By Anne-Marie Keppel, Certified Life-Cycle Celebrant®, Death Doula- Vermont USA
The death doula calls I receive on a regular basis are not for the faint of heart. Without a consistent self-care and meditation regime I would feel a constant heartache. I am approached in grocery stores, I receive emails, social media messages, phone calls- all from those who are in need of help regarding death or dying- their own or others.
I do not receive calls only from kind adult children who are caring for their elderly parents; those are the lovely calls. In these cases the adult children have noticed some kind of “turn”- a noticeable decline in health or mobility- and are seeking guidance in terms of paperwork or physical care. As a celebrant, I’m able to explore the life story of the individual who is aging or dying and use that to help create a care plan that best suits their wishes and needs.
One might think that those advance planning calls would be the most common call but in actuality, more often than not the calls come from those who are at a loss and in a near (or total) state of panic.
To receive the information that is being offered, I must still my own mind completely and listen with my “rational brain” but also my heart. I listen carefully to tales of sudden accidents, partners whose significant other has taken their life, parents whose children have taken their own lives, or, stories of deaths that have happened out of the state and the family has no clue what to do. My job is to listen very carefully to create a timeline of “what happened” but also of “what to do next.”
I am not a funeral director (though I am in school to receive a funeral director certificate) and therefore the assistance I can offer in these circumstances is limited both legally and physically. What I can offer is a ceremony– In invitation to go closer to the pain instead of leaning away from it.
Gently, slowly, I can ask things like, “Where is their body now?” and then, “Are you able to be with their body?” Sometimes the answer is yes. I ask them, “is there something nearby to you now that reminds you of them? Is there something nearby to you now that you can bring to them or share with them when you visit? A sweater? A perfume? A rock? Anything at all can be a gift.” One child I asked this to (his grandfather died suddenly in a car accident) said, “Yes, my stereo reminds me of him.” I invited him to think of something a little smaller and he then came up with a teddy bear. The boy brought the bear when he visited him in the hospital. I don’t know if he left the bear with his grandfather or brought it home with him again but either way, the bear was his companion while visiting his deceased grandfather.
Another thing I ask, “Is it possible to have something of theirs?” In the roughest of circumstances, there is either nothing. (For example, no body or no belongings. Sadly, this happens.) Sometimes only a small clipping of hair or a small swatch of fabric is possible. But this is something. Sometimes, when there is nothing at all, we need to get more creative like coming up with a little trip, or a visualization technique to a favorite childhood place that brings them comfort thinking about the one who has died.
This is the work that I presently do. I am a death doula and a funeral celebrant and the combination is a beautiful offering.
Two years ago, as we were heading into the depths of autumn I took a big pay cut at my day job and stepped both feet into the profound world of death and dying. I began an intense 12 week death doula training at a virtual school based in Canada and also began the course at the Celebrant Foundation & Institute with a focus in funerals. Between these two programs I was consistently studying 30 hours per week—but if you know this kind of work I am talking about, it does not stop when you close your books. Through multiple lenses I explored the depths of my heart; my fears, my hopes, my concerns, my loves and by the time I surfaced in the spring, I was a changed human.
I already had a rich spiritual life, nurse assistant training, and years of hospice volunteering but a new sense of preciousness of life emerged with the combination of CF&I’s thorough training and the death doula work.
With every segment finished in death doula training I put on my Celebrant cape and said to myself, “let’s have a ceremony.” In every way my training at the Celebrant Foundation & Institute deepened my death doula offerings and has substantially improved my entire life.
And, now, I think it’s time to have a little ceremony of gratitude.
Just last month I published my first book called Death Nesting: Ancient & Modern Death Doula Techniques, Mindfulness Practices and Herbal Care. The book is based on my experiences of caring for the actively dying and the importance of incorporating the elements of nature into the dying process. It is now available through Amazon and will be available to bookstores and libraries in January 2020. Click to find it here