,” or whatever it is.
It’s tempting to say that hope is this thing that you either have or you don’t have. That when you don’t have it, then that’s like giving up or letting go. But it’s not. You can hope and understand you’re dying at the same time. It’s very possible when someone comes to terms with the fact that they’re dying soon, that they hope for a painless death, or they hope to die on a certain day. Those are realistic hopes; it’s a matter of channeling that big force.
Q In what ways is our health care system not equipped to handle dying well?
In the last hundred or so years, what’s become the norm for end-of-life care in the West is a very medicalized death. Hospitals and doctors have become arbiters of death; it used to be a much more mystical thing involving nature and family and culture. But of late, medicine in all of its power has co-opted the subject, and so most people look to their doctors and hospitals as places that forestall death.
We’re spending a lot of time—when it’s precious—in the hospital or at a doctor’s office. You spend a lot of time navigating medications. You’re spending a lot of time hanging on every word the doctor says. That’s a problem in that it’s not really what most of us want. But it goes that way because we’re afraid to confront the truth. We’re afraid to talk about it, so we all end up in a default mode. The default mode is in the hospital with a bunch of tubes and medicines and someone keeping your body alive at any cost. That has become the default death, and that’s not what most people would consider a good death.
Q How do you approach that conversation of getting someone to accept the reality of their sickness and also the uncertainty that might come with it?
It’s really hard, and it’s a really complicated dynamic. Most people don’t want to hear that they’re dying, so they don’t listen to their doctors, and most doctors don’t want to tell people that they’re dying.
Because people aren’t primed to hear it, and doctors aren’t primed to say it, what happens is there’s this little complicit dance between doctors and patients and family members. Everyone just kind of tries to scare one another off, so they don’t mention death and they instead lean on euphemisms. You’d be shocked at how many well-educated, thoughtful people come toward the end of their life and find themselves surprised that they’re dying.
A palliative care doctor starts the conversation by getting a sense of where the patient is. What’s their understanding of their illness? I typically invite a conversation with open-ended questions, like “Well, tell me about what’s important to you. Tell me about what you would let go of to live longer.” I get to know the person. When I feel safe with them and we’re speaking the same language, then I can broach the subject of time, and I can say, “Well, you know, because of X, Y, or Z diagnosis, whatever else it is, at some point this disease is not likely to be curable, and we’re going to have to turn our attention to the fact of death. Let’s prepare for it. Let’s plan for it.”
This is where death and life go together very helpfully: The way to prepare for death is to live the life you want. If you start talking to someone about how they want to die, you usually end up landing on how they want to live until they die. That’s a much less scary conversation. It’s a much more compelling conversation for people, too, and it’s more accurate.
Q What matters to most people at the very end?
There are consistent themes around this, which we know from both data and experience:
Comfort is important. Very few people are interested in suffering. Some people are, but most people want to be free from pain.
Most people want to be surrounded by friends and family. They want to be either at home or at a place they call home, a place of their choosing; some people are in the hospital for months, and that becomes their home. The people around them become their family.
Most people are spiritual and have some relationship to a creator, so most people want to be at peace with their god, to be at peace spiritually.
Most people also want to leave their family with as little burden as possible, so that means financial planning, etc. It’s very important to people that they not be a burden to their family unnecessarily.
Q Why do you think as a culture we find it so challenging to talk about death and dying?
You can kind of tell that America is a young place, in part by the way we handle aging and death. We’re terrified of it. Most cultures have been dealing with this a long, long time and have made peace with death as a part of life. Instead of falling back on institutional cultural ritualized knowledge, we’ve outsourced dying to medicine. We leave one another feeling like we’re incompetent at dying, when in fact, we have it in us. We’re just too far removed from it.
In the last 170 years or so, as a society—especially in the health care industry—we’ve been in a long romance with innovation and technology. We believe if you hang in long enough and you work hard enough, everything is solvable. That we can invent our way through anything. You hear people talk, and you realize somehow they’ve absorbed this idea that death is optional, when in fact, of course, it’s not. I notice in my practice when I’m dealing with someone who lives on a farm, someone who is close to nature and its cycles, that they know that death is a part of life. Inherently. They’re around it all day, every day, whether it’s slaughtering an animal or raking up leaves. They haven’t removed themselves from nature’s cycles, so death makes total sense to them. Those of us who are living more technologically driven lives often lose that intuition, that gut feel, and so nature surprises us. Nature scares us.
