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.
In March 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.