I didn’t choose the death path. Death chose me. From a tender age I knew that everything and everyone dies. Many of us experience our first death when a beloved pet dies. I am no different. I wasn’t freaked out when my dog or hamster or guinea pig died. I never forgot Friztell or Sam or Henry or Henrietta. Astrologers say my ease may be due to being born under the sign of Scorpio. I don’t know the basis of my comfort, I just am. In death we are all equal. Death is no respecter of persons. Young or old. Rich or poor. We will all die. We are cold, stiff and decay. The way someone dies or the age of the person dying gives me pause.
Death work fits me. I feel compassion for those left behind. Why feel sorry for the person that died. They’re free from the pain of their disease or aged and arthritic joints. They’re free from the suffering and sorrow of this world. They get to journey onto the next realm – whatever that may be. I leave that to the religious scholars and philosophers to deliberate.
I buried my pets and held funerals. Or what to my juvenile self was a funeral. My father allowed the pets to be buried in the garden. I’d use my mother’s Sarah Coventry jewelry boxes as coffins for the smaller critters. (Note: mothers don’t like their jewelry boxes used for burial) The dogs and cats were simply buried without a coffin. I’d perform a juvenile version of a funeral. I didn’t attend my first funeral until I was 15 so I wasn’t sure how a funeral went other than to say nice things about the deceased, bury them and flowers placed on top of the grave.
The earliest memory of a death that impacted me was the night my mother told me she’d read in the newspaper about a fatal car crash. My beloved babysitter, Helen, had been killed by a drunk driver. The article said she died at the scene. The driver of the other car was taken to the hospital with minor injuries. Something that I would later learn was a common occurrence in DUI crashes. Helen was 18 years old. She had graduated high school a few months before she died on a country road. I cried myself to sleep that night, alone in my room. At 8 I knew that death meant I wouldn’t see Helen again.
Three weeks after I graduated high school, I found myself working for a fire department as a dispatcher. It was the beginning of a 25-year dispatch career – the last 8 years with a sheriff’s office that served as a communications center for cops, fire fighters and EMTs. I was good at being an emergency dispatcher. Answering calls from the elderly woman who just found her husband unconscious on the bathroom floor. Gentle coaching her through CPR, holding the space while she cried as he wasn’t responding to her compressions. Listening to the sobs of someone who’d found their son had suicided. Calm when a deputy was being shot at by the occupants of the car he tried to pullover to tell the driver the car had a burnt-out headlight. I was face-to-face with death daily.
But being good in that world wasn’t enough. In the words of John River: In that world you have to be able to nod, smile and have a pint after work. In that world no one can be different or strange or damaged. If you came into the public safety world undamaged it wasn’t long before the weight of horrors marred your virginal soul. Working with people at the end of their life, or with families choosing to care for their dead, I find a sort of healing for my heart and my soul.
So, there you are. A bit about the journey of “deciding” to become a death midwife. It’s sacred work and I’m honored to be allowed to hold someone’s hand at the end of their journey and support families as they bid adieu to their loved one.
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