End of Life Matters
End of life Doula Melissa Murphy, a companion, guide and resource supporting our community in end of life matters.
I’m recently back from a visit with family and friends in upstate New York. I hadn’t been to the states in over four years so my heart still feels full even in the weeks since returning home to West Cork. As an end of life/death doula helping people to navigate all things end of life, I know my experiences can’t help but be reflected through this lens. The idea to go to New York began with an inner voice months before, that whispered “it’s time to go see your people”. Ignoring it slightly, I then pondered in my often catastrophic fashion “why now? Was something going to happen?”. Whether it was intuition or a gentle “go on” from beyond, I listened and decided to go solo. This would give me the opportunity to spend quality time with folks. I feel especially fortunate now to have done this.
My dearest people all know what I’m up to much of the time but admittedly don’t ask “so how’s the death doula thing going?” And to be fair, I forgive them – it’s our culture after all. Still I was delighted by the conversations that were had. A college bestie spoke about her late dad and what would have been his birthday, as we admired her son, the middle child, who has the face of the grandfather he never knew. I was then entirely comfortable asking her to tell me again about her mom who died shortly after my friend was born. She’d told me when we first met in school, but it was such a long time ago. “Don’t make me cry,” she’d said, as my own eyes flooded with tears; hearing her story in a truly new way. Another friend was over the moon to simply have a night out being a recent full-time carer for her 85-year-old mom. She was grieving too as her husband died suddenly earlier this year. Her perspective on life these days, in spite of everything, and her generous sharing astounded me. This woman, who was once my employer-turned-friend, honours her grief and joy equally. Then there was my cousin who is almost like a brother, being close in age to me. He’s had his share of loss in recent years too, which he himself named. A major health scare with one of his children that miraculously turned out ok, followed by his mother-in-law’s death this year. I was deeply moved by his real talk over the casual American fare and craft beer we shared.
This might sound to you like it must have been some dark kind of holiday, but to me it was the opposite – truly precious. Bearing witness to and being a recipient for the authenticity these conversations brought meant so much. And by the way, these and the other folks I spent time with had an absolute ball together too.
I’m reminded however that saying goodbye again and again is the worst. Could this be why I avoid going back? I was joking (but not) with more than one friend about this – here’s me who does what I do and hates goodbyes. But as many of you know when those you love live across the sea, reality kicks in: You don’t know, and perhaps can’t say, when or even if you’ll see each other next! I daydreamed during my 10 days visit; imagining that seeing my beloved New Yorkers one by one could be like the time of death: a review of places, faces, memories – like a film of my life and then, poof, it’s all gone. Anyone else? It’s how this death doula thinks anyway.
Then came the biggest, shall we say ‘memento mori’ (Latin for remembering you – and all things – must die): my parents. I’ll admit that I waited until the final hours to have the conversation I’m about to share. But over the days I observed them – my mother and father – smaller somehow, a bit slower, hunched shoulders, aches and pains in the knees, while feeling this sense of wanting to protect them like never before. Mad isn’t it? Or perhaps not. I’ve heard people talk about feeling a shift in parent-child roles as time goes on. Deep breaths were taken. The parents are healthy, but no doubt getting older. Usually they come to Ireland for our visits, but now it seemed right to go to them. To spend the time while they’re well and able on their turf. I also wanted to be brave and talk to them about their end of life wishes, as they would permit me: wanting to practice what I preach and begin a conversation while we were relaxed and not under pressure to make decisions. I don’t think either of them were surprised by my initiating the talk, yet it was very interesting, comical even, to learn that what they wanted wasn’t what I had imagined! Furthermore, we discovered that each of them wants their final resting place at a different cemetery to the other. We’re talking about different towns altogether! So there were these moments of Mom trying to convince Dad to ‘come’ to ‘hers’, while also trying to convince herself to go to his cemetery of choice! In the end, both had their reasons for the chosen places that were meaningful to them and it all made perfect sense. Laughter was shared all around while I reminded them that this was just a conversation; nothing was set in stone (Pun intended. More laughter). It was illuminating for me to have gained just this bit of information. And so as the “if you’re dead, what do I do” chat had gone well, I took some time with my folks individually doing some life review. I composed a few questions for each of them inspired by a blog I found, suggesting ‘things to ask your parent(s) before it’s too late’. We touched on parenthood, life lessons, aging and more. I’m so proud of them – and me to be honest – for taking the time.
As I write this, a part of me still can’t believe it happened. These processes are a small part of what I do as an end of life doula yet it’s quite another thing when it comes to our own families. I was reminded of this in a big way. In the meantime, the days go on and summer has definitely turned to autumn. One friend suggested that I call my parents more often and so I have done that this week. Next I want to surprise my friends with handwritten cards in the post to say what our visits meant to me.
To learn more or to connect with Melissa, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.starsbeyondourskin.com. She also welcomes your questions or ideas for future columns.