Death Doulas

December 6, 2016

Tell me a story . . .
What kind of story, child?
A story with a happy ending.
There’s no such thing in all the world.
As a happy ending?
As an ending.”
– Jeanette Winterson

There is no such thing as an ending. Even after death and the body rests silent, wasted. A shell. There is another beginning.

Several years ago on a Thursday afternoon at 1:13pm, in a rented hospital bed in my parent’s home, my eighty-six year old grandmother let go of life.

Mildred Lee Thacke.

She died among her grandaughters and daughter, one rasping breath at a time. We stood at her side, reciting the crafts she used to make, the hemp macrame and shells from Kino Bay, filling the space between our heart and hers. And then her breath stopped. Still, we stood beside her, smoothing her hair, patting her tired hands, feeling for a pulse, not quite believing.

Three days prior to her passing, Gram had visitors. They were spirits young and old: her uncle, her grandmother, an angel in the fields, a baby, and hosts of other people she didn’t recognize. Spirits offered her steak for dinner, and little children dashed in to eat her See’s candy, then scampered squirrley around the house. A pesky blond boy kept ducking into her bedroom and running up the stairs.

She saw them all and talked with each one.

Gram said they were coming to take her on a trip. She was going to go in three more days, but insisted that she needed her white robe. This is coming from my crusty grandmother who loved cheap beer and cheaper coffee. She loved romance novels featuring busty damsels and half-clad hunks, and her favorite words included damn and hell, often in combination. And she never talked of God or heaven.

At midnight when my mom was too tired to sit with her any longer, gram said, “Today was the best day of my life!” Three days later she died.

You read stories like this, maybe in Reader’s Digest or Chicken Soup for the Soul. They wring with tears, sing of letting go and rebirth through death. Sometimes a harp plays in the background. They might mention spirits and that fuzzy place between this one and the next. And hope. They are filled with ladles of hope.

And then this happens to our gram, and in a way, to us.

My mom described gram as looking around the room like there were layers of spirit friends and family in attendance. As if spirits were packed in, elbowing one another for a word with gram, a glimpse. My family felt the thrum of invisible life, the seen and unseen worlds colliding.

This realm of wonder exists, it wavers just past the edge of the map. Ethereal beings despite tangible reality. How these coexist, I don’t know. I try and consider this spiritual realm but last about three minutes, lapsing back to the grist of real life. Even as I type this, I mentally wander downstairs to rummage for tonight’s dinner: taco salad or Godiva dark chocolate truffles?

The physical world drags us to the next moment, unceasingly. We are not meant to hold on too tightly. In her beautiful and introspective book, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion tells us, “I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.”

That’s it, dear Joan. Of course.

Years ago I sat at my midwives feet discussing life and death. From their perspective of catching hundreds of babies, they believe that the awe, the majesty, the grandeur of birth can also be present at death. And that both are a privilege.

In birth, I had doulas who guided me. They helped me bring my babies into the world. In death, my gram had spirits guide her. Death doulas. They helped her find a way to leave the world.

Kaye, one of my midwives, once said, “The door between birth and death is the same door, just swinging in opposite directions.” I know that doorway a little better now. It swings, invisible, just beyond the periphery.


  1. Rosalyn

    December 6, 2016

    Lovely, Terresa. Thank you.

  2. Linda

    December 6, 2016

    Exquisite, Terresa and very timely since my father-in-law died just recently and his memorial was last Saturday. This is so lovely and hopeful.

  3. Blue

    December 6, 2016

    My cousin is actually a death doula. She trained to help the dying in the same way that birthing doulas help the mothers. I’d never heard of them before she told me about it, but it’s an interesting concept, and I loved reading your piece today. I wish I could focus for three minutes on the unseen realm SQUIRREL! and have experiences with it, but so far I don’t have that blessing.

  4. Gabriele

    December 6, 2016

    I have attended some births of my grandchildren and felt the spirits who were saying goodbye while we welcomed them home. And it is so at death. Death can be sudden and birth equally so. My granddaughter was born so peacefully until her mother hemorrhaged. the midwife handed me the baby, wrapped in a blanket, while the paramedics rushed my daughter-in-law away. I felt heavenly angels strengthen me as I dressed her for the first time and prepared her for the carseat where she would accompany her father to the hospital, All was well, but so suddenly life careened out of control. The door awaits.

  5. annell

    December 6, 2016

    Wonderful to read you again! Merry Christmas!

  6. Catherine

    December 6, 2016

    Beautiful. Thanks, Terresa

  7. Jennie L

    December 6, 2016

    Beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Annie

    December 6, 2016

    Beautiful and thought provoking.

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