Death happens. It is unavoidable. It is a time of change, varied emotions, and has long lasting repercussions. The person you loved created a shape inside of you where your souls touched. When one dies that imprint, that space for them, is always there. It can never be filled by another, or things, or places, or actions. Every person we touch has an effect on the shape of our souls. In Western cultures there is pressure to get on with things after a death doing a disservice to the loved one now gone and those left behind to grieve. Death has become frightening and lonely, relegated to hospitals and for the very lucky, hospice care. I’ve always believed that it was the way our culture treats death and grieving that make it feel so foreign and stunt the healing process of everyone…and the acceptance of those that know death is coming for them. There is a movement now, pushing back against this paradigm, reclaiming death from fear and stigma.
Doula is a from Greek and means “female servant”. This has been adopted by the midwife community to mean individuals of all genders that help assist a person in labor and the first few days of life with the new baby. The Death Doula movement further appropriates the word to mean individuals of all genders that stand beside the dying and help the family with the early stages of grieving.
Janie Rakow, president of INELDA, the International End of Life Doula Association, describes a death doula as, “... someone who acts as a guide and companion through the end phase of an illness. This work can start as soon as someone is admitted to hospice.” She says, “the doulas work with the dying person and their loved ones through the final dying process and into the early grieving stages afterward.”
Death Doulas are on the forefront of a movement to take dying out of hospitals and institutions and into compassionate care. The primary role for a Death Doula is to literally stand and take witness. To hold the hand of those that are dying alone or help loved ones hold the hand of the dying and give peace on the start of this journey. No one should die alone, unless they have chosen to do so. A Death Doula stands present for the dying and gives them what care they can. A soft voice. A song. A story. A held hand. A hug. Gentle brushing of hair. Reminders that it is okay to free themselves from the fetters of this world and all the pain being caused by whatever it is that brought death to them. Reminders that there is nothing to fear and they will not leave this world unloved.
A secondary, but equally important role, is to help the loved ones left behind. Even when you know death is coming, even when you take the time to say all the things and are present for the moment, it does not diminish the grieving, the fear, or the pain. Even shock may still happen. Part of that, as I said before, is because of our own societal mores on what grieving looks like. Loved ones are left to clean up all the loose ends, comfort others who may not have known the dying nearly as well as they, and then get on with it. Shove themselves into a awkward box that no one truly fits into, and lock it up tight. The death turns into trauma. Death Doulas seek to end that.
Often this role will just look to outsiders like the busy person. Giving hugs. Listening. Making calls. Talking them through dealing with remains and appropriate remembrance services. Taking in all the information that may get missed when the medical staff bring in forms or speak. The grieving sometimes zone out and can’t catch all of that. It is being the strong one so the loved ones don’t feel they have to be strong and can actually begin to grieve in a way that is meaningful to them.
This work is very similar to hospice care, whom I hold in the highest esteem, but with less emphasis on the medical side and physical comfort, and more on the spiritual needs and peace of mind. Death Doulas can sometimes work with a specific faith but more often they will be secular but spiritual, offering to learn about the beliefs of the dying and to speak about other cultures until they find what is right. Or in the case of being unable to meet the dying before the event to walk the family through those same things. This is midwifery to the soul as we send them on their journeys. It doesn’t matter if that journey is to feed the ground and rejoin the earth, to walk into Hel (Norse/Germanic afterlife not the same as Christian Hell), to dance in the summer lands (early pagan belief), or live in peace in Heaven. All of that is valid and necessary to help the dying take that step with peace.
The movement, it should be important to note, are not advocates of suicide as we understand it in Western cultures. There is a difference between having no medical options to stop or slow death and choosing to go out on your own terms (assisted suicide), and suicide because of depression, trauma, or mental illness. Even in the Death Doula community there is a split on beliefs about assisted suicide. Death Doulas celebrate life and honor it’s passing with reverence. Helping someone to take their own life is not a part of the average Doula’s belief system. Even in extreme cases it is not taken lightly or easily.
I walk the path of a Siedr, an early Norse/Germanic hedge witch. These were the witches of yore that traveled where they willed and could be helpful or not as they deemed necessary. One of the primary roles of the Siedr was to assist in births and deaths. I gladly serve as a birth or death doula upon request. It is how I practice my faith and honor my gods. Every Doula has their own journey to bring them to this space. Some will do their greatest work here, and some will move on. We are as varied as humanity, but we all come together for the belief that death is not something to fear and should be treated with respect and love.
This short story was originally published on the now gone Yahoo! Contributor Network. It is a good summary of how I view the myriad of faiths in this world.
The traveler walked down the path. He couldn't remember having started on his journey, he only remembered walking. He didn't know where he was going, or where he had come from. It seemed to him that he had walked from time out of mind. He never stopped walking because all he knew was this path and that he was supposed to walk. It never occurred to him to stop or go the other way.
The traveler slowly became aware that he had been walking a long time and began to wonder where he was going. It seemed to him that there must be a purpose to all this walking and journeying. Where was this path taking him?
