Being a Death Coach

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Everyone understands the term “midwife,” but there is no term for describing the person who travels with the terminally ill person to their death. I use the term death coach in lieu of any ready-made term. The job is extraordinarily exhausting and emotionally difficult, requiring extreme patience, understanding of the dying person, and the ability to listen without expecting a response. It is like being a psychoanalyst 24/7. And, the job can be long, with no sense of how long it will take. The rewards are love and anguish as the job gets closer to death. When I entered David’s death room, the room radiated love and anguish, the two were inseparable.

Last year, March 10, 2017, at a conference on aging and spirituality that we had funded and I had initiated, I listened to one of the speakers talk about the time spent on birthing. She regretted that no one as paid any attention to deathing: she and her husband spent considerable time thinking about how they will take care of each other when they are dying. Her husband was sitting in front of me, and I told him I had been death partner. Did he want to learn about it? His face looked frightened and eager. They did not have time. But when I was the one to take them to dinner, he asked about being a death partner.

When David was dying I promised myself and him that if I could help someone by talking about it I would. So, I talked about dying without emotion or any obvious affect for over an hour. They took it all in. The husband said, “I just finished taking care of my dying mother for a month. I don’t see how you could do it for that long.” He seemed to know about the sense of inadequacy, incompetence, powerlessness, and helplessness that were part of being a death partner. Before we got up from dinner, he asked me, “what do you need?” I told him: a condominium in DC. He said, “good, you have a plan.”

I thought I had done a good thing. and I felt that I had done the right thing, a good thing, but when I got back to my apartment I collapsed on the bed. Exhausted. That night, I was right back to the months of terror. I remembered how I felt every night, “how can I go through another day like this. I can’t do it.” It was noon the next day before I could escape from the memory. And, again, I feel that if I write our story, I will have to experience it all over again.
As David and I said to each other during the long months, “I can’t go on. I will go on.” I feel Samuel Beckett’s words again as I continue writing our story. I don’t see how I can relive this again, but I can’t do anything else until I write our story. Karma? I’m writing it because I can’t not write it.


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4 responses to “Being a Death Coach”

  1. Stephanie says:

    How do I become a death coach?

  2. Barb Nielsen says:

    I’ve been a hospice volunteer for many years and I sat with my mother-in-law when she was dying. It is filled with conflict but also great light and blessings to be in the presence of one who is transforming. Another book to consider: Grace in Dying by Kathleen Dowling Singh.

  3. NKM says:

    Bev, thank you again. I’m impressed by your experience as a hospice volunteer. I admire that and hope to be able to be a hospice volunteer, but I am not ready. I tried to be a grief counselor for my sister when her husband was dying, but it pulled me right back into David’s death. I think it takes time to develop a level of detachment, to keep anchored. As you know, being a death coach is filled with love and anguish. I would not have missed it.

  4. NKM says:

    Stephanie, thank you for the question, a very good one. I learned to be a death coach because I was dedicated to keeping my husband feeling safe. I didn’t have a plan, I didn’t know what to do. I relied on my intuition to let me know what he needed. I forgot about myself and was completely depleted after he died. I suspect a professional death coach would know how to take care of herself, prefer her own needs some of the time. A professional death coach that I talked to said that you have to have a very strong interest in something else. She was captivated by music and kept working at her job as a choir director while she was working as a death coach. There has to be some way to distance yourself from the one dying. That doesn’t mean you don’t grieve, but you work at staying alive yourself.

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