I’m a Death Doula. These are 10 Lessons I’ve Learned About Living from the Dying
As a death doula, I often say that sitting at the bedside of the dying is one of the greatest privileges of my life. Their final wishes, tears, joys, and wisdom have given me the tools for living a meaningful life. In fact, the dying have been my greatest teachers.
These are the 10, life-changing lessons I’ve learned over the course of the last 15 years as a death doula. These invaluable insights come from deep, purposeful, heartfelt, and sometimes hard conversations with those I refer to as “the wisdom keepers.”
Lesson No. 1: The ordinary is everything.
A client who had traveled the world and dined at countless impressive restaurants recently shared with me what she was going to miss the most when she dies: her morning bowl of steel-cut oatmeal, the sound of birds, and conversations with her daughter. Over time, she came to understand that a truly joyful and meaningful life includes quiet time, a healthy lifestyle, plenty of sleep, a spiritual practice, everyday acts of kindness, time shared with others, and fewer material possessions.
It’s not the grandiose moments of fireworks and excitement that matter in the end. Looking back over a lifetime, there will likely be some big moments and celebrations, some highs and lows. But in retrospect, people don’t often reminisce about those major events. Time and time again, what people recount most with affection and gratitude are the simple pleasures of an ordinary day.
Lesson No. 2: Know what goes with you when you die.
No one is holding on to $100 bills when they die, and no one talks about material possessions before their final breath. Many of my clients regret the accumulation of “stuff” they will be leaving for others to sort through and discard. Hold on to those things that bring you joy, but walk purposefully through life with a light load whenever you can.
Lesson No. 3: Be kind. You will remember when you weren’t.
How you treat other people will bring you either peace or despair as you age, and it will certainly impact how you are remembered after you die. As a death doula, I spend a lot of time with people doing “legacy work.” Your legacy is the imprint you are leaving on the world, and everyone leaves one, whether you intend to or not. Just like your reputation, your legacy is built day by day, and sometimes moment by moment.
Guilt and regrets come in many forms at the bedside of the dying. Some are hard to hear and take a lot to process, but most are everyday poor choices we have made along the way. I’ve had clients in their 80s feeling guilty for stealing someone’s school lunch when they were a child, or for being rude to a bank teller four decades ago. If you have someone in your life who you’ve hurt, try your best to make amends now so that you are not carrying that burden throughout the rest of your life.
Lesson No. 4: Damn, you’re beautiful. Embrace it.
I have heard too many clients say, “I’ve hated my body my entire life.” It breaks my heart to hear, but I can relate. The first time I ever felt beautiful was after a double mastectomy. I was flat-chested, bald, with chemo acne, and a bloated tummy. For some reason, in the middle of a sleepless night, I was able to see past my flaws and see my beauty. I wish for at least a moment like this for everyone.
Self-care matters. If we don’t love and care for ourselves, we cannot properly love and care for someone else. Don’t wait until you are on your deathbed to love and accept yourself. Learn to do it now. Life is too short to be so hard on ourselves. Find the good. See your beauty. Treat yourself like you would treat your best friend. We are so much more than our physical bodies. True and lasting beauty lives on the inside.
Lesson No. 5: You are not “fine.”
You are NEVER just “fine.” There’s a lot going on emotionally inside us, especially at the end of life. I pay very close attention to the honest, thoughtful words my clients use to describe how they are feeling. They tell me they are rested, scared, introspective, grateful, peaceful, irritated, struggling, worried, calm, hopeful, and more. They are not just fine—and that makes sense, because no one is just fine these days, anyway. We are all so much more than that.
Part of being authentic and getting to know yourself starts with how you answer the most frequently asked question, “How are you?” We often robotically respond with words like fine, OK, or good. Those words have no depth and don’t tell us anything at all. Next time someone asks, “How are you?” take a moment to pause, think about it, and actually tell them. It builds deeper relationships and gives you a moment to check in with yourself, too.