Part of the problem, too, is what one of my colleagues calls the “medical-industrial complex”: Health care is an enormous business in this country. As long as we decide to consider health care a business and not a civil right, it’s subject to all the fickleness of capitalism and it requires marketing. When I see hospitals advertised to the public as the place where miracles happen, a place where anything’s possible, you know, that’s an advertisement. That’s marketing. That’s not real. We’re not incentivized to be honest with one another in this way.
Q How can you stay in the world and retain a sense of purpose toward the end of life? How much does that matter?
This question of purpose is related to the question of being a burden, and both come up a lot. First, let’s all get better at being vulnerable because we are vulnerable. If you’re in the course of a normal life, any one of us is going to be a burden to someone sometime. It’s just not possible to only give care and not need to receive it. Getting more savvy with needing one another is one way to turn down the pain.
We can also learn to repurpose ourselves. I meet people often who have had a single kind of career or place within their family their whole lives. They’ve had this monolithic role, and as soon as they can no longer perform that role, they lose their sense of purpose. They have nowhere else to go, they have no other interests, they don’t believe they can repurpose themselves, and they lose touch with reality really quick. This is one of the ways we die before we actually die.
But you can find that purpose again, in a different way. I’m working with a family right now, and the mother, she’s about seventy years old, and she’s been a teacher much of her life. She’s been the one in the family who’s always giving care. Now it’s her turn to receive care, and she’s really struggling, and she’s not good at it. She’s gone seventy years without needing much from others, and it shows. In her mind, she’s lost her role as the caregiver. So what we’ve been doing of late is saying, “How can we repurpose your life as a teacher? What can you teach your grandchildren now?” We’re learning she can teach her grandchildren a lot about death. She can teach her grandchildren a lot about being vulnerable and the courage it takes to be vulnerable. She can teach her kids how to communicate with someone who’s suffering. These are enormous lessons, and all of a sudden, she doesn’t feel like she’s being stripped of everything important to her. She’s seeing that she still has some creative life in her and she can take old skills and reapply them in this new way.
Purpose is a powerful force, but there’s value in life beyond purpose. In America, life is all about productivity. You know you’re relevant in this society as long as you can produce, and as your ability to produce reigns, so does your employment and worth. Aging then becomes this process of getting out of the way, and that’s pretty lame. It’s on all of us to see that there’s something bigger to life than our jobs or our single role or whatever it is—life is much more interesting than that. We are much more interesting than that. Another way to help one another repurpose is to actually let go of the need to be so dang productive. Get in touch with the mystery of life and the power of just being at all. That, I find, is a very, very useful thing for people who feel purpose is slipping through their fingers.
Q What advice do you have for family members or loved ones who are helping with end-of-life care?
There are so many layers to this: There are practical burdens, emotional burdens, financial burdens. All need addressing.
Hospice is an incredible service that can dramatically unburden the family. When your health is failing and you need more help with the activities of daily living, family members can step in to do that, or perhaps it’s time to hire a home health aide. But very often what ends up happening is people wait too long to invite hospice into their homes, because they wait way too long to face this reality, and then it’s too late to do much. So one piece of advice I stress to everyone is to think about home health care and hospice early. Even if you think death is years away but are still dealing with a serious illness, call hospice sooner rather than later. Just request an informational interview. Get a sense of what they can do and broach the subject as part of your planning. You don’t have to sign up anytime soon.
The other big emotional piece is to fold death into our view of reality so that we don’t feel guilty that Mom’s dying. It’s always amazing to me how many creative ways we find to feel horrible. I watch family members blame themselves for the death of a loved one all the time, even though there’s nothing that could be done to forestall it. We view death as a failure, and families end up absorbing that sense of failure. It’s heartbreaking. And if there’s one thing we can’t fail at, it’s death. You are going to die. There is no failing.
We all need to get a lot more savvy with grief. Grief is around us all the time. We’re always losing something. A relationship, hair, body parts. Loss is all over the place, and our American way is to kind of pull yourself up by the bootstraps. There’s something to that, but we’ve got to get better at just letting ourselves feel sad. We have to give one another more space for grieving. Grief is just the other side of the coin of love. If you didn’t love someone, it wouldn’t be so hard to lose them. Acknowledge that. Work with it. Let yourself feel it. That will help everybody involved.
