Tanya Bryan (50) from Dublin provides emotional and practical support to people at the end of their life
“My training to become a death doula began with a deeper conversation around the nature of existence, which started many years ago.
I was born in Dublin but travelled a lot in my twenties and thirties. I was a bilingual secretary on Wall Street. I was a nanny in France. I worked in the travel industry. But I always felt that there was some part of myself that needed to go into caring for other people.
At 38, I entered training to become a humanistic integrative psychotherapist and I took on a few different roles in frontline services to pay for the tuition, including night-shift worker in a wet hostel for women and assisting in rehab programmes.
After witnessing the way the system worked, I felt we weren’t really addressing human suffering on the level that made sense to me. So, 10 years later, I put my therapeutic licence on hold, took leave from the domestic violence refuge where I was working and made this really radical move of becoming more nomadic.
I gave away all my belongings — I have friends now who own some of the things that I gave them! Then I took to the road and started using the system of HelpX, where you offer to work for room and board.
I treated the whole thing as a ritual, in a way. I felt really driven to retrieve or reclaim my inner wilding. I felt I had become very domesticated and the way I was living felt very rigid. There was a part of me that understood that, in order to connect to my inner instinct that had been tamed beyond the point of being intuitive, I needed to live life on the edge.
I lived like that for three years, choosing my exchange hosts very carefully and carving out roles for myself that made sense and which were creative.
One of those roles, synchronistically, happened to be with a woman called Marianne Caulfield. She was writing a PhD on the art form of keening, which is a tradition that we had in Ireland and we then lost.
Marianne had sustained an injury and she needed someone to come and support her and her daughter. I stayed with her for six months and we built a friendship. We shared a lot around what we were passionate about in life and I started to understand this art form of keening and realise that it was akin to something I was naturally doing.
I remembered how, a few years earlier while doing some ceremonial work, I was given the opportunity to release tears and witness other people doing the same. I took ownership of my grief and started naturally putting sound to my tears and creating laments in a way.
Marianne and I really resonated around that and we started working on a project to restore keening, and share this idea that using tears and sound and creating lament was a way to process hurt and trauma.
When I had come to the end of my nomadic life, I set up a business called A Time to Gather. The objective was, and still is, to hold deep and meaningful workshops for people.
The lament workshops that I held were very focussed on meeting people in their need to process grief, and then I started to get with the programme and realise that dying is everyone’s outcome, and the fear of death underlies all other fears.
The natural next step was for me to train as an end-of-life doula. Doulas are really there to help a person explore their emotional field and how it is they are experiencing things… and help people to create narrative around it.
A death doula has a similar role to a birth doula — a birth doula maps the process for a person coming into form; a death doula maps the process for a person leaving form. We prepare the ground, if you like.
Take the role of a midwife: there are patterns that we can map in preparation for a birth. But there are also patterns we can map around death. There can be denial, avoidance, anger, fear, confusion — and there’s a very subtle process of catching somebody when they’re in that state.
It’s such a deep and meaningful connection when you meet somebody at that point of acknowledging their own death. And while it’s a very individual process, if a person is looking for support from an end-of-life doula, then the likelihood is that they’re a very open-minded person.
Sometimes clients want to know what kind of conversations they should have with their family or how to come to terms with their family’s denial or their resistance to having the conversation.
Sometimes they might want to talk about their choices — do they have to have a traditional funeral? And sometimes it can be very practical — I might help them to slow down and create more space for themselves. They’re coming to terms with the biggest transition of their lives, ultimately.
An end-of-life doula is there as a witness and not to impress upon someone any sort of framework of spirituality. It’s really about helping a person navigate their experience and help them understand the options.
People at the end of their life can be really grasping and can really want someone else to give them the answers but I don’t think that’s the best solution. Often it can just be the very subtle thing of helping them to become comfortable in the unknown.
One of the things that I came into contact with during my initial inquiry into death and dying was the concept of the Death Cafe — spaces where people can talk about death in a cafe setting.
And that’s quite similar to what we’re doing. We’re trying to normalise the narrative around dying because we’ve really lost our wisdom and we’ve lost our language around addressing it as a topic of conversation.
And because the wisdom has been lost, there is a pattern of events that people don’t understand or know about anymore. There’s a lot of fear around death as a transition and there’s almost this psychological bypassing happening around it. We’ve gone into amnesia, if you like.
And now we’ve come to a place with Covid where people can’t be in the same room when they say goodbye or even attend funerals. My advice to anyone in that situation is to acknowledge that your loving connection with that person is outside of time and space — and walls and geography aren’t going to get in the way of it.
As for our collective grief around Covid, I think we’re at what I would call a hinge point. People are beginning to realise that they can’t avoid dying. And I think people are really spinning out because they don’t know what to do now that they are being met with this inevitability.
We go through life without questioning a lot of it, and I think we have perhaps lost sight of the interconnectedness of things. To get real about dying, we have to acknowledge that we’ve forgotten the wisdom about the patterns of death.”
For more information, see atimetogather.ie; deathdoula.ie and deathcafe.com