BY STEVEN JUPITER
BRANDON—“Doctors don’t like to talk about death,” said Becki Lund. “They do everything in their power to keep it from happening. But sometimes it can’t be avoided and we need to be honest about that. Death is coming whether we talk about it or not.”
It’s a typically frank assessment from someone who doesn’t mind broaching a topic most people spend their lives avoiding. Lund is an “end-of-life doula,” offering to people in their final days, weeks, months, or even years, the kind of emotional and physical support that traditional doulas offer to expectant mothers and their partners during childbirth. She’s there to help ensure that the moment happens with as little stress as possible for all involved.
“When families don’t plan, the last days can be extremely chaotic,” she said. “No one knows what to do or who’s supposed to do it. Families often end up arguing how to prolong a life that wants to end when those moments should really be spent helping their loved one transition. My job is to help keep things calm and organized.”
Part of that job is making sure that the wishes of the dying party are known and respected.
“Where do they want to be? At home? In hospice? Who do they want to have with them? Who do they specifically not want there? Hopefully these questions have already been answered before the last days when emotions can start running high and people often make decisions for their own comfort rather than the one who’s dying.”
Lund works with the dying and their families to sort out the where and how, even if the when is still murky or seemingly distant.
“I have clients who aren’t sick but just want to know that all those issues are settled,” she said. Lund helps clients with their advance directives—the set of documents that specify what kind of life-sustaining medical treatments one is or is not willing to accept. The documents can be tricky and require supervision by a healthcare provider, but they’re important. (See our accompanying article on advance directives by Dr. George Fjeld in this issue.)
“People don’t die like they do in the movies,” Lund states emphatically. “What we see in movies is a fantasy.”
Anyone who has been through the experience with a loved one knows that when the final moments come, there’s a strong impulse to try to keep it at bay. Lund cautions that we need to take our cues from the ones who are transitioning.
“They know when it’s time,” said Lund. They often start talking to people from their past, who’ve already gone. When that process starts, it’s important to let it happen. Sometimes, even holding their hand can feel like a restraint and keep them from leaving peacefully.”
Lund comes from a family of nurses and began nursing school herself, though she ultimately opted for a career in retail. After she raised her children, however, she felt called back to healthcare in a different capacity.
“I really started doing this when I was a teenager,” she said. “I worked at Addison House [nursing home] in Middlebury. I was just a regular worker, but families started asking me to sit with their loved ones if they couldn’t be there. I never thought it was a scary thing. Even when my own great-grandmother died, when I was little, I remember thinking ‘Isn’t this beautiful that we can all come together as a family?’ We need to give the same respect to death as we give to birth.”
When asked if some folks “roll their eyes” at her, Lund laughs. “Of course, sometimes. But I just try to understand where they’re coming from.” Her job is to keep things running smoothly, she said. She can’t be the one feeding into the anxiety. If there’s been enough time, she will have conferences with the family well ahead of the final moments.
Part of Lund’s ease with death is that she doesn’t see it as a termination but rather as a transition.
“We’re all just energy,” she said. “Energy doesn’t disappear, it just changes form. We may be losing our loved one in the physical form we knew, but we don’t lose the memories, we don’t lose the relationship we had with them. And that relationship can still evolve as we live with their memories.”
Lund offers free workshops at local libraries to help familiarize area residents with what she does and with Vermont laws governing advance directives. The next such session will be at Shoreham Congregational Church on April 15 at 2:00. You can find out more about her services on her website ladimoravt.com.
“Don’t be afraid to talk about death,” she said. “Talking about it doesn’t make it come any faster. But not talking about it can make it a much worse experience than it has to be. People spend months planning their weddings, why wouldn’t you want to spend some time, if you can, planning your final days?”