Working Through Wishes

As a presenter about end-of-life doula work, I have come to realize that guiding groups through workshops often mirrors direct work in the field. Whether it’s birth or death, people yearn for support and validation from a nonjudgmental listening ear. This goes for leading participants through visualizations and advance care planning, too.

When an array of personalities gathers to explore wishes for end-of-life, it’s a mysterious, unpredictable journey (for them and for me). I can set an agenda. I can plan thoughtfully-timed breaks and allotments for processing, and yet, when I cling too tightly to predetermined goals, I am nudged back into the doula’s realm—a realm that beckons a wider scope, an open mind, and a brave heart.

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The most recent workshop I ran was with fifteen vibrant women, many in their third or fourth “act” of life. These were not meek women. They were powerful, vocal humans—business owners, politicians, environmentalists, healers, and designers. This was a gathering of sage sultanas.

We successfully completed the intro (my story), a brief explanation of doula work and the training program I direct at the University of Vermont, a heart-centering exercise, a discussion about the concept of holding space, a “special place” visualization, a discussion about compassion, and a script featuring Joan Halifax’s stance of equanimity (“strong back, soft front”). I felt we were adequately primed for advance care planning.

Our next step was to work through prompts that speak to a person’s core beliefs and values. Comfortably seated around a large table with pens and paper in hand, we began by each choosing one question from section A. There were eight or nine choices, so settling on one took a minute or two. Then, quiet. My eyes focused in on number five, which asked how often I would like people present during my time of dying. I sat with my thoughts. I reflected back on times of stress and illness, noting how difficult it is for me to be a patient.

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It’s hard to sit still and let others care for me. Yet, those trials taught me what a gift it is to allow others their turn to nurture. Knowing myself fairly well, I recognized that I prefer balance. Endless doting can feel smothering. While companionship is comforting, I also appreciate privacy and chunks of time spent alone.

Also, I doubt that my propensity to attentively love my children and husband will dissipate while there’s any sign of life within me. So, knowing they are nourished, supported, and rested will undoubtedly aid my journey. I would want them to take breaks as they provide care and sit vigil. I would want them to seek respite and do whatever they feel they need to do in order to navigate the experience (ideally in healthy ways).

I sensed most attendees had also finished writing their answer to a prompt, so I opened up the discussion, assuming they’d share what they had crafted.

“How was that?” I asked.

Paper-shuffling and body-shifting hinted at the richness to unfold. Once the first voice spoke, there wasn’t a moment of silence to follow.

“It pissed me off, actually,” was the first assertion, due to shaky family dynamics.

“This would have been amazing to have when I was helping my friend who was dying,” spoke another.

“We witness that most elders are at peace with their dying; it’s the loved ones who have the hardest time coping,” remarked a holistic caregiver.

“We plan, God laughs,” remarked a particularly spiritual participant who had seen some arduous, lengthy vigils.

“Perhaps it’s more about the feel of the space than the specifics,” suggested the other holistic caregiver.

Between each comment was space to uncover more, not in the sense of convincing anyone of anything, but to illuminate additional questions. How about those relationships that need tending? Unfinished business? Regrets? Is there potential for resolving issues now, while there’s time? How can we create plans that incorporate the needs of loved ones, knowing this can lift a burden off the person dying? How can we respectfully approach these conversations with people who might be hesitant? How can we accept when people aren’t willing to face their mortality? What becomes our role then? How can we prepare for the unexpected? The burnt-out care team? What are our contingency plans? How can we adopt creative flexibility to honor the core values of the person dying when hurdles appear?

And how can we cultivate that feel of a person’s space? Some people are wide open to “whatever happens, happens,” while others have a clear vision. For some, noise and chaos are comforting. They prefer to be surrounded by loved ones, the smells of family recipes, songs, chatter, and maybe even squabbling. For others, stillness and silence are preferred. Their inner circle includes a select few who will read poems and prayers with reverence. Of course, there exists everything in between as well. To each our own labyrinth.

This contemplation is important: What feels like home in your heart? What evokes that feeling of serenity and comfort?

Doulas do not claim expertise. We don’t have your answers. A doula’s realm is one of non-duality. Fears and hopes are not right or wrong—they simply are. There’s gray. And within this murk, a client’s sense of direction can become clouded. A doula remains an emotion ally. We align with a client’s truth. We ensure people don’t feel neglected, as we know this can be the worst kind of suffering.

Just as with direct work, I must sit with what arises in group work. I must turn toward the pressing needs of the moment. It’s not always rainbows and Rumi quotes. When I relinquish the façade of control, beautiful complexities emerge. I can only hope workshop attendees receive even half of the lessons in growth they bestow upon me.

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Want more on doula work? Find the Doula Heart book here or Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Interested in hosting a workshop? Contact Francesca to set a date!

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