I’ll be honest, the first time I heard the term “Death Doula” it immediately conjured up an image in my mind of some Marvel Comics villain.
But I guess anytime you include the word death into a title or phrase it gets our minds moving down a pathway of emotions, most of which are sadness, fear, and great unknowing – which would be great if you are directing a movie with villains and mayhem. Not so much, however, if you are a person whose calling is to help people transition through the final stage of life.
When I first met Amy May, her image couldn’t have been further from mayhem or villainy. She has the calm and pleasant demeanor of someone who is a great listener, and someone interested in helping others.
“I really just want to honor the wishes and needs of a client and to allow them to hold space for whatever is going to make them most comfortable,” she told me recently.
May is the founder of Sacred Phases, a Lane County business that offers a host of services for those facing death. This includes planning and coordination, death education and guidance, coordination with other service providers, and assistance navigating death with dignity.
That last service is very Oregon-centric, as our state was the first in the nation to implement the death with dignity law, which allows people with terminal illness to end their lives on their terms.
According to its website. The Death with Dignity Act is:
Proven safe, effective, and above all, meaningful, the Oregon Death with Dignity Act works exactly as intended and exactly for whom it was intended, without fail. Since 1997, these laws have empowered people with terminal illness to have the control they want during the last days of their lives.
For May, that word control is a huge part of what she does.
“When I meet folks I bring no agenda whatsoever,” she said. “I am there to support them in all the choices they want to make and to do everything in my power to help them achieve the best death possible.”
After the death of May’s own mother, she felt anything but in control, and so she set out to see if she could help others avoid the pitfalls she felt with that experience.
“I got into the work because of my mother’s death,” May said. “I took a class on death and dying and had a kind of ‘aha’ moment, when I realized I wanted to be the person that we didn’t have when we went through my mother’s death – to be someone to hold space during the mystery of the unknown.”
During her training, May discovered that the general concept of a death doula has been around for most of human existence, but that modern medicine and philosophy took over that part of the dying process.
“Unfortunately, our predominant culture often sterilizes the dying process and hides it away behind closed doors, leaving us feeling lost, confused, and overwhelmed when we are asked to face it, either ourselves or with someone we love,” she said.
May began her professional journey toward death doula by finding and learning from classes offered by The International End-Of-Life Doula Association (INELDA). That association explains the important and historic role of death doulas as such:
“Dying isn’t a medical event. It is a human one. We (death doulas) have accompanied each other through the bookends of life – birth and death – since the beginning of time. In many cultures specific individuals held the role of guide through these significant life events. They eased physical and spiritual pain, shepherded life across the threshold, celebrated and blessed those involved, and reaffirmed the communal understanding of these life cycle experiences.”
May holds a master’s degree in social work and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the state of Oregon. She completed Death Doula training through INELDA and is a member of the National End-of-Life Doula Alliance (NEDA) and the Association for Death Education and Counseling.
She has also been very active in helping the most vulnerable members of society, being both a crisis worker for Eugene’s marquee mental health crisis program CAHOOTS, as well as founding the end-of-life counseling program at White Bird Clinic.
For May, her great hope is that in a small way, she can help our community become more comfortable with the subject of death, but also with the process of death and dying.
“I don’t have the answers, but I understand the questions and I can help my clients become comfortable with the unknown,” May said. “My job is to help them build bridges from this life to the next, or to help those who believe that death is an ultimate end, get ready to depart this life as comfortable and ready as they can be.”
When I finished talking to May, I thought back to the birth of my kids and the fact that my wife and I had a birth doula with us to help with the entire process. Looking back on that incredibly positive experience, I can only imagine how much a guide at the end of life can help as much as one at the beginning.
For more information about May, go to: https://www.sacredphases.org/about
For more information about death doulas, go to: https://inelda.org/