By Marie Fricker
When she got home from working with a hospice patient who had recently passed, death doula Aimee Yawnick of Norwell had to free herself of the emotion. In keeping with her ritual, she added a journal entry about the woman who had died.
“I lit a candle and wrote down what we had talked about together,” said Yawnick, “Now the person is on paper. She existed. I didn’t know her long, but I had my experience with her and she will carry on, at least in my mind. It helps me complete the circle.”
Trained and certified by the Colorado-based Conscious Dying Institute, Yawnick teaches a class called “The Best 3 Months,” which asks people how they would live their lives if they had just three months to live.
“The workshop is intended to normalize the conversation about death and dying,” said Yawnick, who is a former diet coach and a hospice volunteer. “It makes people realize the importance of living this incredible gift of life right here and now, while they can. Anyone who has ever been diagnosed with a terminal illness doesn’t have to be taught that. They know it.”
The 3 Best Months curriculum addresses five “domains” within the dying process—Spiritual (last rites, funeral, scripture); Emotional (Do you need to forgive someone or be forgiven?); Legacy (Do you want to leave a gift for a family member or group? How do you want to be remembered?); Practical (Do you have a will or a health proxy?), and Physical (Would you prefer to be cared for at home or in a medical facility?)
The benefits provided by a death doula go far beyond the needs of the terminally ill patient. “It’s so important that the family be given this kind of end-of-life direction so that they’re not riddled with undeserved guilt,” said Yawnick. “We bring in a blanket of care that is able to provide comfort and peace to the loved one as they express their wishes in that sacred space between two worlds.”
End-of-life doulas are not medical personnel. They cannot administer drugs or even change a bandage. They are simply there to console the seriously ill patient and to allow the family caregivers to take a break from the stress of bedside vigils.
“Having a doula help me out when my wife was in hospice was a godsend,” said Tom Foye of Hull, who recently lost his wife to pancreatic cancer. I had spent several nights in Patti’s room, and when I woke up one morning, a woman named Ginny Berzin came in and said she was there to help. She asked me what kind of poetry and music my wife liked and I told her classical. She said, ‘l’ll stay with your wife. Why not go home for a while and relax?’
“When I returned that afternoon, she was reading a book to Patti with classical music playing softly in the background. Just being able to go home, take a shower and change my clothes was such a great gift to me from this woman, and she was with me holding one of my wife’s hands when she took her last breath. Having Ginny with me was an incredible comfort. She wasn’t a medical person taking a patient’s blood pressure and vitals, just a caring human being, who was always asking, ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’”
Berzin, who now works as a volunteer doula at Accent Care (formerly Seasons) Hospice in Milton, has been guiding patients and families through the active dying process for more than 30 years.
“I got the calling to become a doula after five people in my town within an 18-month period asked me to be with them when they died,” said Berzin. “The first was our church organist, a young woman with two little children. I gave up my job in marketing, got trained as a doula and became a hospice volunteer, and loved it. I’ve been doing that work ever since. It’s an absolute honor to be able to help people and their families at the end of their lives.”
Woody Winfree of Florida is an end-of-life doula, a conscious dying coach, a memorial and funeral celebrant, and a home funeral guide and advocate.
“Although we do not perform any sort of nursing duties, we help create an atmosphere of peace, love and warmth,” said Winfree, who also attended the Boulder-based Conscious Dying Institute and now trains others there. “The death doula movement is a rekindling of an old tradition—It’s similar to the concept of the birth doula who helped women care for their newborns. Our program trains almost 300 doulas a year in the U.S., Mexico, Russia, and Canada.”
The virtual course in Florida is six months long (some are only a weekend). It provides coaching as well as personal transformational work for each doula so that they get in alignment with their own feelings about dying. They are encouraged to be clear about their personal beliefs and keep their fears in check.
Winfree, Yawnick, and Berzin all firmly believe in the concept of an afterlife as a result of their work as doulas. Each have witnessed the passing of numerous individuals, and have seen astoundingly similar experiences among them.
“Many people speak to deceased loved ones who come for them near the moment of death,” said Yawnick. “It is not a lack of oxygen to the brain or hallucinations. Some are on morphine, some are not; some have dementia, some do not. There are too many commonalities in the stories that are told.”
Berzin, who is a devout Catholic, has seen all of her patients, even the atheists, exhibit the same behavior in their last days.
“For most people, the active dying process is very peaceful,” she said. “And near the end, they fixate their gaze on a corner of the ceiling and see or speak to a loved one. It happens with athiests, as well as believers. I had a young man who kept staring at one spot in the ceiling and told me he saw five of his relatives standing in a circle. He said they were waiting to take him with them, but not just yet. As he continued to gaze at the spot, he named the people, but seemed to hesitate on one of the names. I wrote the names down, circling the one he appeared confused about. When his parents came, I gave them the list. They were shocked when they saw the name that was circled. It was his aunt from California who had died two months earlier, but they had never told their son that she had passed.
“It happens all the time, and it doesn’t have to be someone who believes. I know our loved ones come to bring us home.”
For more information about end-of-life doulas or the Best 3 Months workshop, visit deathdoulas.com, a nationwide collaborative of certified doulas and resources.
“We are all going to have a final day on this earth,” said Yawnick. “No one gets out alive, so let’s talk about it. How can we make the most out of our relationships so that when that inevitable day comes, we can look at each other and say, ‘Wow, what a ride!’”