Death doula

She toed the company line and told people it was an “honour” to counsel the dying. No one had instructed Andrea to say this, but it’s what people wanted to hear. She considered that it was part of her job to counsel the living against their fear of the enormity of death.

Long before Andrea worked in the death business, she studied art. She had wanted to become an art teacher. For reasons Andrea was unaware of and did not care to investigate, she stopped attending classes in her final semester and failed to complete the degree. Without the credential, Andrea believed no one would hire her, and at that age she lacked the confidence to start her own art teaching business. So she worked at hotels, where they hired anyone, and there she excelled.

At a high point in that career, Andrea worked as a concierge at a luxury hotel in the city. She liaised with all manner of service professionals on behalf of her guests, including a handful of escorts. Andrea fantasised that she was a good candidate for their profession. There were problems to this fantasy, though, the first being that Andrea found herself hideously ugly. Her hair was very thin and she had uncommonly round shoulders; who would pay to spend time with an impish girl who could barely look at herself in the mirror? Another, related, problem was that Andrea seldom believed in the sincerity of men’s desire for her.

In a daring turn, one night after finishing her shift, Andrea arranged to hook up with a hotel guest. Her fee came to more than she earned in a week at the front desk. Yet she had been ill-prepared for the encounter; instead of slithering about sexily as she had fantasised she would, she giggled nervously and went stiff when the main act occurred. She pitied the man for the money he had wasted and even believed that, on the basis of her performance, she probably should have refused the fee. The girls at the hotel hooted when she told them the story. Andrea laughed along with them and began to look for work elsewhere.

Caroline was the death doula on Andrea’s books – a good concierge has at least one of every kind of service professional on her books – and when Andrea mentioned to Caroline that she was considering a career change, the death doula suggested end-of-life care. It’s a booming business, she said. And it’s only getting bigger.

Years later, Andrea was saddened that she could have believed herself undesirable in her hotel days. When she looked at photographs from that time, she wished she had worn only bikinis for her entire 24th year, and even her 31st. Youth itself was beautiful, even the most buck-toothed, bobble-eyed freak was attractive at 20. It was the skin, Andrea thought, or perhaps it was inexperience itself.

Andrea trained under Caroline, then opened her own business. As the years passed by, peppered with death, Andrea shed her inexperience. Still, occasionally, she believed without evidence that her real, other, life was as yet unlived, and that it might drop into her lap at any moment. She did not know what it constituted, could not imagine the particulars.

Her skin grew wrinkled. The creases around her eyes drooped downward instead of the more common outward eye wrinkles associated with the twinkling eyes of the aged. Andrea was not so innocent now to believe that the more beautiful version of herself was around the corner. To complement the particular ways in which she was ageing, Andrea let her fine, silver hair grow out and she dressed in clothes from the hippie shop. This disarmed her clients for when she brought in oil burners and crystals to help them relax in a spa-like environment that they really did find soothing.

There were times when it was indeed a privilege to assist the dying. It was not uncommon for a client of Andrea’s – a formerly drunk father, or a wound-up, conservative retiree – to enter a state of uncommon wisdom in their final months. But also common were the clients who raged against what was happening to them. These clients behaved fairly and appropriately, Andrea felt, yet they and their families could make her life hell. Since death doulaing was both a luxury service and an unreliable means of self-employment, families often expected much more from Andrea than the services they had contracted her to perform. Clients rarely made cinematic confessions, but most expressed regret.

The job was often depressing. It was a failure of modern life to conceal death from the public, yes, but Andrea understood why people did not want to think about it all the time.

Just when she believed she’d had enough, Andrea received a call from Caroline, who wanted to engage Andrea’s services. Caroline was successful and good at marketing, and she could have hired anyone. This, Andrea could say without exaggeration, was a true honour.

In the months Andrea and Caroline worked together, the two death doulas spoke honestly with one another about their work. Caroline disclosed that as a younger woman she had provided an unofficial service to widowers that she named the wife experience. Ball-break them into getting their papers in order, she said, and permit the odd ass grab. They laughed the hysterical laughter of old witches. Andrea confessed her disappointment that in the business, even colleagues and peers were reticent about the exhaustion and heartbreak that was built into their work. There was a silent agreement that to admit pain was to betray the profession. Oh, yes, said Caroline. I always felt obliged to act like a monk. But I’ve met monks, she said, and they’re a nasty bunch! The women crowed.

Caroline left Andrea a small bequest, with which the younger death doula could, if she kept to a slim budget, retire. Andrea filled her days painting portraits of the living.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 14, 2023 as "Death doula ".

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