We also need to push our human resources programs to help with caregiver education for family members or generous bereavement time off. That’s a big piece of this puzzle if we as a society are going to die better.
Q You’ve spoken before about your own brush with death and becoming a triple amputee. How does that experience inform your work?
Most of us have a kind of a haphazard view of reality that may not include illness or death. Illness and death can end up feeling like this foreign invader, despite the reality that they’re natural processes. My own trauma and illness gave me a wider view of the world that includes that reality, so that I wasn’t ashamed to be disabled. I was normal to be disabled. It helped me understand I was a human being for whom things go wrong. A human being for whom the body dies. That is the most normal thing in the world.
It helped me see myself in my patients and my patients in me. It’s easier for me to empathize with people who are sick and near the end because I’ve been there myself to some degree. But you don’t need to lose three limbs to relate; suffering and illness and death are hard subjects, but at the most basic level, they unite us. We all have some relationship them, and therefore we all have a lot in common.
I’m also aware that because I’m obviously disabled, I think patients, as a rule, give me some credit. I feel like I have an easier time getting to a trusting place with patients. If you take one look at my body, you know I’ve been in the bed, and I do think that is actually a great advantage for me in the work I do.
Q Have you ever felt as though you’ve failed a patient?
To be clear, most days I spend a fair amount of time talking myself out of hating myself, you know, just like most people. I’m deeply, deeply aware of all the things I can’t do or didn’t do today, or that patient I didn’t call in time before they died, or you name it. There is a long daily list of things I have to spend a moment reconciling. Usually it relates to some form of communication: I didn’t quite find a way to break through; I didn’t quite find a way to help them feel safe; I didn’t quite find a way for them to feel seen or understood my me.
Q How can spirituality help someone come to terms with death?
It depends how you define spirituality, but I might define it as a connecting force that we cannot see but have faith is there. That somehow, we’re tied into some creative force that is much larger than ourselves and that is all-encompassing and all-inclusive. If you have a spiritual framework, it’s easier for you to yield to death because you know even in your death you’re still part of something beautiful or enormous. That sense of belonging can do so much for us.
When I found myself near death, and thinking about these things and revisiting my spirituality, it became clear to me that I would be very sad to die. I don’t want to die yet. But what matters even more to me than my life or death is the fact that I exist at all, that life exists at all, and I get to feel part of that, and my death is part of that.
Q Can art play a role as well?
So much of life and death is so powerful and so huge. There’s just so much more to the world and life than what we can find in a word, so the arts can help us kind of get in touch with these larger threads, these larger forces, these things we can’t quite see or feel, a little bit like spirituality.
Expressing yourself artistically can be therapeutic, too. For people going through illness or the dying process, if they’re able to get in touch with their creative impulse and make something from their experiences, that’s an amazing way for them to participate in their life and in their illness. To turn their suffering into grist…something to paint with, essentially. It’s just very rich and fertile ground.
With architecture and design, the way we cultivate our built environment has such power in terms of how we experience life. Standing in a beautiful museum can make you feel things you wouldn’t otherwise and can help you pay attention to things that are really difficult. I would love to see the arts get more involved with the heath care infrastructure so that hospitals and nursing homes are places where you’d actually want to be, places that are beautiful or stimulating. The arts provoke the life in you, and that’s very powerful when the goal is to really live until you die.
Q How do you recommend preparing for death?
Explore a hospice and palliative care program as early as possible. Ask your doctor about it. Research local hospice agencies. There’s a website called getpalliativecare.org, where you enter your zip code and it’ll show you your options. Of course, some programs are better than others, but as a rule, these services are designed to help you suffer less, help you find meaning in your life, and help you live a full life.
Even when you’re feeling exhausted and you just want to hand yourself over to a doctor, you need to find a way to advocate for yourself. Otherwise you’re going to end up in the default mode in the health care system, and that’s going to mean ICU and machines and all sorts of things that you may not want. Your doctor is there to help you, and you need to work with them. But push your doctor: Ask them about palliative care, and if they say, “Oh, you don’t need palliative care,” ask why not. Or if you think you want to prepare with hospice, ask your doctor about hospice. What do they think about hospice? Is now a good time to start it? If they say you don’t need hospice, ask, “Why not? When would I?” Between the medical system and the training that goes into it, understand you need to advocate upstream. You’re pushing a rock up the hill.
