CORNISH, Maine – Once upon a time there was a man who lived on a hill in rural Maine. He was 97 years old and had no living family and few friends. He had neighbors, but most of them were half his age or younger, and the man could sense that they regarded him with reserve. It bothered him, so he hired someone to help him figure out the problem.
“He said, ‘The neighbors don’t get me,'” said Molly “Bones” Nelson, who offered her services to the man in his final days. âI’ve been here for 50 years and they fish on my land, but they still think I’m the old fool they can’t talk to. “
His solution? Organize a party.
âHe kept telling me, ‘I’m not dying; I graduated, âNelson said.
Nelson is a doula of death. She helps people in the emotional and psychological work of dealing with the terminal phase of life, whatever that may entail. Often her work resembles talk therapy, working on the thorny issues of death with those who face them. She also works with clients who have lost someone suddenly, such as miscarriage or abortion. In this case, it was about helping a man find some kind of happiness at the end of his life.
To prepare for the party, the man and Nelson baked cupcakes that looked like skulls, made him a cap with tassels, and painted a mural of scenes from his life. They asked the revelers to write down any questions they had about death – even without an answer – and toss them into a bowl. Then they played a game: choose a stranger at the party and take turns answering the questions from the bowl.
âWe played this game for three and a half hours,â said Nelson. âPeople didn’t want to stop.
Nelson is the subject of a locally broadcast documentary, “Death and His Compass” by California filmmaker Annie Munger. The film is part of the Camden International Film Festival, which runs until virtually September 26.
While not considered medical professionals, death doulas perform work that has been around the world for centuries. In America today, the kind of end-of-life care work they provide is somewhat of a lost art.
âOur elders are being pushed aside,â Nelson said. “Seniors have a ton of wisdom and experiences to share about their lives.”
The cost of home care for the elderly has skyrocketed in the United States even before nursing homes began to face staffing shortages and increased risk of coronavirus infection. The trend leaves little time and resources to speak until the end of life.
But it is often not easier at home. The vast majority of seniors – 88% – prefer to receive government assistance for aging at home rather than receiving care in a full-time retirement home or retirement home, according to a to study by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research published in May. This can push the expensive and time-consuming work of caring for the elderly onto families, who struggle to absorb the often invisible costs of managing a family member’s physical and mental health, loss of life. memory, food and other needs while juggling their personal and professional needs. Lives.
âDeath is an integral part of life,â she said. âYou’ve had all this incredible growth, adventure and experience. If you don’t deal with it and have those tough conversations, it’s like skipping dessert.
Nelson likes to let his clients lead the process. In the initial phase, they hang out, talk through their fears and memories, whatever matters. The dying person provides their own spiritual beliefs and works with what they give them. Great religious and existential questions inevitably arise, but Nelson works primarily with relationships on the mortal plane. (Nelson keeps client information confidential, but others, like the 97-year-old woman, allow him to discuss their cases in general terms after their death.)
Then Nelson works with them to design a âlegacy project,â something they can leave to friends and family, or the world, that doesn’t fit neatly into a legal will. It could be a party or a quilt, a donated piece of land or a long poem that she writes with the help of the dying person and reads to him when fear mounts. sharply.
Nelson learned the trade with the International End of Life Doula Association, a training organization founded by New York hospice worker Henry Fersko-Weiss in 2003. Fersko-Weiss was responsible for social work in the larger hospice of New York, accepting approximately 500 patients. one day. Although he saw them receiving adequate medical care, the large number of patients requiring palliative care meant that some needs were not being met.
âI continued to see these shortcomings,â Fersko-Weiss said. “As dedicated as the clinicians are, unfortunately the structure and logistics of the hospice made it difficult for clinicians to spend a lot of time and work in depth with people facing death.”
Something clicked when Fersko-Weiss spoke with a friend who was becoming a doula from birth. He trained to be one too, ultimately shaping an end-of-life doula program from his teachings to help expectant parents bring babies into the world. It could train volunteers to be there for dying people in a way similar to those learning to be doulas from birth.
Nelson is the only state officially accredited through an international association, which offers a rigorous certification process. There are about a dozen death doulas working in Maine who have been trained by the association or end of life Doula Alliance, which was founded in 2017.
Nelson, 57, has come a long way towards this line of work. The nickname “Bones” bears no relation to her profession – a skinny child, she has had since childhood – but many clients find it as humorous as she does. She moved to rural Maine from New Jersey at the age of 18 and has been farming ever since. Today, she mainly grows pumpkins.
Death has been a part of Nelson’s life since birth. She was born with heart disease, a thin-walled aorta that is “shaped like an hourglass.” Doctors told him it “could explode at any time.” In 2007, she had a stent placed in her heart, and it tore two layers of her aorta. But she survived and continues to farm, hike, and mountain bike.
She also lost her loved ones. Nelson’s mother committed suicide at the age of 82, after several attempts during her life, and her father died of cancer in 2013.
âI had a lot of healing to do,â said Nelson.
Nelson takes death seriously, but doesn’t necessarily view it as a serious matter. It’s easy to imagine his combination of folk wisdom and well-timed humor softening some thick layers of fear. As “Death and His Compass” shows, Nelson’s sessions with clients are much less like a psychological assessment or transcendental ritual than two old friends just talking.
Nelson said she “doesn’t believe in death” after a life of overtaking her shadow.
âI have a T-shirt with a picture of a sloth on it. It’s written, “Live slow, die every time,” “she said with a laugh.
The sentiment captured the way Nelson came to think about the subject.
âI don’t feel rushed because I don’t feel like there is an end,â she said. âIf I can’t cross Mongolia on an off-road motorcycle at 60, then what. I will just do it next time.