Eight months ago, my 56-year-old husband, C., the father of our 12-year-old son, died of cancer. Want to stop reading now? Before my husband got sick, I would totally have stopped reading too. Because who wants to talk about pain, loss, grief and, for heaven’s sake, a little kid’s parent dying? Well, it turns out that the person who wants to share that with you and even help you with it is a new breed of caregiver called a death midwife. I didn’t know about this hybrid of shoulder to cry on, bedside vigil keeper and home funeral planner until after C. died, but knowing about it would have made the whole journey a lot easier. So try to let your curiosity outweigh your discomfort for the next few minutes if only so you and your loved ones can be a little more prepared than I was.
The emotional equivalent of the firefighter who runs into a burning building when everyone else is running out, a death midwife focuses on the painful, messy and confusing end-of-life experience and helps you make sense of it, whatever that means for you. I met death midwife Olivia Bareham at a Laurel Canyon home where she was speaking to a few dozen people seated in chairs, enjoying wine and cheese. The vibe was more like a meditation gathering than a wake, and that’s because Bareham is upbeat and smiling rather than downcast and somber. She told us how her own mother’s death was completely planned out for her daughter to manage, down to the Post-it notes on paperwork she’d prepped for her daughter to sign. Yet Bareham became acutely aware it was a hospice nurse, not her mom’s pre-planning, that provided the closure she needed. The nurse suggested that Bareham help her wash and prepare her mom’s body for a family viewing that included small children playing and dogs scampering, right in her home. This inspired Bareham to use her own training—bachelor’s degrees in education and natural theology and sacred healing, ordination as an interfaith minister and time as an auxiliary geriatric nurse and hospice volunteer—to assist people in their own end-of-life planning or to help counsel caregivers who need more information about all kinds of resources, from hospice to social services to spiritual support.
Both Bareham and Jill Schock, a self-described “death doula” who was also at the event, have services that are customizable to each person’s needs. Schock describes a death doula as “someone who serves as a guide, an advocate and experienced professional for patients and their families facing end-of-life.” She has a master’s degree in ethics and theology from Vanderbilt University and is trained and certified as a clinical chaplain; her services, unlike Bareham’s, include assistance in medical aid in dying, which is currently legal in California. Confused about all the paperwork that goes along with life’s end? Call Amy Pickard of Good to Go! Her mother’s sudden, unexpected death left her with a thicket of administrative details to handle, or as she puts it, “in shock and grief, I was forced not only to deal with the intensity of my DNA leaving the planet, but I had to become a detective and administrator in order to eliminate her ‘paper presence’ on earth.” So Pickard started a business that helps you turn your and your loved one’s end-of-life financial planning into a non-bummer planning session with wine, cheese and music. (You can start by ordering Pickard’s file of financial instructions for $60.)
The cost of death midwifery and end-of-life planning services varies according to the amount of time and complexity required of the process. I was lucky enough to have family and close friends show up in the days, weeks and even years C. suffered before succumbing to his illness. But not everyone is so lucky—and some of the most helpful and life-affirming moments came to me through exchanges with hospice workers and spiritual advisers who seemed to have built, if not a callus, then a muscle, by sitting at so many bedsides of dying people. These people are the boots on the ground, to use a battlefield metaphor that my husband would have smiled at. I needed those troops to help me turn the battle with illness into a celebration of life, largely through the simple change in perspective brought on by their experience. Maybe they can help you too.