Anywhere along the way, start saving money, period. The number one cause of personal bankruptcy in this country is health care costs, and the bulk of those people who go bankrupt because of heath care costs had health insurance. I don’t think people realize even if you have insurance, there are costs that are going to come up that you would never imagine, so if you have any capacity, just start saving. You’re going to need money toward the end of life. You’re going to need money to navigate illness.
Whether it’s in yourself or with someone you care about, reward vulnerability. Be vulnerable. Go toward it. Be with people and yourself when you’re suffering. It takes courage to be vulnerable, to get help and to give help. When it comes to your time, it’s important that you’ve learned how to receive care.
Then there’s the biggest one: Dying ain’t easy, but it’s going to happen, and there’s a lot of beauty in it. The fact that we die is exactly what makes life precious in the first place. You don’t have to love death, but try to have some relationship with it. Think about it. Contemplate it. As soon as you start doing that, the sooner you start making decisions you can live with, and you’ll avoid stockpiling a bunch of regrets. People who don’t think about death just end up assuming they’re going to live forever, until it’s too late to live that life they wanted to lead.
BJ Miller, MD is a hospice and palliative care specialist who sees patients in the Cancer Symptom Management Service of the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. After studying art history as an undergraduate at Princeton University, he worked for several years for art and disability-rights nonprofit organizations before earning a medical degree at UCSF. He completed an internal medicine residency at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, where he was chief resident, and a fellowship in hospice and palliative medicine at Harvard Medical School, working at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. His forthcoming book with coauthor Shoshana Berger, a practical and emotional guide to dying called The Beginner’s Guide to the End, is due out from Simon & Schuster in 2019.
Death for patients in U.S. intensive care units may look a lot different for people with limited English proficiency than for native speakers, a large study suggests.
About 8.5 percent of U.S. adults don’t speak English as their primary language, researchers note in Mayo Clinic Proceedings. While communication is crucial for decision-making at the end of life, it’s not been clear how language skills might influence the type of care dying patients receive.
For the current study, researchers examined data on 27,523 patients admitted to intensive care units (ICUs) in a large academic hospital over a three-year period. The total included 779 people, or about 3 percent, with limited English proficiency.
Death rates in the ICUs were the same no matter what language patients spoke most fluently, averaging 2.8 percent for both native speakers and those with limited English proficiency.
But among patients who died in the ICU, those with limited English proficiency were 62 percent less likely to have orders for comfort care before they died, and they took an average of 19 days longer to transition from active treatment to only measures designed to ease pain and suffering. Non-English speakers were also 26 percent more likely to be placed on breathing machines and 36 percent more likely to be put in restraints.
Patients with limited English proficiency were 38 percent less likely than native speakers to formally request what’s known as a do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order when they entered the ICU. A DNR tells hospital staff not to take measures to revive them if their heart stops working.
Non-English speakers were also 77 percent less likely to have an “advance directive,” a legal document that spells out what type of care patients want and who should make decisions on their behalf when they’re no longer able to communicate.
“This study shows that the end of life care that patients with limited English proficiency receive is different than for those who do not have language barrier,” said lead author Dr. Amelia Barwise of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
“This may be because more patients with limited English proficiency have an authentic desire to die with more aggressive medical therapies or that communication or other barriers prevent health care teams from optimally assessing and implementing a less aggressive approach for dying patients with limited English proficiency,” Barwise said by email.
The differences persisted even after the study team accounted for other factors that can independently impact care at the end of life like race, religion and age.
The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove how language abilities might directly impact care at the end of life. Another limitation is that it looked at a single hospital and might not reflect what happens elsewhere.
Even so, the findings resonate with other research suggesting that limited English skills can influence how patients are treated, said Dr. Gary Winzelberg, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who wasn’t involved in the study.
“Patients with limited English proficiency are less likely to have advance directives because these documents were not designed for patients with low health literacy or patients from diverse cultural backgrounds,” Winzelberg said by email.
Interpreters can help.
“Families should insist on having an interpreter present during family meetings and other communication during which patients’ condition and care options are discussed,” Winzelberg added. “If an interpreter cannot be physically present, there are alternatives including connecting to an interpreter by phone – families should not be asked to serve as interpreters.”
