A Touch of Death and an Easing into Grief

“Don’t brush my hair when I die.

Don’t bathe me.

Wrap me in my favourite blanket and put me straight into the dirt.

Throw in flower petals and dog hair and pour wine all over me.

Let me die free and messy.Subversive and relentless.

A wild seed.”Columbus Deathcare Community

My daughters and I have many conversations on dying and death. They are open-minded, honest and open-hearted conversations. Not in a morbid way but deep and meaningful, with curiosity and fascination, often with humour and always with love.

My eldest daughter and I recently got onto the topic of the care I would like to receive AFTER my death. I can’t even remember how we ended up talking about this but we let the conversation flow. I’d be quite happy to be placed straight into the soil as I died – unwashed and unkempt. And yet, what I have asked for is that my daughters gently, mindfully and with tender care wash my hands and face. Not that I need to be clean for burial or whatever follows next – I’ve never died before so I like to keep an open mind. But to use it as a ritual to support them in their grief, to aid acceptance of my death and a loving ceremony of saying things left unsaid, of goodbyes.

That caring, intimate touch can be such an important aspect of saying goodbye or even thank you.

A final loving gift for us all.

The flower petals and dog hair would be a nice touch too.

Many cultures and faiths have a ritual of washing the entire body and dressing after death. And not so long ago it was commonplace here for family members to tend to the body of a loved one after death. I wonder at what point in our recent history we decided to hand it over to undertakers? In relinquishing the care of the dead we have lost touch (pun intended) with that intimate, tender care that can be so healing in times of grief.

Let’s talk about this more.

To break the stigma and in doing so alleviate or break the pattern of fear surrounding death.

When Grief Isn’t Restricted To Human Loss

Where I live, in a beautiful village called Marsden in West Yorkshire, UK, there has recently been a wildfire that has devastated a large area of the moorland..

I became aware that the people who live here, including myself, and those that care deeply about these moors, the habitat, wildlife and environmental importance of this special place were experiencing this terrible event much like the illness and death of a loved one.

In fact, just for a moment, visualise these moors AS a loved one.

Very much loved, cared for and a huge part of everything we hold dear living here.

There was the initial shock, with anger (and lots of it), denial, fear, frustration, bargaining and the feelings of helplessness alongside people rallying together each finding a way they could help.

You see, people like to help in times of crisis.

Not only asking how they could help but also taking some initiative after assessing where best their assistance might be needed whilst also not getting in the way of the important work required at the front.

Seeing the professionals come in and caring for our loved one and hoping that they can ease the suffering.

There were concerns for the courageous people dealing first-hand with the event.

There was also the anticipatory grief. When it started, although the area started off small, it was clear that it was going to be significant, widespread and catastrophic due to the conditions.

Knowing what’s coming and being helpless to stop it.

There were tears – lots of tears.

Not just for the physical deaths occurring (in terms of wildlife) but also for all the deaths associated with such a big event.

We were, in effect, all sitting vigil to that loss of life.

People know that, in time, the area will see recovery but they also know it will not be the same.

They will try to make sense of it all. The life destroyed can’t be replaced with like for like. A death is a death – unique in it’s own right.

And although the people of Marsden have experienced an event like this before it doesn’t get any easier with subsequent similar events.

In time, there will be acceptance. The high emotion will dissipate and the life of the villagers will resume as it was yet what they experienced with their senses will remain in their memory.

In the next few days or weeks when the area is safe to return to I plan to head up onto the moors to hold a small ritual. I don’t know what that will look like right now but it will be one of collective grief, a silent sorrow alongside the gratefulness for all that mother nature provides. Rituals are helpful for processing events, remembering and holding a compassionate presence for those that have died. Perhaps there will be evidence of regrowth and rebirth to celebrate too.

I hope it has provided some reflection on how we grieve and experience death in many ways, how everything is all connected and, perhaps, validated some of emotions that you have felt during your own life events.. ❤

Photo is of the Wessenden valley and moors of Marsden in more lush days.

Meet Nancy – Founder of HELD

It’s always good to meet the person behind the screen even if it’s not in person so if you are new here or simply haven’t met me before here’s a brief introduction about me and my work as an End of Life Doula.

