A Companion for the Journey through to Death

by M-Gillies

Cassandra Yonder is a death midwife who offers care to those walking closely with death and their families.

For a myriad of cultures midwives have served as healers for their communities. They were revered for their wisdom and healing power; they tended the sick, the dying and the birthing mothers within their community during a time when the standardized medical profession was at its beginnings of being favoured. Now, with an increase in the midwifery profession, a new movement has been birthed and it is the movement of death midwives.

Cassandra Yonder is no stranger to death. Growing up, her family lived in an apartment above an animal clinic – her father a veterinarian, her mother a nurse. Two professions intertwined in the duality of life and death. But it was in the clinic where death seemed ever present as owners brought their sick and dying animals to the care of Yonder’s family. However, for Yonder, death wasn’t a phenomenon viewed as something to fear. Rather sitting with her mom, they would hold the dying animals, stroke them, sing softly to them and tell them how good they were. In many ways, mother and daughter created a sanctum that nurtured death even during the midsts of suffering.

Sitting inside the clinic, a calm atmosphere seemed to develop around the dying animals. Those who were dying, grew quiet; others were comforted by Yonder’s presence and if it helped, she would stroke them compassionately. For that time, death never seemed instantaneous, but Yonder recalled a sense of grace and peacefulness among the animals when dying took place – an ambiance that seemed foreign in comparison to what Yonder calls the hysterical and misplaced reactions humans have toward death. That isn’t to say Yonder didn’t feel sadness toward the death of an animal.

“I did wish that the animals would live sometimes and I felt happy when they spontaneously recovered,” Yonder said. “When they died, I felt sad and often relieved.”

However, unlike Yonder, for many children death would have been seen as frightfully alarming. Death, as western society knows it, is ripe with anxiety. Questions arise of what lie beyond, coupled with the fear of being forgotten. More importantly, death has been seen as the unbeatable phenomenon – a villainous disease which should be cured and abolished.

“Our children and youth don’t see death or come to learn how to engage with dying and therefore we have raised a population that is ill-equipped to enter their own dying time; therefore, we find ourselves without elders to teach us how to die,” Yonder said.

As a child though, Yonder never saw it that way – the disconnection; the stigmatic fear death had instilled upon many wasn’t one that fell upon her. Yonder emphasized with the grief expressed by families over their losses, but there was something that still seemed confusing for her in regards to how people expressed their views toward death.

“I didn’t understand the unfairness that accompanies those expressions of grief,” Yonder said. “There seemed to be an underlying belief that they were somehow robbed of life – that death was someone’s fault, someone’s failure – that is the part I had difficulty understanding as a child.”

To ask Yonder what her earliest memory of death is, the answer is simply: “There was no need for a big introduction to the topic; it was and is simply part of life.” But to explain how death has influenced Yonder’s life is to define what her and many others like her aspire to achieve.

As Katherine Murray, hospice palliative care nurse, educator, author of Essentials in Hospice Palliative Care and owner of Life and Death Matters wrote, “Imagine having continuity in care as you or a loved one dies. Someone who knew what was going to happen and coached you as you navigate the health care system. The same person with you through the dying process AND there the next day, and the next day and the next. Someone who knows you well enough to go with you to the funeral home or to help you plan a home funeral. Someone to help you navigate the paperwork or the legalese. And someone to share your grief…”

That is what a Death Midwife is, and like Murray, Yonder not only educates but also works with many people during the prelude to their deaths — a period which has been westernized with disconnection — something Yonder recognized when her and her husband began the self-sufficient lifestyle of homesteading.

“I realized just how removed our culture has become from real life. We are disconnected from our food as well as from normal and natural aspects of life, such as reproduction, birth and death,” Yonder said when recalling the children from the local town being fascinated with the lifestyle her and her family had created – from the garden vegetables, the newborn animals and the slaughter. “As I witnessed the children’s natural curiosity, I realized the potential for therapeutic application.”

It was through this realization that she discovered how everyone has the capacity to heal themselves. So Yonder became a certified Animal Assisted Therapist, a Hypnotherapist and further extended her studies to Grief and Bereavement with an intention of opening a kind of retreat or healing centre for grieving children – a place where they could freely participate in the normal and natural aspects of life and death, that are so apparent on farms and homesteads.