My hospice patients were dying, but they still longed for fresh air and birdsong.
By Rachel Clarke
A furrowed brow and flailing arms were all we had to go on. The grimacing, the way the patient flung his head from side to side — all of it signified an unvoiced anguish. We tried talking, listening, morphine. His agitation only grew.
All cancers have the power to ravage a body, but each assails in distinctive ways. One of the particular cruelties of a cancer of the tongue is its capacity to deprive a person of speech.
Some of us thought he must be suffering from terminal agitation, a state of heightened anxiety that sometimes develops as the end of life draws near. But the junior doctor on the team, Nicholas, was convinced that we could unlock the source of our patient’s distress and volunteered to stay behind in the room.
Nicholas reappeared about an hour later. “You can understand his speech,” he announced. “You just have to really listen.”
When I re-entered the room, the reclining chair that the patient — a tall, angular man in his 80s — had been thrashing around in had been turned to face out onto the garden and the double doors were open wide. Now he sat calmly, transfixed by the trees and sky. All he had wanted was that view.
For a decade, I have worked as a doctor in Britain’s National Health Service. We are an overstretched, underfunded health service in which too few doctors and nurses labor with too few resources, struggling to deliver good care. Burnout among staff is endemic, so much so that it threatens to stifle the kindness and compassion that should be the bedrock of medicine.
But then there are the moments when helping someone is easy: Just nature is enough.
Before I specialized in palliative care, I thought the sheer vitality of nature might be an affront to patients so close to the end of life — a kind of impudent abundance. And yet, in the hospice where I work, I am often struck by the intense solace some patients find in the natural world.
I met Diane Finch, a patient, in May, on the day her oncologist broke the devastating news that further palliative chemotherapy was no longer an option. She was 51. From that point on, her terminal breast cancer would run its natural course, medicine powerless to arrest it.
“My first thought, my urge, was to get up and find an open space,” she told me on that first meeting. “I needed to breathe fresh air, to hear natural noises away from the hospital and its treatment rooms.”
At first she fought to preserve herself digitally, documenting every thought and feeling on her computer before they, and she, were lost forever. But one day, as she was typing frantically, she heard a bird singing through her open window.
“When you come to the end of your life, you get the sense that you don’t want to lose yourself, you want to be able to pass something on,” she told me later. “When I had whole brain radiotherapy, I felt as though something had dropped out, as if everything I said needed to be saved. It was all running away from me.
“Somehow, when I listened to the song of a blackbird in the garden, I found it incredibly calming. It seemed to allay that fear that everything was going to disappear, to be lost forever, because I thought, ‘Well, there will be other blackbirds. Their songs will be pretty similar and it will all be fine.’ And in the same way, there were other people before me with my diagnosis. Other people will have died in the same way I will die. And it’s natural. It’s a natural progression. Cancer is part of nature too, and that is something I have to accept, and learn to live and die with.”
Ms. Finch recorded a song based on the peace she felt listening to the bird song, and it was enough to bring her some relief from what — up to that point — had been almost feverish efforts at self-preservation.
Another patient, whom I admitted in July with about a week to live, was mostly concerned that I keep the windows open, so that he could “keep on feeling the breeze on my face and listening to that blackbird outside.” I rushed to make sure of it.
Shortly before his death from pancreatic cancer at 59, in the 1990s, the British playwright Dennis Potter described the exaltation of looking out at a blossom that had become the “whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be” from his window.
“Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous,” he told an interviewer.
People often imagine hospices to be dark and dismal places where there is nothing left to experience but dying. But what dominates my work is not proximity to death but the best bits of living. Nowness is everywhere. Nature provides it.
I provide care for however long they have left, so they do not have to take their final steps alone
By Alexis Fleming
The last day we had with Osha the bullmastiff was hard, although perfect for her. We took her for her favourite walk, gave her a meal of her favourite food (pasta) and then lay in the garden in the sun with her, feeding her fruit chews, which she loved. Then the vet came and sedated her and put her to sleep. I was so sad , but I knew it was the right time to say goodbye.
