People ask me ‘Isn’t that awfully sad?’ when I talk about being an end-of-life coach.
‘You are a what?’ is another common response.
They might say (with their lips) ‘That’s amazing,’ while asking with their eyes if it’s contagious or if I am quite mad.
Well, I might be mad or weird or whatever (a little bit of which is good) but it turns out … we’ve all already got the fatal dose that comes with life.
My life experiences include witnessing my mother’s death when I was in my twenties. This death came after a decade-plus-long struggle with an autoimmune disorder. As comedian, commentator and a-whole-lot-more Cariad Lloyd (check out her podcast Griefcast) says, witnessing death admits you to a club that you weren’t asking to join. That said, I wish my younger self had been able to access the support of someone with whom I could process death anxiety (which I now know as anticipatory grief). I wish I’d known that I was, in time, and whether I liked it or not, going to be okay and that (for me) it was like mom slipped into the next room. She’s still there, just out of sight, yet right here too – in my head and heart always. Every. Single. Day.
Perhaps it’s because all those years ago I sat and talked to my mom about dying. About how dying and living are parts of each other. After our conversation, she went home and typed up her last wishes document. She called me to tell me where to find it. A week later we read her words as we planned to give her the memorial service she wanted. We were not overcome by nursing huge armfuls of dying flowers afterwards – because everyone who came to acknowledge and celebrate her life took home flowers, just like she asked. My dad wasn’t left alone for a week – because friends stepped in to keep him company day and night, just like she asked. She got to thank lots of the good people who made her life worthwhile or better or bearable on those difficult days. She wished she’d started that bit thanking others earlier she told us – because it turned out she had a lot of gratitude to express and gratitude is worth sharing.
You get different kinds of doulas. Doulas are trained companions that support another person through reproductive experiences as well as end-of-life experiences. You get different kinds of end-of-life doulas. I specialise in helping people have difficult conversations (with themselves first); in creating a safe space where people can think about and plan for their future. This might mean creating a living will, an advanced care plan, or an end-of-life plan. This might look like making sense of your life experience by conducting a life review or creating a legacy project to share with others.
As a life coach, I aim to live a coached life myself. This means walking the talk and embodying the practice. It’s part of being authentic and living with integrity. It’s very close to my heart. I’d like to be part of what Caitlin Doughty coined in her work The Order of the Good Death as the death positive movement. I’d like to be a part of the brave conversation and the supportive solution. That’s my why.
Covid threw a spotlight on how difficult we, the humankind collective, seem to find death. Watching the documentaries that have flowed out of the pandemic, I was reminded of my own experiences with death. Covid sharpened the desire to work at alleviating suffering related to our relationship with death, while we are alive so that we can live well.
As a life coach we will often ask a client ‘why not now?’ or ‘what’s stopping you?’. When I asked myself these questions, I realised that there’s no absolutely definitely perfect for 100% sure right time. There’s only ever a sense that this is my work, that this is more right now than it was before. That’s why I did it now. Because you never know exactly just how long you’ve been gifted. Some of us already know that we are living with terminal conditions, with life-limiting realities. Some of us are ready to talk to someone about what we want and what we don’t want. You know, the person we talk to doesn’t need to be those beloved family members and friends already burdened by their own pending loss. It needs to be someone who can make a space for us to have that conversation, to make that plan, and to write down the ‘I am grateful to you for …’ list. Ideally, it should be someone level-headed and calm, brave in a way that is helpful to others. After that, we can walk away knowing that we can send our remaining energy lifeward.