There are so many wonderful moments in the life of a death doula. For me, one that truly resonated with me was when loved ones took time with their person’s body after death. There are plenty of posts on my blog about this and god forbid I corner you at a party and you show the most fleeting moment of interest.
There is something quite beautiful about this process that is impossible to describe except to say it is the one moment in my history of moments that I typically cry tears of sorrow while having the happiest heart on the planet. Here is a small window into these moment.
Fran was dying of cancer and she chose to live out her days at home. Her house was not only where she was happiest, but it was where everyone else was most comfortable too. There was always something happening at Fran’s, whether it was a neighbour dropping in, the rotation of nurses and caregivers or family stopping in to eat dinner and talk about their day. You just never knew what you would witness as you walked across her threshold. It made sense that she chose to be there in her last days, it’s where not only she belonged, but where everyone else belonged as well. Having her in her house put a sense of calm around her and it gave everyone time to accept the brave act of living while she was dying.
Fran was always on the go. She always had her hands in the soil, a cookie in her jacket pocket and both always smudged on her face. When she was “sentenced” to bed rest, I would often find her lying in bed with a little sweat on her brow and dirt under her nails. Until I didn’t… I would begin showing up and her nails were clean and there were no smudges. I knew we were near the end. So I placed a plant on her nightstand, close enough she could reach it and every now and then, I would see little finger marks in the soil and a trail across her pillow. Until I didn’t…
Fran had picked out her burial spot, at a beautiful Natural Burial Ground, and had spoken often about just how she imagined it. She spoke about how she didn’t want a big hullabaloo but something simple and natural. We all spent time picturing it together.
Liz would come in and bring sunflowers with her. “See this Sunflowers mom? I would love to lay you on a bed of these beauties, you could sail off on a sea of sun. Doesn’t that sound so perfect for you?” Fran would respond “You would need to find some sturdier ones for my ass Liz – you know I hate draggin my ass around.”
When Fran died, her loved ones knew exactly what Fran imagined for her funeral and it all just needed to be coordinated with some of their own personal touches. They called in a very close group of family and friends and set out to work making Fran’s dream possible. One of the first pieces of care was to bathe Fran’s body in the morning and set her body up for vigil and service. The family fumbled through this mostly but a few took up the charge as if their souls knew exactly what needed to be done. They brushed her hair, washed her body with warm water with some of her favourite scent. Then put on some light makeup and dressed her in a beautiful white linen gown. She was gorgeous.
After Fran was ready for guests, the family decided they would vigil for 2 days where family and friends could come to the house, visit with her and her family. There was many who popped by on the first night and others who came by everyday. It was lovely to see faces come back with stories they remembered or recipes they knew Fran loved. Everyone kept their hands busy there was always music or songs being sung, photos being shared and of course, plenty of food.
On the close of the second day of Vigil, Liz took Fran’s hand and said: “oh mom, I think I’m ready to start a new day.” When Liz turned to me, there was something about her face that showed she was ready. There was something about Fran’s face that said she was ready too.
It was as if there was a grounding that had taken place, that all the goodbyes were said and life was shifting into a slightly new way now. A life that began with a deep love and respect for what had gotten them there. That they were able to put down the heavy pack they had been carrying since Fran had gotten sick and now picked up a new pack filled with her love and their grief. It was now time to focus on how to live with Fran only in their hearts instead of Fran in their hands.
On the 3rd day, there was a small service in the backyard in Fran’s amazing garden. She was then followed by her community up to the cremation site where they gathered to watch Fran’s smoke gently waft into the air. Her family was singing one of her favourite songs, the breeze was gently blowing and they made sure Fran heard their voices as she journeyed through the air. In silence, the family took turns placing the petals from Fran’s garden in the bottom of the urn and as they turned to leave, they sang once more.
There is something so innate that happens when we honour death with our own hands. It gives grief somewhere to go yet, at the same time, it’s been given space and time to be the only thing.
Be held by it.