If you have any questions about end of life care, support and guidance please do reach out.

Tender Moments

Recently I spoke about intimacy at the end of life and I mentioned eye contact which reminded me of an experience I had when caring for an older lady with end stage dementia which I thought I would share with you.

On one particular day I was sat beside this lady as she lay in bed, holding and stroking her hand.

Between moments of confusion, anxiety, restlessness and sleep she turned her face towards mine and our eyes locked.

We held each other’s gaze for several minutes.

Neither of us spoke and I remember noticing the gentleness and loving in her eyes.

We held that gentle gaze for a while until she said “Thank you” and as I smiled and thanked her in return she lapsed back into confusion and restlessness.

This moment of tenderness was such a stark contrast to just an hour earlier where, at the sight of me, she screamed in terror wondering who I was and why I was there.

For me, in the moment where our eyes were gazing at each others, it felt as if we were sharing a deep part of ourselves that couldn’t be reached any other way – it was quite profound.

Water, Life & Death

Some fascinating reflections about water.

  • Our body is roughly 60% water.
  • In some organisms water makes up 90% of their mass.
  • All parts of our body need water in order to function optimally.
  • When we die the water content of our body returns to the earth either directly through burial or as water vapour following cremation.
  • Now consider the cycle of water.
  • Travelling from the earth’s surface back into the atmosphere.
  • Falling as rain, sleet, snow or hanging in the air as fog or mist.
  • Flowing in rivers and streams.
  • Running into the sea, reservoirs, lakes and ponds.
  • Nourishing us.
  • Nourishing nature.
  • Water is life-giving.
  • Returning once again to the atmosphere.

I wonder how many life forms the water that we interact with daily has passed through?

Are you in a Good Place To Die?

In conjunction with Dying Matters Awareness Week which runs from the 10th – 16th May 2021 I invite you to an open, honest and loving conversation about what being in a “Good place to die” means to you.

I’m Nancy, an End of Life Doula based in Yorkshire, UK and seeing how unprepared people are I feel it’s vital that we find ways to get the conversation started.

Along with Dying Matters our aim is to raise the profile of the care that does exist and the benefit that it gives to dying people and their families.

And we want to raise our voices to highlight what needs to change for people at the end of life.

“Where people die is changing. More people than ever are dying at home, and the pandemic has accelerated this trend. In 2020, 28% of people in the UK died at home.

With gaps in support structures for people when they die, and for those that are left behind, people are dying without being in the right place. Often, people don’t feel prepared and they haven’t fulfilled their wishes or communicated them to loved ones.”

This event will begin with a short presentation from me and I will then create a space for you to talk about what being in a good place to die means to you – physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually and what you can do now to prepare for that.

This event will take place on Zoom with 2 dates Tuesday 11th May 2021 7-8.30pm or Saturday 15th May 2021 10.30 am – 12 noon (I may add more if there is sufficient interest).

Make yourself a cuppa and come and join in this informal and life-affirming discussion.

Please register your interest by selecting which day you wish to attend from the selection below or register with me at nancyendoflifedoula@gmail.com

You can also visit the Dying Matters website here https://www.dyingmatters.org

Intimacy at the End of Life

There is a lot of overlap in the various work that I do and I would like to share with you one such overlap.

It involves my work as a Compassionate Touch and Cuddle Therapist and as an End of life Doula and relates to intimacy at the end of life.

The professionals and care teams supporting people at the end of life can often overlook this concern, not through a neglect of duty, but mainly due to their need to focus on symptom management and couples can be reluctant to raise the issue.

As a person’s health changes so do the dynamics of intimacy.

Changes in body image, the control of bodily functions, pain, nausea, catheters, a lack of sexual desire or even just the sheer volume of people coming and going etc can all play a part in navigating intimacy at the end of life.

Whether this is as a result of medication, disease or aging the need or wish for intimacy for both partners can remain strong. Closeness is an inherent human need and this does not change as the end of life draws near.

