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  • Writer's pictureAshley Bright BSW, MPS, SPD

The Healer

I have known for a very long time that I was different. It has taken me several years, though, to realize that being different is “okay”. In fact, not only is it “okay”, but it also might allow me to play a small role in changing the way our society thinks about Death. The belief that I could help people reframe their views of Death in order to live a happier life lit a fire in me that led me to a path of training to become an End of Life (EOL) Doula.

I have had the privilege over the past few years to be a guest lecturer on Death and dying in some classes at a couple of local universities. I always begin by having the students tell me an alternate name for Death. I usually get the obvious ones, common euphemisms we have adopted in our culture that describes Death without having to say the name of it. It seems we have been taught from a young age to be afraid to even talk about it - as if talking about it or preparing for it will bring it on faster. For some, there are misconceptions that the EOL Doula Profession might also bring Death faster. No, I do not bring Death into a room with me, or help a person hasten it to come to them (though some of my friends think this is what I do). EOL Doulas play many roles. Some are great at sitting at a bedside vigil, some are skilled at comfort modalities, and some find their niche in after death care. I have come to love my Doula role as coach and educator, helping clients and families normalize conversations about death and embrace it more fully in order to live a healthier, happier life of mind, body, and soul. The Doula herself is not the healer, but the doula can educate and coach clients and families into embracing Death as Healer.

Over time, my experiences with Death have led me to give Death this new name of Healer and has gifted me a passion to help others do likewise. I have had few personal brushes with Death, but they have all had a profound impact on me. My first really impactful experience was that of my friend Kristen. She was the first cousin of my husband, Eric, which is how we met, but we quickly grew to be the best of friends. She had a rough life, health-wise, experiencing several strokes and heart attacks before her 35th birthday. She also suffered from a painful, hereditary disease called Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD) which led to the eventual removal of both kidneys and the beginning of kidney dialysis which can rob a person of a decent quality of life. During this time, her husband left her and Eric and I became her caregivers. After years of many hospitalizations, surgeries, and treatments, she finally left this earth at the young age of 41. As I mentioned, we were close and I did not want her to leave us. But we talked together about her death often, and I knew she was ready for it as the thought of dying seemed more palatable than continuing with the earthly life she knew. These simple conversations brought us both peace and clarity. When her death came I was happy for her - for she was healed.

For several years I spent time as a clinical social worker in a skilled nursing facility. I found myself often gently leading families to embrace end of life care for their loved ones who were patients in the facility. Most of the long term patients were frail and sickly, and some of them spoke of being ready to die which would alarm the staff and cause a frenzied call to the social worker to make sure the patient did not have a plan to harm him or herself. Upon speaking to the patients who made these statements, I would usually find that yes, they were ready and welcoming of Death. Not that they would hasten it, but they just wished for an end to the constant hospitalizations, treatments, medications, and isolation caused by living away from family and friends. Oftentimes, they were dragging themselves along solely because they knew their family was not ready to let them go. An EOL Doula/Coach helps prepare patients (clients) and their families for the reality of Death. The preparation is what brings them peace and can prevent the endless quest for fruitless curative medicine and allow the body to be healed in a different way.

During my time as medical social worker, I came to know the spouse of a middle-aged patient whom had endured chronic illness for many years. After baby-stepping through conversations about the concept of end of life care she finally agreed to let me tell her more about hospice and how it could bring a better quality of life to her husband in the short time he had left. Finally, after what seemed like hours, she turned to me and said, “So what you’re saying is, it would be more kind to let him go than to allow him to continue in his suffering?” After a few months on hospice care, this beautiful soul was released of his broken body and he was healed.

There is a person who has done tremendous work in the field of Death and Dying Education named Barbara Karnes, RN, who has dedicated her life to normalizing how we talk about the subject of death. In her video New Rules About Death, she states that though she uses the word “dying” a lot in her line of work, she doesn’t really like to refer to the process as dying but, rather, as living. “You are born”, she says, “then you are living, and then you have the final life experience of death.” I love the imagery of this. What is life but the preparation for that final experience? We can allow Death to teach us to live and experience life to the absolute fullest. Alternate names for Death? What if we talk about Death as a companion? A friend? A teacher? Thinking of it in these more positive terms will not hasten Death to come for you or your loved ones any sooner than its time. Does reframing our thoughts about Death help us to grieve less? No. Experiencing grief for your loved one’s absence is normal and even necessary as a human being. But the reframing and renaming of it might help us to embrace it as a normal part of living. If you are unsure of how to go from fear to acceptance, reach out to an End of Life Doula who can help coach and guide you to new possibilities. When the day comes that your spirit is preparing to leave this earth for its next experience, I hope you will not fear it, but welcome it by naming Death as Healer.

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