Lesson No. 6: Slow down.
We move through life so fast. Why are we all in such a rush? Why are we all so busy? We often wear our “busy” lives like a badge of honor or a symbol of self-importance. Since when did being busy become such a popular and cool thing? One of the beautiful parts of aging is that people often slow down and stop racing through their days, making time for presence, reflection, growth, acceptance, and connection. But why wait until the end of our lives to slow down?
One day I was sitting with a client who was staring out of his window, deep in thought. He softly said, “I missed it. I totally missed it. My focus has been off my entire life. My vision has been clouded by everyone else’s dreams, by society telling me I needed a flashy car, designer clothes, and this fancy house. I couldn’t care less about any of this now. I don’t give a damn about my ridiculously expensive car and in truth, I don’t think I ever did. What a waste. I guess I was never really able to see clearly. I missed it. I totally missed it.”
Lesson No. 7: Be Still. This is how you see clearly.
When you take the time to hit the pause button on your active life and reflect on what matters most, you might get an answer that surprises you. Being still might cause you not only to contemplate what you are doing with your time, but also why you are doing the things you do.
I understand stillness as both a long pause and a golden opportunity. Psychologist Viktor Frankl taught us there is a space between the stimulus and the response, and that is where our power lies. You don’t always get to choose what happens to you in life, but you do get to choose how you respond to it. It starts with being still and paying attention.
Sometimes clients get stuck in the revolving door of doctor’s appointments and addressing medical needs at the end of life. I’ve learned that sometimes even one minute of stillness can help shift someone’s day. I’ll often suggest that a client find one thing every day they find beautiful and look at it closely for a full minute. It can be the face of their grandchild, a breathtaking view, or a slice of buttered toast. Just soak it in.
Lesson No. 8: Growth happens when you go through the hard stuff.
Challenges that alter your life, such as a pandemic, a life crisis, or a terminal diagnosis, are often opportunities to change, learn, and grow into the very best version of yourself. The times we are shaken to our core are where the biggest growth takes place. Make enough space to welcome the waves of different emotions you might feel over the course of your lifetime. Try to greet them all and reflect on what goodness and opportunities might be percolating along with the hard stuff.
And when you are faced with a loss, do your best to allow yourself to grieve. There is no timeline or correct way to grieve and, like giving birth or dying, your body naturally knows how to do it. You grieve for only one reason, and without it, life would be meaningless: You grieve because you love.
Lesson No. 9: Love sticks around.
There is something beautiful in the room after someone dies. Yes, there is grief and sadness for those left behind. But if I had to put it into words, I would say that there is one overwhelming feeling left in the room when someone dies, and that is love.
Loving others is about bringing yourself wholeheartedly into your relationships. In our divided and often isolating world, remember that we still need each other. We always have. We always will. Let go of anger and resentments when you can, and when you are ready. Forgiveness does not change what happened yesterday, but it can change what happens tomorrow.
Lesson No. 10: Show up and finish well.
As we reach the end of our life and look back, the people we love, and our beloved pets, are the most meaningful, important, and tangible parts of our lives. We want to have love, and we want to be loved. But there is another equally dynamic and relevant aspect of life that my clients consistently reveal as a major component of a meaningful life. It is often expressed as a question: Did my life matter? Did I make a difference? Is the world a better place because I was here?
Mother Teresa guides us to “do small things with great love.” It’s about everyday acts of service. If you are willing to show up, you can make the world a better place. If you can offer someone a smile, you can make the world a better place.
Dying well starts with living well. It’s really that simple.
Diane Button is the author of the bestselling new release, Dear Death: Finding Meaning in Life, Peace in Death, and Joy in an Ordinary Day. She is a practicing end-of-life doula, a lead instructor at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine’s EOL Doula Certificate Program, and a founding partner of the Bay Area End of Life Doula Alliance in Northern California. You can find out more about Diane, her books, and her work at DianeButton.com.