I had heard about Osha through the charity I run, Pounds For Poundies, which tries to stop abandoned dogs from being put down in pounds. When I learned Osha had been dumped in the pound with terminal cancer, I had to take her in. This was October 2015, the same time my dog Maggie died suddenly in a veterinary hospital, which left me devastated. Maggie and Osha inspired me to set up the Maggie Fleming animal hospice, offering end-of-life care for animals, in Dumfries in March 2016. At the hospice, I provide them with a home, friendship, love, comfort and tailored vet care for however long they have left, so they do not have to take their final steps alone. The hospice is funded by charitable donations and I run it with help from my partner Adam, friends, family and volunteers.
Osha’s favourite things were food and sleep, so she spent her last nine months being spoiled with breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in bed. She loved to steal eggs from our rescued chickens; I would leave one on the doorstep so that when she went out for her late-night wees she would think she had found treasure.
The vet who put Osha to sleep helped me realise it was the right thing to do. She told me that she sees similar situations almost weekly, when owners are so desperate not to make that heartbreaking decision that they leave it too late and the animals die in pain. The point of the hospice is to avoid that scenario.
I look after a maximum of three animals at one time, so that I can provide the best care possible. It is very time-intensive. Some of the animals I have helped have lived all their lives in kennels, never been hugged or kissed and don’t know what to do when I cuddle them, although they are clearly desperate for affection. My day is busy in some ways – looking after the animals’ practical needs, feeding them and giving them medication or other required care – but it is peaceful in others. Old and sick animals need love and attention, so I spend a lot of time sitting with them, reading to them and cuddling them.
I also care for more than 80 animals at my sanctuary for farmed animals and rescue hens. Many have been worked to death, and they come here rather than the slaughterhouse.There is something so sad about animals that have never known life outside a pen or a cage.
We take animals from all over, but I cannot provide end-of-life care for all that need it, so I offer support to their owners instead. They can phone me 24/7 for advice. Often just talking to someone who understands their sorrow can help people through what can be one of the hardest decisions they ever have to make. Most importantly, it helps families to stay together until the end, which is the best outcome for everyone, especially the animal, which wants to be with the people it knows and loves. Knowing you have done right by your pet, giving back that love and loyalty as you see it safely to the end, is a huge responsibility and privilege.
I have just started an end-of-life care plan for Bran, another abandoned dog, as he is starting to slow down. He was abandoned on the street with a tumour on his spleen when he was about 17 years old. He was given six weeks to live when he came here; that was almost two and a half years ago. But his latest blood results show he is starting to slip into liver and kidney dysfunction. I sit with him for a couple of hours each day, washing his face with a warm cloth, which he loves, and giving him a massage to ease his muscles. I have promised him that when he tells me it is time to go I will listen. I will be there on his last day with all his favourite things and hold him as he slips away peacefully, knowing someone loved him to the last.
Dan Kuester and Kirsten Farnsworth had only been married for two months when Kirsten was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Between aggressive treatments over the course of the next five years, Kirsten and Dan built a life together: they finished graduate school programs, traveled, and adopted a rescue dog they named Sputnik.
But the cancer came back in the summer of 2017, and the couple knew it was time to accept facts: At 32, Kirsten was going to enter the last phase of her life.
They decided to hire an end-of-life doula — a death doula or death midwife — to help them through the process.
“I’ll admit neither of us was incredibly familiar with the idea of an end-of-life doula,” Kuester says. “We didn’t have any kids so we had no familiarity with doulas as far as midwives go.”
The term doula is often associated with birth, a Greek term that loosely translates to a woman helping another woman. Birth doulas are trained professionals who provide mothers with emotional, physical and informational support before, during and just after birth.
Death doulas do the same, just at the end of life instead of the beginning.
Across the country, programs are cropping up that teach people how to become end-of-life doulas, holistic caregivers who support those in the process of dying (and their loved ones) with a variety of services, from practical tasks like creating a plan for the final days of a client’s life, to the psychological work of internal and external forgiveness and acceptance. This is not hospice care, but something supplemental; while hospice care keeps patients comfortable with medication, provides relief through treatments and assesses ethical medical issues with the family, death doulas are more like traveling companions, there to walk with clients and families toward something wholly unknown.
An end-of-life doula can help with cleaning or cooking, run errands or just be physically present for a client to talk to about things loved ones just aren’t ready to hear — like the reality that the end is coming.
