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What A Real End-Of-Life Doula Reveals About Death

And the loved one's death that changed that doula's life.

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illustration_of_death_doula_with_patient_by_Mariah Llanes_1280x704
Mariah Llanes
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I slipped off the treatment table and into my shoes, feeling like I’d been drugged. For an hour my doctor’s acupuncture needles let me forget that I was a single lawyer with a pending layoff date during the Great Recession. I powered on my phone.

I tried calling. Can’t get through. Eithne was on the plane that went down, flashed a new text.

My world crashed.

Air France 447 had disappeared without a trace after leaving Brazil; 228 passengers, including my friend Eithne, were on board.

Nine years earlier, at the Gershwin Theatre, Eithne and I became fast friends during rehearsals for our Broadway debuts in the Irish-dance chorus of Riverdance. After the show’s run ended, Eithne moved to Dublin for medical school. I stayed in Manhattan and practiced law. Throughout it all, Eithne was my most trusted friend.

After AF447 plummeted into the Atlantic, stories about the missing plane filled the news. Fuselage and bodies were recovered from the ocean, but Eithne was never found.

No one in my New York communities understood my profound grief, and my ultra-Catholic mother’s antidote — prayer — didn’t eliminate my pain. Desperate for peace, I traveled to an ashram in India, where I meditated and practiced yoga daily for a week, starting at 4 a.m., and my pain shifted.

Weeks after I returned home, my sister called. Our mother was dying. I flew to Missouri and sat at her bedside, holding her hand as she took her last breath, and my new path unfolded. Over the past decade, I had trained and become certified as an end-of-life doula. I served dying strangers as a hospice social and vigil volunteer and have taken many workshops about death and dying. Now in Missouri, I lead a local group of death doulas as we strive to learn and serve.

Eithne’s death changed my life, making me feel pain on a level I didn’t know existed and empowering me to help others, including my parents and strangers, during their transition periods from life to death. From my experiences and trainings, here are five tips I wish someone had given to me after Eithne died, to help me grieve my friend.

  • Know your grief is valid.

Even though friends are not your family, a friend’s death still causes a major loss in your life. A close friend’s death can create a deep void that others might not recognize or understand. Consequently, a friend’s death can lead to isolation and overwhelming loneliness. 

  • Recognize there is no such thing as "getting over" a friend's death.

We can only learn to live with our new reality — that we don’t have our friend’s physical presence. Allow for time to grieve, knowing that feelings of loss can last far beyond the funeral, end-of-life celebration or burial. Feelings of loss can intensify, especially when witnessing other friends interacting. Avoid ridiculing yourself for grieving longer than others may tell you is necessary.

  • Pick a time each week to reflect upon your friendship and to journal.

Remember how you met, the funniest moments you experienced, your adventures, your challenges, and your shared hopes and dreams. Write about any regrets — what you didn’t say or do, or what you wish you could take back. Remember what your friend brought to your life, and think about how your friend can inspire you now.

  • Do something in your friend’s honor.

Volunteer for your friend’s favorite charity. Do a random act of kindness, plant a tree, run a race or create art in your friend’s memory. Go on the trip your friend dreamed of taking.

  • Find support for your grief process.

Engage a professional. Connect with mutual friends of your departed friend. Find a community with others who are grieving the death of a friend. Discover books about the power of friendships, such as Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman’s Big Friendship and Jacqueline Mroz’s Girl Talk. Read memoirs by authors who experienced a friend’s death. Connect with these writers online and through their events. Create a community of support and understanding. The death of a friend is a significant life event that can be downplayed by the outside world. Honor the relationship by taking time to grieve. Honor yourself by taking time to feel and process the death of your special companion. Saying goodbye to a friend’s life doesn’t have to be a goodbye to love, laughter and joy in your own life. Make space for sorrow over your friend’s departure and remember to celebrate the person you got to call “friend.”

Have you lost a close friend? How did you get through it? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Relationships