There are so many ways to experience tender, loving, intimate touch at the end of life – stroking, spooning, kissing, massaging, eye-gazing, cradling and laying heads close together. Couples can lay naked together too if the setting allows – skin to skin contact is a powerful antidote to stresses, anxiety and pain at the end of life.

If the person is not a partner but, perhaps, a parent, sibling, grandparent, close friend or child and you have a trusting, caring relationship with them then this closeness, this intimacy is equally as important with the only difference being you would be clothed laying with the person dying.

For some, this way of interacting intimately comes naturally.

Others may be afraid of touching or unsure of how to touch their loved one at the end of life. Perhaps worried about causing pain or discomfort. Perhaps worried of what others may think.

With reassurance and gentle compassion loving, intimacy at the end of life can bring such huge comfort both to the person dying and their loved one and create beautiful memories.

I hope this thought provoking piece provides you with a starting place for discussion about intimacy at the end of life.

Befriending Death – The Conversation

Here is the date for our next conversation in dying, death and grief – Thursday 28th January 2021 at 7.30pm on zoom. You don’t need to have the zoom app to attend.

It’s an opportunity to explore and find a way to befriend death.

Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable.

I used to feel that the subject of death was taboo. Now I feel it’s simply not talked about because people are always waiting for the right moment…. but when is the right moment?

It seems people are seeking permission to start having these conversations.

The elephant in the room – yup, it can be and, I know for some people, those closest to them just aren’t ready to talk about it and that’s ok.

Accepting death, preparing for it and having open and honest conversations about it can lead to a more fulfilling life, a deepening knowledge of our self and, quite honestly, depending on what is discussed, a little excitement or intrigue about the event itself!

So, bring a brew and let’s chat.

There will be a maximum of 8 in this conversation to enable everyone to share and be heard and for it to flow.

Don’t expect it to be serious and all doom and gloom. There will likely be many inspiring words, laughter and hopefully you’ll leave with full hearts.

To book a space send me a message.

PS Remember this is not about me giving a talk. I will happily get the conversation started and keep it flowing but this isn’t about me – this is an interactive conversation with all those that attend.

I’m Still Here For You

I’m here to reassure you that nothing changes here for me as your end of life doula during increased lockdown restrictions.

If you need me I’ll be there.

I can also support you via video chat, phone and email too wherever you are in the UK or world for that matter.

Times are tough and you might find it all a little scary whilst you’re at your most vulnerable. Please reach out – you don’t need to face this alone.

Nancy x

A Conversation Stopper

I know from my previous experiences all those years ago of working in children’s hospices that, when people asked what I did as a job, the discomfort on their faces and the ensuing silence said it all. People didn’t know how to follow that up.

And that was totally understandable.

Now I have circled back round to end of life care as a doula and in a children’s hospice (whilst continuing my laughter, meditation and cuddle therapy work) I find that little has changed. It’s a real conversation killer but it doesn’t have to be that way.

If I tell people I work with laughter, meditation and cuddle therapy it brings curiosity, smiles, engagement and nods.

If I tell people I work in end of life care the conversation falters.

If I tell people I work part time in a children’s hospice the conversation pretty much crashes.

If I tell people I’m an End of Life Doula there is more curiosity. Perhaps it’s the word “doula” that softens it or invites more conversation?

I completely get it – it’s not an easy subject.

Part of my work as a doula is starting these conversations or supporting others in starting these conversations. The more comfortable we get with talking about it ourselves the easier it get’s with listening to others talking about it. It’s a symbiotic relationship with the talking and listening and how our brains and hearts engage in both activities around such an emotive topic. Talking about it doesn’t mean you’ll die sooner but it may mean you will be more empowered when the time does come.

Talking about end of life, death and dying can be pretty life affirming and not the morbid conversation that you envisage. What better way to understand the preciousness of the time we have – right up until death. It’s about finding joy, peace, resolution, love and friendship. Remember – dying isn’t separate from living – it is part of living. And, if someone tells you they work in the field of end of life care or the death profession I invite you to take a pause and a breath and ask them about it. Believe me when I tell you that they are likely to feel joy at being asked and you may have your mind and heart pleasantly opened.