Doula Stories

Below are two narratives, and photos, from the departures of Eileen and Wayne.


The first is the story of Eileen. She was a highly distinguished woman, a retired psychiatrist, 95 years old. Her daughter is a friend, whom we knew through music. Merissa called us and explained that her mother had died and was lying on the living room sofa. Merissa was upset and asked what should she do. Carole and I were available, so we met at the house.

Early that afternoon, Eileen had walked down the block to her daughter’s home and announced she was feeling funny. She sat on the couch, and after some mumbling and teetering she keeled over, apparently not breathing and unconscious. Merissa called EMTs, who worked on her mom for nearly 40 minutes, to no avail. When we arrived Eileen was lying under a sheet, on her back, wearing a diaper that had been applied by the EMTs. They had given it their all, and Eileen appeared mildly bruised.

Though our work is designed to assist people who are experiencing lingering death, this story is an example of how it can be applied to a sudden, unexpected passing like Eileen’s.

I feel very certain that there is an innate onboard knowledge of how to care for the dead.  This case is a great example.  As Eileen lay on the couch we strategized her sanitation, her transportation, her outfit, how to break news to the kids who would be coming home from school, how to let others know what happened, and explored what procedure did Merissa want to use for removal and dispensation of the deceased Eileen. Meanwhile, as if by angelic messenger a neighbor came to the door in response to the EMT vehicle, inquiring if things were okay, and within a half-hour everyone in the neighborhood knew that Eileen lay dead in the living room.

Photos by Carol Shoaf

We set out to clean and anoint, and then dress Eileen and let her settle into the state of rest. Merissa, the daughter, chose not to participate in this part and used the time to prepare for the children’s arrival. The anointing went something like this:

Using lavender, frankincense, and other favorite oils, we gently touched various areas of her body–forehead, wrists, throat, ankles; and we said words such as these:

“We anoint this mind that thought so deeply and created great ideas for the future.”  “We anoint this hand that toiled for the children and for a beautiful garden.” “We anoint this heart that loved God and nature.” “We anoint this foot that walked a thousand miles to serve others and model true human curiosity and drive.”

Using transfer methods we’d learned in our courses we struggled a bit to get a shower curtain under Eileen. There is a need for something to contain fluids as well as facilitate moving the body when the time comes.

We used Tech Ice to keep the body cool. Using the shower curtain, it was possible to insert the ice underneath her, but it still takes at least two people, depending on the size of the deceased. Subsequently, I’ve learned that it’s best to apply the ice at the same time as using the transfer techniques to position the shower curtain.

With Merissa’s guidance, we selected clothing for Eileen.  By slitting the back of clothing it’s possible to dress the body with ease, tucking the back of the outfit under the body.  We dressed her and shrouded her with a silk scarf.  She looked beautiful.

Soon it was time to pick up 9-year-old Sarah from school. Sarah was told something like this: “Grandma came over, fainted on the couch, and stopped breathing. The EMTs tried, but couldn’t revive her. She died. Friends are at the house and we all made her look nice and we are going to spend time with her now until she has to go for her funeral. People have been coming over, but you can have private time with her if you want. We will be making bouquets and setting candles around the living room. We want to honor Grandma as she makes her journey to heaven.”  So—by the time Sarah got home she was in tune with what was going on.  She wanted to see her grandmother, get something to eat, and then she embarked upon making bouquets.

To keep a body at home for a day or two can be a lovely practice. Friends, relatives, and neighbors will come by, and many find it natural to sit in the room with the departed and chat and snack. This is what happened at Eileen’s death. People just started showing up and some brought food. Eileen lay there peacefully, as bouquets and candles appeared. People talked about her, exchanged stories, and ate finger food. Sometimes conversation drifted away from the subject of Eileen, and she was just “there”. 

As night fell, things became quiet.  The older child, a teenage boy, stayed mostly in his room, while Sarah, Merissa, Carole, and I, and some neighbors, stayed for the evening.  We played hymns and old-time tunes on our violins. Our friend and teacher from the Institute for Conscious Dying, Wood Winfree, “just happened” to be in town and spent the evening with us. People came and went, and the living room was still full of neighbors when I set out for home.

The next day the body of Eileen was picked up by a local funeral home. Since we had held the vigil and viewing at home, it was a simple matter to complete the cremation and return the ashes to the family.

Thank you to everyone who participated that night in the quiet and homespun ritual of sending a beloved friend on her way.


Another death we attended was that of Wayne. He was in his 90’s and said to have widespread cancer, though he didn’t seem to have pain in his last days. His wife, a retired hospice MD knew of our work and called us in. In the end, at least half-dozen people were constantly at his side. It appeared he was spirited out of this world at the perfect moment.

Wayne’s wife, Belinda, led the ministrations including herbal balms, aerosols, massage, singing, and chanting. Belinda did all the grooming and dressing with the help of her closest friends. At one point it seemed to me that there were more than enough people surrounding Wayne, so I went into a bedroom and played my violin. Nearer My God to Thee; Amazing Grace; Rainbow Connection; Let It Be. With the door mostly shut, I wanted to bring that distant musical voice into the background, with the quiet murmuring of the attendants, as they shared stories of Wayne, or read from the Bible or Tao de Ching, or just chatted.

What a relaxed and joyous send-off for Wayne.

At some point, a cardboard coffin appeared. People were invited to decorate the coffin. Eventually, Wayne was moved into it, carried in a sheet. There were flowers and vaporized infusions and gifts to go along with Wayne, and others for Belinda, and as the photos show, Wayne died with a smile. Indeed, he appeared serene from the moment I first saw him, about three days before his departure.

In the last year of his life, Wayne and one of his sons had started a project together— renovation of the kitchen. But it wasn’t finished before Wayne passed. It was missing some cabinet doors, and part of a countertop, and there were some water problems. Yet, multiple amazing meals were prepared and served there, as Wayne lay dying in the adjacent dining room. We enjoyed the close contact and camaraderie, respect, and love that was felt by all the women tending to Wayne and Belinda. Wayne could hear us talking and laughing and I’m sure it was comforting. Hearing is one of the last senses to disappear. The gift of being able to create such an occasion out of one’s death is truly a blessing.

Pictures by Candace English

Everything that happens has happened before; nothing is new under the sun.
~Ecclesiastes 1:9, Contemporary English Version