The Circle Of Support: Towards a new vision of Deathcare
‘A tree taps on a window pane, that feeling smothers me again – Daddy is it true that we all have to die? At the top of the stairs, is darkness..’ Billy Bragg
The work of working with the dying: I call it a vocation, because it is work that chose me. The work found me cowering, terrified of death, and called me in. The work began as I was supporting birthing women birthing their babies into the world, as a birth attendant. In these moments of stillness, being with woman, the one bringing life, I noticed how thin the veil was between life and death. But oh the terror of dying!
I heard the calling, and so I attended to it with the clinical precision of an academic reading texts, anthropological data, historical customs. I kept death at a safe arm’s length. Soon though, the focus changed, when a dying friend asked me to attend to her process of ending. I had to move swiftly to discover what it meant to really help the dying to die well.
Miraculously, at that exact moment, the opportunity to study ‘Death Midwifery’ with an experienced elder materialised, and this learning confirmed much of what I had thought. Attending to the dying was much like attending the birthing, though with a wider circle of care, for the dying person’s family, for the physical needs of people sitting with death as observers, the soon to be bereaved. It was also about hearing the wishes of the dying, sometimes expressing firm wants and needs, desires for how they wanted to be related to. Sometimes it was just about hearing and being with their feelings of loss, of fear, or lamenting the things they never quite got to.
‘Like a pale moon in a sunny sky, death gazes down as I pass by’
After these initial experiences with the dying, I softened a little to the presence of death in my life. It called more persistently to me, and although I still often ran away (mentally and spiritually speaking), I came to realise that whether I ignored it, ran from it, or feared it, death remained a vital weave in the fabric of life.
I began to study and look for opportunities to delve into the area of deathcare, and before long it was as if a door opened. I was asked to share. And each time I did, I was asked again. Asked to share what I’d gathered in my short time on the path, to create safe spaces for everyday people to talk about death and dying. Asked to delve into ideas of what the most family-centred death care could look like. In these early days, I was able to do this unsullied by the realities of running a business in the field. These unfettered contemplations created a foundation for everything that was yet to come on this path of death-work.
As I opened to the call, I was called on by the dying and their families; asked to offer support in practical, emotional and spiritual ways. This became increasingly tied into holding ceremonial space and co-creating rituals and gathering with families, to really reflect the life of a person who was loved and lost.
This work felt so much like home – yet having a chasm between caring for the dying, and offering their farewell, that precious time of collecting the dead and bringing them into my care, attending to everything right up until their disposition – that chasm felt at odds with the continuity of care. It would be some years before I met Nastassia Jones, and the path unfolded clearly before us.
In those years as a death doula, compassionate companion, family-funeral advocate and celebrant, I had the opportunity to imagine and begin to create a vision for what family-centred death care might look like, if we were able to connect palliative care givers (medical and non-medical), death doulas and compassionate companions who offer specialised non-medical care to the dying and their families. I imagined these practitioners joining together with the threshold choirs, the celebrants, and of course with the funeral-industry workers, joining in a way that was transparent, open-hearted, and that reflected the areas of speciality that all these people had. How might this circle function? What would it look like in reality? How could it work given that there are business interests, volunteers, independent practitioners and organisational employees in the mix?
‘Step out of the Circle of time, and into the Circle of Love’ Rumi
This vision of a circle of support, and a continuity of care is still unfolding, and the work we do at the Last Hurrah Funerals is all about opening to these wholistic and positive connections. We really believe that a connected circle of care is possible, and that this model will transform the experience for the dying, for their families.
Part of the work is at the cultural level, where we must come to accept death as an integral part of life, and where we are less afraid of it, less willing to have to rushed away, and less apt to assume it is a specialised area that can only be attended to behind closed doors.
Part of the work is at a personal level. We must understand what the spectre of death represents in our lives. Are we able to acknowledge when someone we love is dying? Would we be able to acknowledge when we were dying? If we can come to accept these eventualities, we would be more able to access help and support, to get our affairs in order, and to speak freely, well before we have to sit with the reality of such a condition of living.
‘When Death finds you, may it find you alive’ African Proverb
People who do this work discover that this work is a calling. They may not know it at first, but for many, the ones who stick with it, they realise it calls from within. This work asks much of people. I believe one of the main skills people who work in deathcare need is the ability to hold space – whether that be the embalmer in the prep room, who allows whatever arrives to be present, and to be cared for, for the arranger and director, who must read the room, and create a space in which people feel permission to express. It is true of the person answering that death call, knowing that for the person on the other end of the phone, it is possibly the hardest call they have ever had to make. It is true of anyone who contacts the dying or the bereaved. In being able to hold space, such people can transform an experience of despair and heartwrenching sadness into something which, while still despairing and wrenching, allows meaning, hope and the seeds of healing.
I began with a curiosity and desire to talk about death….and what I’ve discovered is that, given the chance and a safe space, most people want to talk back. People are actually dying to talk about death, without being told they’re morbid or depressing…without being limited to discussions of possessions and money and the distribution of these things. People want to come at the topic because in some way they do realise it’s something that can’t be avoided.
Working with families who’ve lost someone, who must organise so much and complete so many tasks when they’re at one of the most difficult and dark times in their life, requires a complex skill, and immense capacity. To listen. To sit and hold immense grief and big feelings and complex situations and conflict. To leave silence where it’s needed. To read a situation and offer what is useful, comforting, real.
The death-care industry is just that. It is an industry, with bottom lines and profit margins. Launching a funeral company in the COVID-era has been a stark lesson in economics for us, but something we are absolutely wedded to, is that the more you privilege the fiscal, the more you allow corporate culture to permeate the offerings you make, the less you’re able to connect with the people that you come to serve. For us, the social enterprise model is one that allows us to survive in the inevitable environment of spreadsheets and accountants, while still privileging something greater – serving families and the dying in ways that feel authentic. For us, this work is about making an awful situation a little less foreign, a little less awful. It’s about allowing something to unfold that can encompass a genuine goodbye.
Here at the Last Hurrah, what we hope is to make this idea of a circle of support a reality, one family at a time. This first year has been all the shades – wildly busy, and at the same time impacted by the pandemic. We haven’t been able to get amongst the people in the ways we imagined, but we have been able to get creative about farewells in a time of corona. We’ve also realised that this is home, this is where we are meant to be. Building this circle of support we imagine is a labour of love we’re completely invested in – may we find the ways to bring this vision to fruition!