With this revelation, Yonder soon became a death midwife, with a focus on disposition alternatives and advance preplanning. But as Yonder said, “From a practical perspective, most of what I do would be best described as public education. I work to raise awareness about the legal rights and potential therapeutic benefits of family centred, home-based post-death care by speaking out in public and writing on subjects, as well as cooperating with associations such as the National Home Funeral Alliance and the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

“My intention is to empower grieving people by accepting and honoring death, dying and grief instead of attempting to shield people by doing things for them that they are willing and capable of doing for themselves.”

To look at it in a different angle, it can be simply stated in how death is treated now compared to before. Once, death was more prevalent, more public, more visible and more a natural part of life than it is today. But something changed with how death was seen as. Fitness centres, alternative medicines and an endlessly supply of diets have given rise to the modern chase for the Fountain of Youth.

Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross believed we live in a death-denying society where upon we isolate and institutionalize the dying and elderly because they remind us of our mortality.

As Yonder explained it, “Post-industrial North American culture is unique in that through capitalism and consumer focused lifestyles, we have successfully alienated ourselves from the very real, community oriented activities that must be undertaken to meet our basic needs.”

This is further reflected in the views of advance funeral planning, at which many westerners today shudder and cringe when being introduced to the idea.

In the UK, there are women who call themselves death midwives. Their focus of practice is on psychosocial spiritual support for individuals who are facing end of the life, and their families. It is through these midwives that they become familiar with end stage biological processes, and they help families to accept the naturalness of dying by offering practical and hands on support leading up to, at the time of death and immediately afterwards.

Meanwhile, some death midwives are known as shamans who work with spiritual transitions during one’s dying time. Others, like the North American death midwives are recognized as home funeral guides, a person whose practice is to educate and support families, and to further aid the dying during a transition of the end-of-life.

On the other spectrum is palliative care, which provides relief from pain and distressing symptoms. Through this form of care, it integrates the psychological and spiritual aspects of care, but it is neither intended to hasten nor postpone death.

As Kirsten Schmidt-Chamberlain, the palliative care lead for the Central East Local Health Integration Network suggested in the 2011 article A Death Denying Society: Why Aren’t More Ontarians Using Palliative Care?, “One essential piece that is often missing is a person who can provide psychosocial support – such as a social worker or chaplain. This person can take the time to sit with the patient and their caregivers and talk to them, listen to their fears and remind them that what they are going through is a normal part of life. Without this, the experience of the patient and the health of the family are compromised.”

This is where death midwifery yields its strength. Much like a psychopomp, which are entities found in many religions, it is their task to escort newly deceased souls to the afterlife. A death midwife does not administer medicine or perform medical procedures the way a hospice nurse would. Rather, what a death midwife will do is create a peaceful environment for a person who is dying, as well as family members and friends. They will provide emotional support that is both therapeutic and healing, and further educate the dying of wills, living wills, power-of-attorney and advanced funeral planning – and to further find the death that is right for them.

“Visioning our own death before we die might be better described as opening to a conscious awareness of ourselves as mortal beings,” Yonder said. “It refers to an ability to let ourselves be influenced by the natural rhythms of life and death including the understanding that neither our loved ones nor ourselves are destined to live forever. While most people accept that concept in purely intellectual terms, we do our best to keep death, dying and grief at bay by both avoiding it and sensationalizing it.

“Most of us tend to push thoughts and feelings regarding our own mortality away, yet many find that real experiences which bring us close to death can be absolutely life-affirming.”

This can be contrasted as near-death experiences in which a person suddenly develops an epiphany for the grander things in life. And as Ernest Becker wrote in The Denial of Death, “The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from fully being alive.”

What this means is that our fear of death prevents us from experiencing our life to the fullest, but in the wake of the time of our death are we fully aware in experiencing our life – a perception that some could say death midwives help to channel.

“Contrary to popular belief,” Yonder said, “working with dying and grieving people is not overwhelmingly depressing, because those who are walking closely with death tend to be quite raw and real and have a sharper focus on their priorities.”

Cassandra Yonder is certified home funeral guide and a grief counsellor located in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where she resides with her partner and two children in developing a self-sufficient homestead. She has a masters degree in architecture and a BA in gerontology and sociology and operates the Beyond Yonder Death Midwifery website.

 

 

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