Every now and again he would come to a crossroads. He didn't know where the other paths led so he was afraid of them and simply moved on, but he did ponder what those paths might look like.
One day he came to giant hill, so high he couldn't see the top. He thought if he could just reach the top maybe he would see where he was going. So the traveler climbed and climbed for many days, until it seemed there was no end at all, but just when he was ready to give up, he reached the top and felt he could touch the clouds.
He stood atop the hill and looked at all of creation before him. He could see the forests and streams and the mountains. Far, far into the distance there was a golden city that filled his soul with warmth. He watched the sun and moon and skies and earth around this city with great longing. He knew he belonged in the golden city.
All around the city were paths of every kind, some dark jewels breathing of night stars, some brightly colored as rainbows, some as pure and luminous as pearls, and others as simple and relaxing as floating on a mountain stream, but each one different and each one with its own beauty. The traveler searched as far as he could see and found that all the paths led to the golden city. What this meant he didn't know but he was content to walk again because he knew his path would get him there.
One day he came upon an old woman standing in the road crying. The traveler stopped and stared for a long time. In all his days he had never seen another person. He had no idea that other people had walked the path too. Stunned he was afraid to approach her, but she seemed so sad and he wanted to understand why. Carefully he walked to her and asked her what was wrong.
"I'm blind!" she proclaimed. "The road was here, I know it was," she fretted, "but I cannot find it and now I am so old I cannot even see."
"I can see the path," the traveler said. "You can walk with me." This made the old woman smile. He took her arm and they walked together.
"Why are you blind?" he asked her after a time.
"I have forgotten," she told him. "I used to know where I was going but then I stopped walking and I forgot where I was or where I wanted to go and then my eyes became too dark to see." The traveler thought about this for awhile and then told her of all the things on the path around them and of the golden city he had seen high on a hill. Slowly her eyes began to clear and after a time she could see as well as he did and set off on her own path.
Again the traveler walked alone, but for the first time he knew there were others. It occurred to him as he stopped to rest, that if there was a person on the path ahead of him there might be others behind him. It might be nice for them to know they were not alone after all. In the morning he gathered some berries and left them with a simple note. "Please eat these and ease your hunger."
Leaving the gift made him happy so he made another. He gathered water from a clear stream. "Please drink this so you won't be thirsty." He made a bed. "Please rest here so you'll be stronger tomorrow." He even left a bundle of bright flowers. "Please take these and brighten your heart." The traveler made many gifts always smiling when he thought of what the people would do when they found them.
Another day he came upon a man weighed down by a large burden. The man struggled with it, his eyes crinkled shut in strain his body heavily bowed and unable to move. It seemed all of creation was on his shoulders.
"Help!" he cried. "It is too heavy! I cannot bear it!" and he fell to his knees. Overcome with emotion the traveler ran to the man and tried to help him up, but no matter how much he tried he could not get the man to his feet.
"Let me help you carry this," the traveler said and finally the man was able to stand. Together they walked holding the burden. As they walked the burden got smaller and smaller, each step a little piece of it seemed to melt away.
The traveler and the man walked together and talked of many things. The traveler told him about the golden city and together they made gifts for those that would come after them. One day the man's burden was gone and he turned down his own path with a light heart.
The traveler met many people on his way and with each one he learned something. He met hate, and greed, and sadness. But all these people were not bad, they simply needed help on their path. He walked for a long time helping those he met and leaving gifts.
One day when it seemed the traveler was no longer a young man and had walked so long he thought he'd lived a hundred years, the path around him began to change. The world became filled with a bright golden light and soon his feet were walking on nothing but luminous air. As he floated in the loving golden mist he realized that the golden city wasn't at the end of the path…it was everywhere all the time.
"What do you wish of me?" the creator asked, the sound vibrating in the traveler's very soul. The traveler only had one wish. "I wish to go back," he said.
"You do not wish to be with me?" the creator asked
"But you are everywhere," the traveler said. "I am still with you if I go back, and I want to see the other paths and leave gifts."
The golden light grew even brighter and filled the traveler with a joy he had never known before. "As you wish," the creator said. The traveler lived his days wandering from path to path helping those he found, leaving gifts and telling everyone about the golden city. Everywhere he walked, on every path, the world glowed bright and gold even if he was the only one who could see it. And at last he understood. All paths lead to the truth.
This is one of those blogs that I’m unsure how to go about. I have this political soap box about religious equality in my head, and my feet are stomping on it. They’re not tightly organized and intricate, tap dancing for rhythm; these are all out, hard core percussionist playground stomps. I know this stream of thought has to come out, but my organization in it is lacking. My mother used to tell me I would go on these little journeys in my head, and when I finally spoke I was so far beyond the original idea that got me thinking, that no one knew where I was or how I got there. I will attempt to take you through the hoops and over the leaps with me.
I have a very dear friend, really he is my brother from another mother, that I’ve spoken about before, just not mentioned names. Those that know me best typically know who it is. This man was born to be a first responder. He eats, sleeps, and lives preparedness and survival, search and rescue. He’s got the heart of gold that puts others before himself in almost all things, and the calling to help others. He happens to be Heathen, like me. We follow the teachings of the Norse/Germanic pantheon best known of from the Vikings. Before finding Asatru, I was a non-wiccan witch studying the use of magick and pagan ways for most of my adult life.
