In The Believer, Encounters with the Beginning, The End, and Our Place in the Middle, Sara Krasnostein looks at the core beliefs of several people and groups across our society. This includes evangelicals who run the Noah’s Ark and Creation museums in Kentucky, a group of believers in the paranormal and UFOs, and a death doula.
Have you ever heard of a death doula? Like me, you may have heard of a birth doula, “a trained professional who provides emotional, physical and educational support to mothers before, during and after labor.” In many ways, a death doula provides these same services, only replace the words “mothers” and “after labor” with “the dying” and “death.”
One such death doula is a spirited woman named Annie who Krasnostein writes about at length. Annie has had a tough life. Married to a violent man at the age of 17, she has since “been married six times and tried to kill herself twice.” She has been a dressmaker, a truck driver and a yoga teacher. She has also become a dedicated Buddhist with a unique perspective on death and the dying.
Annie points out that “we think we are entitled to live to a ripe old age, with no hiccups in the middle.” But the reality is death comes at the time of its own choosing and can happen in an instant. A good friend of mine had a massive heart attack at age 57, literally dropping dead, gone before he hit the floor. But many other times, death lingers.
The Believer tells the story of Annie’s relationship with Katrina, a woman slowly dying of cancer. The author befriends Katrina and sits with her at her bedside. She is invited to attend a “celebration of life” that Katrina plans for herself and is held several weeks before she dies. She dies at home with her family, her last words, “I want the lights on.”
What follows are seven lightly edited lessons from the book that are primarily from Annie’s experience sitting with the dying. As you’ll see, Annie in a salt of the earth type who speaks in simple terms. When it comes to being with the dying, her only rule is “there are no rules.” Or maybe just one—the wishes of the person nearing death need to be honored.
7 Lessons for Sitting with the Dying
You are not there to pull anyone out of the hole. You are there to sit with them in the hole.
There is no need to “cheer up” anyone. Sadness is not a moral failure and it’s not a disease. Just be present.
While some loved ones may say “don’t give up” or “keep on fighting,” it can have a negative effect on those nearing death. Some of the dying express privately “a certain guilt at maybe not having tried hard enough.” When it is time: Let. Them. Go.
It is okay to talk about death. Because simply talking about death does not kill anyone. If they want to talk about death, talk about death.
Find out what is important to the person who is dying. It might be natural light. Quiet. Readings from a favorite holy book. Choral music. They might want no crying. Provide it.
Know what medical treatment the person consents to. How much pain control. What type of life-extending treatments they want including feeding and artificial respiration. (Ideally this should be planned out while the patient is still somewhat healthy. They are questions you may want to ask your partner now.)
According to the Buddhist belief, hearing is the last sense to go. (Annie talks and prays over each of her patients.) “It’s really important to keep speaking even though it looks like the lights are out and no one’s home. Because we just don’t know.”
To prove that last point, Annie tells the story of Martin who was bedridden, nearing death, and seemingly unconscious for days. Annie was talking to him when his wife interrupted, “he can’t hear you.” Annie told the wife of the importance of lesson 7 above. She said some prayers and excused herself, saying she would be going. I’ll let this passage from the book finish the story:
“Martin, I’m leaving now,” she told the man from the foot of his bed. “And I’m going to pray for you.”
He opened his eyes and looked directly at her. And said very quietly, “Thank you.”