Updated: Apr 4, 2022
On Doula Bags, Boffo, and the EOLD Marketplace
What is this Boffo to which I refer?
Readers of Sir Terry Pratchett's 'Tiffany Aching' books might recall Boffo as the joke shop where Disc World's witches buy the tools that distract the public from the real witchery (resolving obstacles and reducing suffering). The key thing we learn from Tiffany is to remember that you don't need props or boffo to do the work. The boffo just makes it look good. For eold's shopping for boffo, the joke shop equivalent is available by searching 'death doula' on Etsy. There you'll find grief oils, calm music, t-shirts, seed paper, candles, art, and memento mori tchotchkes to join your more practical non-medical supplies (chux and dry shampoo). Search for 'satchel' and you'll find bags of all sorts too.
Pulling together the items to fill one's personal doula kit has become something of a rite of passage for eold's. And if you follow the death doula discussions on social media you might begin to believe that a 'doula bag' is the boffo confidence boost your new identity needs. Looking over the lists of items other death workers put in their go-bags my first thought is, who wants to schlepp all that around? Then the awareness dawns, most of those items on other people's lists are already stashed in my car, along with a random urn, a suitcase of burial shrouds (because who would leave home without burial shrouds?), and a pouch of lapel buttons tastefully stamped with the words, “Please be gentle, I'm grieving.” I also have a cremation coffin leaning against the wall in my office. I have to remind myself that the stuff is not the job. However invested I am in having just the right thing on hand at just the right moment to meet a person's need, the stuff does not a doula make. And neither does the 'doula bag'.
The Doula's Kit & Satchel:
In my mind's eye there exists an exquisite bag that is part trade-worker's toolbox, part doctor's medical case, and part Mary Poppins bigger-on-the-inside carpet bag. But in truth my doula kit and satchel are a random assortment of paraphernalia in an invisible container.
As often as I've imagined what I might lug around in the exceptional tote with perfect pockets, I've never found myself able to spend money on 'looking the part' even though I know some people are reassured by a professional appearance. When I bring supplies to support a person in my care, I am likely to carry what I need in a reusable grocery sack. To each their own.
The first time I walk in to meet with a dying person I try to have nothing in my hands, just a pen and a small notebook tucked into a pocket. I leave my phone behind or silence it. Over the years I've learned that the most effective tool in my doula kit is my attention and presence. As I leave my car to meet people (or before I link with them online) I take a few breaths and center myself with an open heart and mind. When the person opens the door I hope that their first impression on seeing this lady with empty hands is to feel reassured they will be heard. After all, I am not a carpenter or a doctor or even a magically conjured nanny with tools and remedies that fix dying. I have come first to listen, and then to offer support with the goal being to resolve obstacles and reduce suffering. I encourage people to live fully until last breath. I hold space for them to lean in when it is time to let go. There is no prop that will help me stand my ground to communicate this.
How boffo helps:
Sometimes you think you've prepped your stuff for all contingencies and what you actually need is to be ready to punt. I learned something important about boffo the first time I was hired to preside at a funeral service for a person I did not know. A newly minted Celebrant, it felt like I was moving up to the major league. The man who'd died was my own age. He had been a fine artist and lived for years in Provincetown. He was a gay man raised Catholic, an altar boy who in adult life was ostracized by the church and estranged from most of his family. The sister who called me said that the priest who had served her brother's first communion had declined to assist them now. She described their mother's concern that her son would suffer in hell. She wondered if I could navigate this razor's edge, weaving words to honor her brother's story respectfully while also encouraging the devout portion of her family to see him eternally sheltered under God's wing.
I drove clear across the state of Massachusetts to a funeral home on the south shore, where I met the family for the first time. We had planned a private blessing and prayer with the mother, aunt, and sister beforehand, followed by the service, replete with a candle lighting ritual, two poems, some call and response, and as many right words as I could string together along the way. In addition to all the usual suspects in a big Irish Catholic family, there were in attendance the deceased person's diverse and well-turned-out chosen family, artists and friends from Cape Cod and Boston and a memorable couture-styled art collector who flew in from Paris.
