Imogen Bailey: “I used to be a model, now I’m a death midwife.”

It is always an interesting conversation when I tell people I am a birth doula and a death midwife in training. People understand my fascination and commitment to supporting and empowering families in birth but when it comes to death their faces change. I am often met with questions like “why on earth would you want to do that? ” or “are you morbid?”

Interestingly the word morbid suggests an unhealthy mental state or attitude to something but I would argue the unhealthy aspect of dying stems from the death-phobic trauma culture surrounding it and our failure to make friends with our own mortality.

For starters our fear of the conversation in general and the decision-making processes surrounding death.

This means we end up with morbid statistics like 70% of people wanting to die at home and only 14% of people who want the palliative home care option arranged actually getting it. Simply because many people don’t know what their options are.

I wonder what it would look like if death became a conversation we could all joyfully have and plan for together – without the fear and with the communal goal of giving our loved ones the kind of departure they want?

My good friend and musician Ben Lee is also a death doula. He told me “by studying death midwifery, I really came to appreciate that “the dying” are not “other people”- It’s us. Now. We are all dying, right now and in every moment of our lives. In a way, true friendship is simply being there for each other as we face our own mortality.”

This week Jane Caro tweeted “ How do you want your last days on earth to be spent? You won’t get your wish if you don’t tell anyone. #deathoverdinner

Just over a year ago my uncle passed away. It was a difficult time but what made it easier was my uncle’s almost OCD like attention to the details of sorting out his personal affairs. He left the family post-it notes and detailed instructions on what he wanted done with everything in his life.

What led me in part to this work (death midwifery) was my uncle’s death and his often-comical instructions. Firstly I would have liked to be by his side at the end (I know many of my family members would have) so I decided to get trained and secondly, because my family all took a little solace and some giggles from his post-it notes.  

Performed a new piece last night. Dedicated to the 37 babies who are in danger of being sent to Nauru. #LetThemStay it is especially for Mr Turnbull. The poem is called “Dear Daddy” … This is part of the piece ~ You see my neck can’t yet hold up my own head and my skull cannot protect my delicate mind. So I ask you Mr Turnbull, where is your fathers brain? Your lions heart? Your grandfathers spine? Where are the soft hands you used to wipe the tears from your own children’s cheeks? Where is the light of joy in your eyes when your son learnt a new word? When your daughter crawled across the room towards you, for the very first time, when her lips sang to you “Daddy”. Daddy please protect me. Daddy keep me safe. Daddy give me a home, so I can learn to use my feet, to walk with my head held high, because I mean something don’t I? I mean, I matter right? Tell me that I matter, please! Because you said you stand for families and every child is a precious gift, but daddy I’ve been having nightmares, wishing I was a bird who could get up and fly away but there’s barbed wire all around me and my screams cannot be heard. I see a little boy in the corner with tape over his mouth, so he doesn’t tell anyone what happened to him and who are all these strangers? Daddy where are you? because there are only two words for what I’m seeing … Child abuse. #spokenword #slam #bankstownpoetryslam #Malcolmturnbull #nochildbelongsinimmigrationdetention #stayawayfromthechildren A photo posted by Imogen Bailey (@imogen_bailey) on Feb 23, 2016 at 5:41pm PST

I thought about how much fun he would have had if he could have had the death conversation with us all, and delegated his end of life instructions around the dinner table.

My uncle was ready to talk about his death years before he actually passed. That is when it should have happened. I can’t help but feel like perhaps things would have been easier for him if he could have seen us involved in that process earlier. I know at the very least he would have had lots of fun delegating. I know he too would have taken some solace in knowing his final wishes would be fulfilled.

So what is the death talk we need to be having?

Simply… it is a conversation about what the end of your life looks like to you.

It is personal and just like each birth and death in this world, it should be about individual needs and impulses. I’ve compiled five points to help get you started with only one instruction… where you can have fun, have fun!

1. Talk about what kind of death celebration you would like. Go to town with this part: be as specific as you desire, talk about the music and where you would like to be put to rest. Talk about the food and the time of day. Whatever you would like to happen on this day express it!
2. Go over any instructions for your medical care. Pay attention to instructions about what to do if you are unable to make decisions or unable to communicate .
3. Discuss your last days – do you have any special requests? Perhaps you even know how your family could fulfill these requests for you.
4. Talk about your end of life care. This should include organ donation and things like instructions for your social media accounts.
5. Tell your family about the things you love: the music, your cat, your favourite candles. Tell them in detail about the little things that might make you feel more comfortable or happier at the time. The things that will make you feel comfortable in your environment in your final hours.

 

It might sound a little silly but when the time comes… if loved ones are in a situation where they can be prepared for you these are the little pieces of information that will help them turn the time into a ceremony and a celebration for you and your life. It will help to make them feel useful and you will know everybody knows what you want.

Whether decisions about these details have been made or not, my role as a doula comes in to play with the small details. The little pieces of the puzzle that when put together help support a client to prepare for birth or death.

It is my job to pay attention to the environment and the individuals desires. This might be music, lighting, a familiar blanket or communicating with family and friends. I create a safe, loving and gentle environment – a nest – a nest to give birth in or a safe warm nest to depart from in death.

Doulas hold space for needs without judgment or opinion. We do not have an idea of what the best birth or death should look like. That part is up to the individual. What we will do is support their vision.

We are the nurturers, we do not offer opinions and we do not do anything medical.

We do work with palliative care staff and as Australia’s medical system moves towards more home hospital care, the role of doulas will become more known and available in Australia. If this kind of work calls out to you I urge you to go ahead and seek the training.

A great tool for having the conversation can also be found at :
www.dyingtotalk.com.au

Help with planning go to:
www.advancedcareplanning.org.au

Courses in both birth and death doula studies can be found at
www.australiandoulacollege.com.au

Imogen Bailey is an Australian model, actress and singer. She is also a birth and death doula.

Part of creating a safe space for death is feeling like you can choose when to die. Watch the panel of Q&A discuss voluntary euthanasia. 

Video via ABC

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