Boulder is home to one such end-of-life doula program. Tarron Estes founded the Conscious Dying Institute after a career working as a transformational learning consultant in health care systems showed her what it looks like to die in the United States.
“When I realized [health care systems] really weren’t talking about [death], I had a very strong vision: You will change the way people are cared for in senior communities,” Estes says. “It made sense to me that if I wanted to change how death is happening in America I would do what I do best, which is work with individuals and help them experience personal transformation that also gives them a career in end-of-life care and healing.”
Through the Conscious Dying Institute, students can complete several end-of-life education programs, including a two-phase, eight-day onsite Sacred Passage Doula Certificate Program.
Nicole Matarazzo was one such student. She went on to become a doula for Kirsten Farnsworth in her last months.
Matarazzo had spent most of her professional life working directly with death; after college as a child life specialist in pediatrics working with children who were born HIV positive, then with patients receiving bone marrow transplants.
She went on to teach kindergarten and become a massage therapist, then eventually, after having children, went to work in health care at elementary schools in Boulder, where she says her role was as much about providing emotional support to kids as it was about caring for illness and injury.
About four years ago, a friend of Matarazzo’s was diagnosed with cancer for the second time, and she asked Matarazzo to care for her in her remaining days.
For a year, Matarazzo walked through the last phase of her friend’s life with her. Without question, it was emotionally the hardest work Matarazzo had ever done.
“A few hours after we had called hospice to come and be with us, [a hospice worker] asked me, ‘Where did you get your training?’” Matarazzo says. “It prompted me to wonder: ‘Why did you ask me that? How are people dying in this town?’”
The answer from the hospice worker: “Often alone and scared.”
“I heard that as a message loud and clear,” Matarazzo says. “I knew at some point I would figure out how I was going to be a player in that arena, so that there are less people dying afraid and alone.”
Trends in American lifestyles have raised the risk of dying alone: the divorce rate for 55- to 64-year-olds doubled from 1990 to 2015, according to the National Center for Family & Marriage Research, and once divorced, people are remarrying less often. One study found that nearly 7 percent of U.S. adults 55 and older had no spouse or biological children, and that number is predicted to surge over the next 50 years.
Perhaps, then, it’s no coincidence the death doula movement is flourishing.
“I think it’s been slowly beginning, quietly, kind of a grassroots movement,” says Jeri Glatter, vice president of the nonprofit International End of Life Doula Association (INELDA) based in New York City.
“I think a big part of [the rise of the deal doula movement] is the people who said in the ’80s that they did not want to give birth a certain way — that they didn’t want to be put in a white hospital and have a white male say, ‘You’ll go to sleep, and you’ll wake up, and I’ll hand you a baby’ — I think those same people are turning 70 and 80 now, and there’s an awareness that they don’t want to die the same way; they don’t want to be disconnected from what’s happening.”
Glatter, like Matarazzo, came to her work after caring for a loved one at the end of their life. The experience, somewhat counter-intuitively, filled Glatter with a “sense of joy and enlightenment.” A friend said she should consider becoming a death doula.
“I Googled the term, as per my friend’s direction, and I found the Open Center in New York City,” Glatter says. “It was the only thing listed; one Google response to ‘death doula’ [at that time].”
At the Open Center’s Art of Dying Institute program, Glatter met Henry Fersko-Weiss, a clinical social worker who created the first end-of-life doula program in the U.S. at a hospice center in New York City in 2003. Fersko-Weiss had studied the work of birth doulas, not because he was interested in becoming one, but because he saw the parallels between supporting people at the beginning of life and supporting them at the end of life. After more than a decade of moving from hospital to hospital teaching his volunteer-based end-of-life doula program, Fersko-Weiss dedicated himself fully to the cause and opened INELDA in 2015.
“Our training and our model of care has always been based in this volunteer, being-of-service format,” Glatter says.
While INELDA teaches courses on business development for those who want to professionally practice end-of-life doula work, Glatter says these courses always focus first on providing ways to make care accessible to those who need it, through sliding scale fees, pro bono work and other forms of payment that may be available to people, like trading services.
“We focus first on what brought [a student] to this work and the meaning behind the work, [their] intentions with this work,” Glatter says. “The term ‘calling’ is probably the most common term we hear from people who take training and business development courses through INELDA. We try to keep that in the forefront of the conversation. After that there is the understanding that if you are approving a service and someone is in a position and wants that support through a higher practitioner, there’s nothing wrong with being paid for that.”
