Suzanne B. O’Brien has taken on a huge task: helping people on their deathbeds feel safe and ready to make the transition to the unknown.
She was inspired to create her End of Life Doula Program after visiting Zimbabwe in 2012 as a volunteer hospice nurse. She saw the local residents had organized a program called “The Caregivers,” where the residents came together supporting individuals in the community who were slowly passing away from terminal illnesses.
In addition to caring for the dying, they supported the families who were suffering, and formed this loving and enormous movement in a community that only had love and care as resources, no money or facilities.
Suzanne has been a hospice nurse for over 15 years, in addition to being the author of Life, Love and Transition. Through her experiences, she observed how so much suffering could be avoided if we accepted that we would all die one day and that it didn’t have to be a horrible experience.
Though her work was triggered by a trip to Africa, it was also inspired when she suffered paralysis on the right side of her face from nerves in her neck, causing intense pain. She looked to find the meaning and growth opportunity that life was giving her.
Jessica Ashen: Tell me how you started the End of Life Doula Program?
Suzanne B. O’Brien: In my first week in oncology, I saw we had a really big issue with end of life. I wanted to help others help their loved ones stay at home and have a better experience.
Caring for a dying person is a skill that used to be handed down in families. A hundred years ago people died earlier and they were cared for at home. This skill set has vanished. Life expectancy has been greatly extended through medical advances, plus many of our elderly are cared for in facilities.
But people want to be at home, and the End of Life Doula program is training the family on how to care for their loved ones and also creating a network of volunteers who take the historical place of a medicine women, who would come and care for a dying patient in the village.
JA: How do you view your own struggle with paralysis as a “gift”?
SO: In life, we are given opportunities to grow and learn, which can come in packages that sometimes look like the opposite. When people are diagnosed with a serious illness, many have said that when transitioning out of their physical body, it was best thing that ever happened to them.
When I say this, people are baffled. We live is a fast-paced world, only when people get sick do they slow down and actually stop. They put the cell phone down, take time off work, families get together and become more present.
I’m a human being, and there have been days when my paralysis didn’t feel like a gift, but it is because I had never been in that situation before. I have always been healthy, lucky and never had a physical challenge. To now speak about how illness could be gift, I am no longer hypocritical, because I had never walked in their shoes. But they are beautiful shoes and I can now really walk the walk.
JA: How do you take the fear and denial out of the death experience to reveal it as the natural, beautiful process it could be?
SO: It’s a tricky dance. You have to meet people where they are, which is usually in denial. When people get a terminal diagnosis, they’re in shock, they need space. If people saw how death was a sacred experience just like birth, (if done well), they wouldn’t be nearly as afraid.
There are three phases: 1. Shock phase: After the initial shock, I explain exactly what’s going to happen to the body, and this lowers the fear.
2. Working phase: This is where we get things done. They’ll tell you what they’re feeling for validation, ask questions, have conversations and forgiveness with the families, etc.. If we move into this wonderful place, and we were here to learn lessons and love, would it change how we’re living our lives now?
3. Transition phase: A person will get their spiritual eyes. I have a theory about when the dying are taking naps/sleeping, they are actually traveling back and forth before they leave their body. At their bedside, they’ll open their eyes from a nap and tell me with excitement and peacefulness that they’ve seen where they’re going. Something organically happens when they get to see it and it’s the most phenomenal thing and is so beautiful; they’re no longer afraid and they become excited to see and go there.
Suzanne will be holding a workshop on End of Life Doula Training at Westside Yogaworks on April 18-19th, 1 to 6pm.