Sacred Passage: Addressing fears, guiding transitions
By Andrea Jacobs, IJN Senior Writer
Tina Walker is not a traditional doula, an ancient Greek term that was popularized in the 1960s to mean women helping women before, during and after labor. Walker,an end-of-life doula,guides the dying toward their spiritual rebirth.
“An end-of-life doula assists in the transition after death,” Walker says, her English accent permeating like a balm.
“Instead of the soul entering into the physical world at birth, we help people transition from the physical world into the spiritual realm.
“Obviously, people have their own way of looking at life and their own spirituality,” says Walker, a convert to Judaism who attends Bonai Shalom and Nevei Kodesh.
“I think that the soul comes into the body at birth. Toward the end of life, people are letting go of the physical body that served them so well for so long — but their spirit will continue.”
She calls this inevitable exchange “a sacred transition of energy,” or the soul.
Walker, 61, says that in some regards,being with the dying is similar to being present at a birth.
“Of course, the jubilation and celebration associated with birth are absent,” she says.
“But there is this incredible sense of peace, and to a certain extent completion.”
The degree of surrender “depends on where the person is on his or her journey: whether they are willing to let go and move into that space, or still grasping on to life.”
Walker,a native of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, Australia, was 14 when her family relocated to the UK.
That’s where she married, had children and worked as a physical therapist for 30 years.
Previously an elder care specialist, she received certification as an end-of-life doula three years ago from the Conscious Dying Institute in Boulder.
For those with preconceived doula notions — flimsy white robes, flowing hair crowned with flowers — think again. Walker nullifies stereotypes.
Guiding the soul’s transition after death. ‘We continue’
Death is the obdurate elephant in the recesses of human consciousness. Regardless of religious clarity or shrugged indifference, no one looks forward to dying.
“We are dominated by fear in our lives, but for many of us death is the absolute greatest fear,” Walker says. “But when you ask people what they fear the most, it isn’t the actual death.
“What they dread is the dying process — being alone, in pain, afraid, not knowing how to approach the changes going on in one’s body.”
Walker is also an end-of-life coach for persons who want to plan for a good death down the road while leading the fullest life possible now — an inextricable relationship.
“We look ahead to death and learn how to plan the ideal end-of-life scenario if we are given the choice — and none of us knows whether we’ll have a choice,” she says.
“This gives people the opportunity to discover what’s really important in life. The spiritual? Physical? Material? What really matters, and what will we leave behind?
“This kind of exploration can help calm people’s fears and concerns and enable them to see death as a transition,” she says. “If we begin to look at death much earlier,we could reduce the level of anxiety and fear around dying.”
Medicare does not cover the services of an end-of-life doula, a role performed by women and men.
Walker says the cost is variable depending on the number of sessions. One meeting runs between $75 and $100. A package deal,“for want of a better phrase,”is $450 to $475.
“When we try to avoid the fear of death, it just gets bigger. Its presence becomes more ominous. But if we stand still and really look at it, the fear dissipates.”
Walker emphasizes that end-of-life doulas do not supplant hospice care. “Nothing can take the place of hospice,” she says. “Hospice is very important.
“Still, everyone in the hospice setting has his or her own agenda and time constraints. They have tomove on to the next patient.”
A death doula is dedicated to one person, particularly during the final stages, she says.
“We don’t have another patient waiting for us down the hall. We are guides, and we’re not going anywhere.”
Although Walker witnessed death in her hospital career, she attributes her own transition to end-of-life care to her father, who died eight years ago.
“My dad was an amazing psychiatrist,” she says, “but one of the things he never dealt with was his fear of death — and that fear was powerful.”
Her father was in his 80s when he suffered a fall resulting in a subdural hemotoma (burst blood vessels in the brain). He survived for another two years but had recurring fainting spells.
“The last year of his life, my father was confined to a hospital bed at home, tended by caregivers,” she says.
Walker, who was residing in Hong Kong with her husband and sons at the time, was unable to visit him more than three or four times a year.
