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Craig: Why I Chose to Be an End of Life Doula

"One performs this pure, beautiful service for another, and in the process is given a refreshed perspective on the tenuousness of it all."

Photo of Jim Rosenberg
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Craig left a successful corporate career at the age of 61 to become an end of life doula and sit with the dying. He spends a lot of time with those who don't have family or others to sit with them. Here's his story, in his words:

Let’s put the ‘big thought’ first:  It appears to me, the more accepting we are of our mortality, the better life we can lead in all respects.   Further, recognizing ALL impermanence gives one a clear, rational, healthy, perspective on life.  Conscious embracing of reality rather than denial, fanciful wishes, dogmatic practice or blind faith, fosters mental health & happiness.   It allows one to die with (at least) less fear and fewer regrets (because of a life well lived).  This isn’t just important.  It’s everything.    

An end of life “Doula” is someone who (in the vernacular), “accompanies the actively dying to their transition.”  That means being present for them.  The amount of interaction varies.  Sometimes we hold a hand and give words of comfort.  Other times we sit and just BE with the person.  It can be intimate to the point of oneness.  There’s a feeling of great honor being present at another’s final moments.   One performs this pure, beautiful, service for another, and in the process is given a refreshed perspective on the tenuousness of it all.  And that, brings one heightened gratitude for the value of every moment.  

In light of death one laughs at all the silly things we think are important when we forget that we’ll all be gone in a blink.   Everything other than love, becomes unimportant.

That’s part of why I do what I do.  

I find the majority of volunteers, have at some time utilized hospice as respite for themselves and the care of a loved one.  They became so deeply grateful that they commit to repaying this kindness.  But Doulas I’ve met often have different motivations.  It’s a “calling.”  We are just drawn to the work.   

Perhaps the genesis was growing up next to a large and beautiful cemetery.  I would spend hours peering into mausoleums, searching out the oldest stones, and diving into mountains of leaves the groundskeepers made each fall.

Reflecting on the forensics, a huge factor had to be: In the late 70s, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross came to a college campus to discuss her seminal book, “On Death and Dying.”  I went to her talk, and then planned to attend a small gathering for those who wanted to learn more.  I got to that venue an hour early in hopes I might find her alone.  And there she was.  What a privilege it was talking to her one-on-one for an hour.  Her serenity and approach to the taboo subject left an indelible mark.  Yet I can’t pinpoint what made me so driven to seek her out.     

Around that time, the books of Carlos Castinada were gaining popularity.  He too, was calling for us to become familiar with what he called “our eternal companion.”   “It is always to our left, an arm's length behind us. Death is the only wise adviser that a warrior has. Whenever he feels that everything is going wrong and he's about to be annihilated, he can turn to his death and ask if that is so. His death will tell him that he is wrong, that nothing really matters outside its touch. His death will tell him, 'I haven't touched you yet.'”

The sorcerer Don Juan said to Carlos Castaneda (in Journey to Ixtlan):

“We don’t have time, my friend; that is the misfortune of human beings. Focus your attention on the link between you and your death without remorse or sadness or worrying. Focus your attention on the fact that you don’t have time and let your acts flow accordingly.  Let each of your acts be your last battle on earth. [… Unless you are immortal] there is no time for timidity, simply because timidity makes you cling to something that exists only in your thoughts. It soothes you while everything else is at a lull, but then the awesome, mysterious world will open its mouth for you, as it will open for everyone of us, and you will realize that your sure ways are not sure at all.”

This is what I was reading and internalizing at age 20 in 1975, as the radio played Blue Oyster Cult’s  “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”

Through the next decades my awareness was less acute, as I was climbing the corporate ladder and lost in ego.  Now 61, in recent years I began a journey of meditation and introspection.  I left a high paying corporate job, with little outside stress.  But the urgency to live a truer existence made the corporate world increasingly toxic as each day passed.  

Compounding my desire for change, I went to see a performance series of 49 diverse, dynamic, senior citizens reflecting on their lives and what’s most important.   Over and over I heard about the importance of giving back.  

So I retired.  I had no thoughts on how I wanted to volunteer.   I sort of opened myself and started looking at many options.  And this work just opened like a lotus for me.  

I’ve always been drawn to do things that scare me.  Diving headlong into fear has brought tremendous rewards.  Coupling that to the sense of urgency I have, I persuaded the Hospice folks to not make me wait for 6 months to begin 8 weeks of course work.  I completed it all on line in 4 days, and immediately began 4, ½ day sessions per week.  What the heck, life is short!    

Doula service is pure.  It's about listening with no agenda.  The “Platinum Rule” applies.  It takes someone with humility.  Or someone like me, who is trying to gain more humility.

When I hold someone's hand who is actively dying  I think of someone holding mine someday, then someone holding theirs, an unbroken chain.  

In closing, let me tell the reader what my motivation is for sharing this.  I am a very happy man who will remain happy no matter what comes.  I’m ready for death.  I got here by dumb luck and listening to wise people.  Some people will find all this talk of death depressing.  I’d like to have them consider that it’s a choice to let it/life be depressing or joy filled.  I can’t even say we have free choice, but if you can find a way to make the choice to be happy, no matter what, you can.   And EVERY DAY above ground will be a good day.      

I once heard someone talk about the word “Inevitable.”  They said that we were all on a train heading toward the station called, “Inevitable.”  And we are all running in the opposite direction!  Yet we're all going to arrive sooner or later.  -  So, I think, why not sit back and enjoy the ride?  Better yet, I think I'll stick my head out the window!  Oh hell I'm just gonna climb on top and feel the breeze.  

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Where are all the places where we can offer service in the end of life experience, and create a richer experience for others and for ourselves?


Join the conversation:

Photo of Doug

Great article!  Craig is an amazing man who I had the pleasure of meeting last December in Quebec at a meditation retreat. Thank you for posting. 

Photo of Jim

Thanks Doug. It was really interesting and inspiring to talk with Craig. I'm glad I was able to share this story.

Photo of James

What a beautifully inspiring story. Thank you for sharing your journey. If we could raise societal awareness of this critical role I think it would be a major contribution to improving end of life care. 

Photo of Anne-Laure

Thanks Jim for sharing Craig's motivation for becoming a death doula. You might also want to check Erica's post on doulas. In her comment, she explains the connection between birth and death doulas. Thanks!

Photo of Jim

Yes! Thanks for this. I meant to link to that inspiration and completely spaced it. Have added the inspiration to help tie the threads together.