I am one of thousands on the front lines of caring for our circles of family, friends, and neighbors in the arena of death and dying, and I’m honored to be here among you.
How could I ever be grateful for my mother’s dying and death? Indeed, gratitude peeks out from beneath the heavy covers of grief, though they can feel so incredibly weighted when you are walking someone towards their death. Even as a hospice-experienced registered nurse (RN) of many years, I wasn’t prepared for my mother’s passing. In journeying with hundreds of people — including my mother — through the process of dying, I have wondered about my ability to serve as a companion on the path: “But I’ve never died,” “I’ve never gotten that close to death to be a guide,” “How can I accompany someone through to somewhere I have never been?” And still, I feel grateful for so many privileges that I’ve experienced as an RN and end-of-life doula. I know that there is no way I would have seen what I saw or experienced what I did without having been in this role.
Caring and serving humanity on the deepest level during end of life is a passion almost inherent to me: It is at the core of who I am; I cannot leave it behind like a snake skin—although I’ve tried to slither out of it and walk in a new skin outside the realm of dying and death a bunch of times. But I couldn’t stay away long. An ever-growing pressure inside me would grow until I came back to this service. The pressure, if it had a voice, would say, “It’s not fair to keep me in solitude, to keep me out of reach when there are so many people who need what I have.”
I feel deep gratitude for this ability I have to hold people in vulnerable times. There is no place else I’d rather be in that moment when it’s happening. The trust, the reliance, the faith that people place in my hands because I am a nurse or end-of-life doula is the highest honor I can imagine. I am one of thousands on the front lines of caring for our circles of family, friends, and neighbors in the arena of death and dying, and I’m honored to be here among you.
Most of us expect that our loved ones will generously allow us or even want us to care for them. But people can often push back hard on receiving care, to my surprise.
I feel deeply indebted to every person who has allowed me to care for them. Not everyone is open to being cared for, and it is a privilege when someone lets you in. Most of us expect that our loved ones will generously allow us or even want us to care for them. But people can often push back hard on receiving care, to my surprise. And so this allowing to accompany has huge meaning for me. It means that I somehow earned the right to be with someone who has limited breath to live and limited energy to share and limited time to be. Every single moment at the end-of-life time is incredibly precious, and still people allow me to offer support. Wow.
The intimacy I get to share with people pushes the boundaries of what I thought I could hold for another. I am constantly expanding my ability to hold more, and each year feels easier than the year before. My love keeps growing, and for that I have to thank every person who has shared their dying with me and their loved ones. Accompanying someone through the end of life helps me share love with the next person I serve. This love feeds me and helps me do this beautiful work.
When I meet people who are in the process of dying, sometimes we have a moment together where each of us mists. We each know, even if no one admits it or consciously realizes it, that the person whose eyes I’m seeing into is dying. They know I know. I know they know I know. We may be the only two who know. There is profound intimacy in that and in the choice of the dying person to have that moment with me. This awareness is a gift.
My small part in helping someone feel held and more secure as they are journeying an unknown territory is priceless.
I am also moved by the opportunity to accompany people alongside the “indignities” of dying and illness, which disgust most people when they experience them in the moment; I want them to be able to feel my loving presence in these moments, as it happens. “I’ve seen/heard/smelled worse,” I usually say, even when I may have not (but usually I have). My small part in helping someone feel held and more secure as they are journeying an unknown territory is priceless.
My gratitude for the privilege, vulnerability, and intimacy of accompanying others through dying was present in my experience with my mother’s passing, even though we had a very complicated life together. Even still, she wanted me by her side every moment through her dying. She was diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer and dead within five weeks. With this diagnosis, I thought I would never get the love I had so desperately wanted from her for so long. She would be very busy dying. But it turned out I was wrong. It took me years to realize — sometimes these awarenesses come very slowly — that my mother wanted me by her side every dying moment. And that this indeed was a form of love. She found faith and comfort in me being there. Her allowing me to care for her was the biggest gift that turned every hurt into dust the night before she fell into deep unresponsiveness. I was not expecting that to happen.
I didn’t show up for the gift. But because I showed up, expecting nothing for my care and love, I had the opportunity to receive it.
The gift was so powerful that I felt reborn that night. Because I showed up even when I didn’t want to see what I was seeing, I had the opportunity to receive it. I didn’t show up for the gift. But because I showed up, expecting nothing for my care and love, I had the opportunity to receive it.
I am who I am as a human being because I show up for people — most of whom are strangers — in these poignant moments, because I am deeply called to do so, and because people allow me to accompany and witness and serve to the extent that I’m able. Each experience shapes me, further refining this work with end-of-life journeys that I choose to do. But more than that, the precious moments with others are part of loving me into loving myself, and I am so deeply grateful for that.
Deanna Cochran RN, an early voice in the End of Life Doula movement is founder of Quality of Life Care, home of Certified CareDoula®—a comprehensive system for training Certified EOL Doulas. She builds innovative hospice doula programs and can be found advocating for palliative care access and unity within the movement. She is Chair of the NHPCO’s EOL Doula Advisory Council, and a founding member of the National End of Life Doula Alliance. Her #1 Amazon bestseller, Accompanying the Dying: Practical, Heart-Centered Wisdom for End-Of-Life Doulas and Health Care Advocates, is available wherever good books are sold.