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.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Stephanie

    How do I become a death coach?

  2. Barb Nielsen

    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

    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

    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.

  5. Kate

    Dear Nancy, I have done a couple of coaching courses over the last few years and as a result have decided I want to become a coach for the dying. I live in the UK and my goal would be to work in our local hospice here in Herefordshire .
    I am a New Zealander who has lived here for 30 years. . Could you recommend a good course for me?
    Best wishes Kate Edwards

  6. NKM

    Thank you, Kate, I’m glad to learn you want to be a Death Coach. It is a critically important job. I don’t know of a course, but, obviously, doing volunteer work for hospice would be a good place to start. Perhaps you could volunteer for terminal cases?

    I think that the Death Coach needs to understand what is important to the dying person. It probably varies with each person, but with enough time, you will probably be able to figure it out. Many people want to talk when they are dying; they need someone to listen to them. My husband would say, “I report, you listen.”

    To do a good job, I think you have to pay a lot of attention to the survivor. Hospice will be there for the dying person, but no one assumes responsibility for the survivor, who is another death partner. At the end of the day, the Death Coach can go home to an intact world. The world of the survivor is being shattered, day by day. The survivor needs help in feeling intact – both now and in the near future.

    To understand what the survivor faces, you might want to read some grief books. A Grief Observed, the closest to my own experience, oddly enough, is by C. S. Lewis, the author of children’s books. The Widower’s Notebook: a Memoir, by Jonathan Santlofer, is unflinchingly authentic. I would recommend it without hesitation. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion is beautifully written and widely read.

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