Two years ago my spiritual direction practice was challenged by a curve in the road. I was asked to provide spiritual accompaniment for a long time friend, David, who was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour. I became a death doula.
Similar to the role of the birth midwife who helps usher new babies into the world, the death doula (or death midwife) assists the dying person in the transition from life to death. The death doula may also work with the family of the dying person and it may involve both the sacred and the mundane.
My experience began in August of 2013 when we received word that David had been diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer of the worst kind – gioblastoma or GBM. We were out of town at the time so phone calls, prayers, and candle lighting were our first responses to this devastating news.
As with spiritual direction, in death midwifery, it’s the person or the family that is the focus. The midwife listens deeply and responds with sensitive facilitation related to stated needs. At first, the shock of David’s diagnosis overtook my ability to process in any rational way. I was grateful for the geographic distance that allowed me time to react and reflect, and to bring to consciousness my own triggers and projections. At home, I met with my own spiritual director for processing and accountability.
My role eventually developed to providing presence and prayer to David. His need was to hear the Hail Mary and he was patient with me as I learned this prayer, new to me as a United Church member. As he lost his ability to speak, I would say the prayer and David would move his rosary beads. This ritual calmed him, the familiar words providing reassurance and continuity as he approached death.
The evening David died, I made soup, I responded to the family’s request for a ritual of letting go, I joined the nurse and family members in washing David’s body, and I provided prayer and presence as we gathered, arm in arm, to watch the van leave with David’s body. I felt both sadness at letting go of a dear friend and deep appreciation that I could be a supportive part of his journey into death.
I have only touched on some aspects of my multi-layered experience as a death doula. I am still learning what it means, and I am grateful for the spiritual direction training that supported me through it.
Lori Stewart is a Pacific Jubilee alum with a spiritual direction practice in Edmonton. She is also Associate Faculty at St Stephen’s College, a writer and poet. Lori belongs to a community choir for people who think they can’t sing, but have found that they, indeed, can make beautiful music.
The Jubilee Programs offer training in spiritual direction, spiritual growth and soul development. We explore the contemplative life through spiritual practices including the enneagram, integration of head/heart/body, silent retreats, “holy listening” in journey groups and contemplative prayer and meditation. Read more about spiritual direction by clicking on our 3 national programs: Ontario Jubilee, Pacific Jubilee, Prairie Jubilee