I’m waiting for someone of a more well known mono-theistic faith to say something akin to, Isn’t it wonderful he is the exception. This pagan is here to help. You wouldn’t believe the amount of times in my life that I’ve heard similar things. I’m not too different from my brother. I follow a shamanic path as a seidr, a Viking witch/shaman/seer. I’m here to help. It’s in my make up. I actually can’t ignore someone in pain (emotional or physical) even if I highly dislike them. I’m just not good at the whole repelling-into-broken-buildings-to-dig-someone-out or reading-the-doplar-to-know-where-that-storm-is going-to-hit- so-they-can-be-there-first-to-help kind of thing he does (wow those dashes were long).
One thing I’ve learned over the years, every pagan faith has a call to help others. To give to the community. To respond when help is needed. I donate to shelters and volunteer *because* of my faith, not in spite of it. It is not two separate sides of me, but intricately intertwined. Embedded in the noble nine virtues, the cornerstone of Asatru, are words like bravery, honor, hospitality, perseverance. By the most basic principles we, as heathens, are called upon by forces that are greater than ourselves to serve the community. I would say I am hard pressed to find one pagan I have ever met that does *not* give or volunteer in some way. However very few are open about their faith when they do it.
There are exceptions, like the Hands of the Goddess in Florida, whom a friend of mine does a lot of work with. They work with local charities and separately with their own, openly, as pagans. I love seeing this. I love seeing the non-pagans that drop stuff off at her door because they believe in what they do, but they are still considered something unique.
Another friend of mine, landed a dream job, that centers around service to the community. They almost lost it because they were openly pagan and the rest of the group was Christian, even though this was a secular organization. The others felt ooky about working with a pagan. I don’t know man, they might be a devil worshiper. No one took the time to learn the belief system this person followed or that, that very belief system was the entire reason they were there and so dedicated in the first place.
I was angry when I learned this. It’s a free country with supposedly freedom of religion. No one should ever have to hide or modify or step back from their faith to appease the few. I was also told by this friend that most of the better organizations for community service, everything from search and rescue to soup kitchens, were Christian, Muslim, or Jewish based, as if the myriad of other faiths in this country didn’t exist or were all inherently evil.
Why is that? Why are faiths so intrinsically dedicated to service to fellow man not making a bigger impression on the scene. Why is Hands of the Goddess considered unique? Why are good pagans not being counted for?
You’re not going to like my answer.
This happens because religious intolerance in this country is so deeply ingrained and been going on so long, that it has been accepted by the pagan community. It is considered normal to hide one’s faith when giving for fear of the gift being refused.
That’s a real fear. I totally get it. You just want to make sure help gets to those that need it. Not only does it feel bad on a personal level when that happens, but it denies those that that need it, the help. It is still wrong. Let me say that again.
*It is still wrong.*
Allowing this situation to continue only perpetuates all the stereotypes we fight against every day. It allows people to remain ignorant and intolerant. It teaches the public nothing, and our community hides further into the shadows.
Nothing will ever change if we don’t make it change. I want to live in a world where my friends and loved ones can be proud of being first responders, volunteer coordinators, teachers, *and* pagan.
How do we fix it?
Simple. In fact it’s alarmingly simple. It’s so basic, that I bet every single one of you has already thought of it and passed it over as not being enough.
We educate. When talking to a volunteer coordinator: I’m here because as a heathen it is my duty to and my honor to serve. When collecting cans of food: The Goddess reminds us that we are all equal and to serve those in need. When pulling wreckage from a downed house: You and me are equal, and I’m here to help. My pagan faith teaches that.
That’s a lovely necklace. It’s my Thor’s hammer. It reminds me to be strong and act with courage. Or It’s my pentacle, it reminds me to stay in balance with all the elements. It stands for mother and earth and protection.
Believe it or not these sorts of simple statements will cause ripples all around us, and slowly, person by person, our voices will be heard, and the community will understand we belong at the table.
I have a favorite story. The Starfish. This lady walks out onto the beach and it’s covered in starfish. As far as the eye can see, thousands of starfish, all of them dying when they were washed up by the tide. She turns around stunned at the sight and finds another woman throwing starfish out into the sea. The first woman asks, “What are you doing? You can’t save all these starfish, there are too many.” The second woman replies, with a starfish in her hand, “No. But I can save this one,” and she chucks it back out to sea. She picks up another one, “And this one,” she throws that one out as well.
We need to get over this idea that small actions aren’t enough or don’t have impact. They have more impact than you or I will ever be able to track. We cannot allow a society to continue when even our attempts at service are pushed away.
My name is Susan Simone. I am an author, an artist, and a Heathen; and I proudly serve the community. Do you serve?
**This blog has been cross posted.**
Susan is a plural writer and artist by day, a child and pet wrangler by night, and occasional crazy person on the weekends.