Helping people through the dying process
By Claire Fordham
Olivia Bareham wants to change people’s perception about death. “I want to break the taboo where we are excited about birth but dread death,” the death midwife said. “What if they were both explosive, incredible events?”
Part of a death midwife’s job is to sit with the dying at the end of their life. “To be able to bear witness to their dying process,” said Bareham. “The midwife is also looking beyond the last breath. We hold the space, not just for dying but for the funeral, burial or cremation rituals and even beyond that, to help the family and friends grieve.”
It’s hard to accept a terminal diagnosis.
“Some people can’t believe they are dying,” Bareham said. “It is unbelievable. It’s unbelievable that we’re even here. Once you play with the idea of the unbelievable-ness of everything, it’s not so unbelievable that you’re dying.”
Bareham believes a funeral or celebration of life service and properly grieving are important parts of the process.
“It’s declaring that the lost loved one counted and mattered and meant something to those left behind,” she said. “If you miss that, it’s sad, but perhaps it’s even more sad for the family and friends who have lost an opportunity to lean into their own mortality.”
Bareham has this advice for the living and dying: “Build a relationship with death. Befriend death. Be open to every little nuance of what it means to be alive — which includes pain, sorrow and loss — so you’re not thrown off by a catastrophe. Write your healthcare directive and death care directive because you never know when the end will come. And make peace with anyone with whom you have had conflict.”
All passings are different and not everyone gets a terminal diagnosis where they have time to plan their final moments. Having helped more than 200 people in and around Malibu as they die, or arranged their home funeral, Bareham has an idea how she’d like her own death to be.
“Some people want to be left alone at the moment of death. I wouldn’t mind having people in the room with me, but I wouldn’t want them touching me and close to the bed. Having a dear friend who totally gets me sitting vigil and holding the space is an anchoring that makes the dying feel safe.”
Just as there’s a popular movement toward natural childbirth, Bareham prefers the idea of a natural death. She isn’t saying don’t ever take morphine to help ease any pain, but suggests not taking so much that you aren’t aware of what’s going on. She may not want someone holding her hand or stroking her head at the end, “or telling me it’s OK to go,” she said, but is happy to do that for others, if that’s what they want.
For Bareham, a good death would be where she is aware of what is happening, where she is prepared and feels a sense of completion and fulfillment of the life lived — “so my dying is just another breath. I am ready and excited for what’s next.”
Bareham advises against waiting until you know you’re dying to forgive people who have hurt you or ask forgiveness of those you might have hurt. “It happens so quickly, and then you’re lost and scrambling. Try to stay in a state of consciousness that if death came, if a massive earthquake hit right now, you’d have a level of excitement,” she said.
People from all walks of life complete Bareham’s death midwifery course. “More young people in their 20s are doing it because they feel something is missing in our culture regarding death,” she described. “Some have been volunteering at a hospice, or are social workers. Others are intrigued with the idea that after the last breath, you can keep the body at home for three days and arrange a home funeral. Or they’ve had a horrible experience of death and are looking for healing.”
Bareham, who is fighting fit and looking forward to a long life, doesn’t find her career depressing.
“Death is just another chapter in life’s journey,” she said
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