“I provided physical care to him, but I realized there was this huge gap,” she says.
“Physical care is one thing. What my father needed was someone who could address his fears about dying.”
Walker was unable to be present when he died.
“My mother and brother were there,” she says, “but they couldn’t be with him as he was dying. The nurse and doctors updated them, of course, but they stayed away.
“I think they were terrified of letting go of him.
“After he died, I realized I had a real affinity for end-of-life care and being with the dying during their transition,” she says.
Walker, who was raised in the Catholic faith, fell in love with and married a Jewish man who never encouraged her to convert. She chose it by herself, for herself.
“Judaism has always been in the back of my mind,and I’ve always had a huge amount of interest in it,” says Walker, who spent her youth in Sydney, Australia, home to a sizable Jewish community.
She interacted with Holocaust survivors and escapees; listened to their stories; immersed herself in their culture.
After moving to Boulder, Walker’s husband would attend holiday luncheons on Rosh Hashanah without her.
“Finally I said I wanted to come too, which I did for a number of years. I was so taken by how joyful everyone felt.”
Tina Walker educates a classroom on death, dying, and the role of the end-of-life doula.
When Walker announced that she wouldn’t go to any more luncheons unless she went to the Rosh Hashanah service as well, her husband demurred. “There are too many services!”
“I don’t think he wanted me to take this on,” she laughs.
Undaunted, she showed up at an erev Rosh Hashanah service and took a seat. The instant the cantor intoned the “Avinu Malkeinu,”
Walker says that “every cell in my body started vibrating. I was suddenly alive, connected.
“It was as if my soul had been searching my whole life but couldn’t find where it belonged. That night I knew exactly where I should be. I was home. And I started living.”
Walker studied with Rabbi Joshua Rose of Har HaShem.
Although Rose led a Reform congregation, he imparted a Conservative perspective that appealed to her.
She converted to Judaism seven years ago.
Walker says that her involvement with Conservative Bonai Shalom and Jewish Renewal’s Nevei Kodesh “makes me a bit of a denominational gypsy.
“But I’m thrilled that you can actually move around between Jewish denominations like this in Boulder.”
American women were primarily involved in caring for the dead in earlier centuries. They washed the body on a table at home and tenderly prepared it for burial.
Walker says the Western attitude toward death started evolving in the Civil War. “So many men were dying on the battlefield, away from families, morticians. “Then funeral parlors sprang up. Death moved out of the home, and eventually into hospitals.”
While most people would prefer dying in their homes surrounded by the familiarity of place and loved ones, Walker estimates that 75% die in hospitals today.
Death comes at its own time, under its own conditions.
Despite its unpredictability, death has not compromised Walker’s ability to share her unique skills.
For her, these one-on-one, intiSACRED mate relationships are unforgettable and transformative.
“I was with a dying man in hospice for 24 hours,” she recalls.
“I made him as comfortable as possible, as peaceful as possible, and gave the family a sense of peace.”
Walker feels that great strides are occurring in the acceptance of death in the 21st century — but there’s a long road ahead.
“As a species, I think human beings are going through an amazing change in consciousness,” she says.
“We’re opening up to the possibility that we are much more connected to the divine than we realized.”
Walker says that end-of-life doulas are beginning to gain traction in the West.
The once-hushed conversation has gone public.
“Still, at the end of the day, each and every one of us will approach the finality of our physical existence in our own way,” she says.
“Because we are alive and cognizant of our mortality,that fear will always be with us.
“The question is, what do we do with that fear of death? Do we hide it and pretend it doesn’t exist, or do we look at it in the face?”
Following her conversion to Judaism, Walker became involved with the chevra kadisha, whose members ritually wash the body and recite prayers for the deceased prior to burial.
“The Jewish tradition of accompanying the physical body after death is so beautiful and enriching,” she says.
“End-of-life doulas offer a continuation of this service — but it is performed as you are dying.”
Andrea Jacobs may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.