In early 2017, Fersko-Weiss told USA Today that trained and certified non-volunteer end-of-life doulas typically cost between $40 and $100 per hour, with flat rates often applied during a patient’s final days so that round-the-clock care can be provided. End-stage doula services, he said, range from $1,200 to $4,000.
Glatters says that she, Fersko-Weiss and INELDA president Janie Rakow have never charged for their work.
Some doula training organizations are focused solely on training volunteers, like the nonprofit Doula Program to Accompany and Comfort in New York, which has been operating since 2001. Each year the program accepts between 13 and 15 volunteers from an application pool of 300 or so. These volunteers go into hospitals and meet with patients at least once a week through their dying phase.
To executive director Amy Levine, end-of-life doula work is about “lending our humanity.”
“We can do this for each other as human beings,” she says. “Even just 15 minutes together every week. It changes both lives.”
Nicole Matarazzo says determining appropriate payment for her services is an ongoing learning process, and she works to provide as much pro bono work as she can.
“My biggest challenge as a death doula is the exchange of money because this work to me is so sacred,” she says. “Having the conversation around what I do makes me nervous because there’s integrity and accountability around what I do.”
Becoming a certified doula can be pricey as well. The End of Life Doula Certificate offered at the Conscious Dying Institute costs $2,995 and provides nurses with 66 Continuing Education for Nurses (CNE) credits. At INELDA, it costs $750 to attend a two-day training, $100 for a current membership in INELDA, $35 to request a certification packet, and a $75 application fee, bringing the total to $960.
Currently there is no regulatory body that standardizes practices around end-of-life doula work, but most programs offer similar courses structured around providing emotional and spiritual support, assisting with unfinished business, creating visualizations, deciding how the space will look and feel at the time of death, designing rituals, developing a vigil plan and any other nonmedical gaps in care. There’s no regulatory agency for birth doulas, and most end-of-life doulas feel such an agency might limit access.
“As soon as hospice became a Medicare benefit it got whittled down year after year until it became so hard for people to get what they need,” says Tarron Estes of Boulder’s Conscious Dying Institute. “What I hope is that my work goes more and more into health care systems so that people who are on the front line can have this kind of training, so that they are supported to be who they are and they can stand for wonderful, beautiful deaths. I want CNAs to have end-of-life certifications. I want systems like Kaiser to work with me to figure out how to do a training for their employees so … more of this work can get in the minds, bodies and hearts of people that are called to do this work.”
The interest in improving end-of-life care is even beginning to infiltrate medical schools, where students are required to attend a birth, but not a death. Atul Gawande, a surgeon in Massachusetts, is leading the charge to improve education about end-of-life care at Massachusetts’ four medical schools: Harvard University, Boston University, Tufts University and the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
One thing seems certain: the need is there.
When Kirsten Farnsworth passed on May 30 of this year, her husband Dan Kuester helped his mother-in-law wash Kirsten’s body with essential oils, an ancient ritual that Nicole Matarazzo, as their doula, suggested. Kuester said that of all the planning Matarazzo helped with — visualizations, planning for the vigil and emotional support — washing the body gave him the most peace, the closest thing he can describe as “closure” on an experience that never truly ends.
“Nicole, I think partly by virtue of the fact she could come in and not be responsible for Kirsten’s physical health, it made it easier to trust her in an advisory role,” Kuester says. “She also brought a mindful and compassionate and extremely calming presence. I think both Kirsten and I felt much calmer on days when we would have meetings with Nicole, being able to plainly state what it’s like, some of these things that were in front of us that we weren’t completely sure of how it was going to go. She did a great job of showing us how it was, how these experiences were going to go and what options we have to impact the ways the experience goes.”
Death, reminds Tarron Estes, is not a medical event.
“It’s just sad because we don’t know how to be with death anymore,” she says. “Thank God we’re all beginning to think about how to do this better because none of us, myself included, people who have had the benefit of transformational work and sustainable energy and sustainable lifestyles and all the bells and whistles that a Boulder person and people who are conscious have had all their life, even most of us don’t think about it and don’t know what else there is to do. Believe me though, we’re going to be wanting to know about it.”