About half way there I stopped for gas, looked down at myself, and realized I'd left my dress shoes at home. I was wearing crocs and a frumpy skirt and blouse ensemble (how had I left the house like this?). I was grievously underdressed for this gathering, it was a rookie mistake. Fortunately, I padded my drive time enough that I was able to stop at a giant mall along the highway. I ducked into a women's clothing store, headed straight for the sale racks and tried on a suitably dressy black velvet top and pants combo that fit like a dream. I kept it on and asked the salesperson to snip the tags off for me when I paid. I didn't have time to fix the crocs though, they were bright green with rainbow swirls. Yes, everyone noticed. And somehow I was able to keep my balance on that razor's edge because once the service was done his aunt said, loud enough for everyone to hear, that was better than the priest, this is what I want when I go. As I stood at the door saying goodbye to guests the man I'd noticed wiping away tears leaned down and whispered in my ear, you have honored my friend, thank you.
Black velvet was my boffo that day, an illusion that helped me be more present and may have encouraged the people I was serving to believe they were being served, even while they overlooked my shoes. I still have that suit, it has held up well over 15 years of funerals. What I learned about myself and death work (in loud crocs and velvet) is that once I cross that threshold into death's liminal boundary lands, intending to companion the people I meet there, it is all about the presence I bring to the moment, not the stuff I carry with me or wear.
Is that an acorn in your pocket?
Ideally, doulas bring skilled support to a dying person, their care partners, family, and community. This is a broad reach, which is why there is so much stuff in the bag. For instance, whether at home or in a healthcare facility, dying people often lose touch with the natural world. Along comes a doula who brings in their bag a recording of sounds from nature and infuses an essential oil evoking the forest or a meadow. A doula might read Frost's lines 'whose woods are these/I think I know,' and then reach deeper into the bag for a virtual reality headset. The marketplace shows us all sorts of tricks to pull from our kit. Tools of the trade. Boffo.
And if the person whose bedside you are attending is someone who grew up in an oak forest, the better thing might be to offer them an acorn so they can feel the promise of a tree in their own hand. Not a marketplace item you've bought to have ready in your kit. Not a thing on any list of what to put in your professional satchel. Just an acorn you found resting on the roof of your car and put in a pocket for later, only to find it is the perfect gift for the dying person who longs for a last wander in the woods.
Undertaking the 'doula bag' rite of passage by pulling together your kit and satchel will confer on you a certain sense of having arrived and being ready. It is a little like having your favorite lunch packed into the cool new lunchbox that you chose yourself for the first day of school. And. It is a mistake to think the bag makes the doula Real. In a field without professional certification, and trainings without standardized content guidelines (at least so far), we are each making it up as we go along. The parameters of one doula's practice may be completely different than another's practice. Likewise, their kits will have different elements. The point the acorn is making is that we don't need anything in our bag, we don't even need a bag. There is no special ingredient or list that conveys doula-hood. And there is no pocket or pouch that holds the one thing you need to be able to do this work.
I once left the room where a family I'd been working with was gently and carefully washing and shrouding their elder, after last breath. This was a private moment for them, I was not needed. I went into the next room, started a kettle and sat myself by the bedroom door. A still sentry. When they emerged one by one there was tea waiting and a bowl of sliced oranges. The wife came last from the room. I was sitting sentry still, near the door but not in the way. She said, I knew you were sitting here making it safe for us, I could feel you being steady so that I could be steady, thank you. There was no code switching or dress up necessary for this family to feel I was there in their service. And nothing in any satchel would have done better for them than my allowing for their privacy and simply sitting and being present, just out of view.
What I am getting at with this long ramble on doula kits, satchels, and boffo is that the stuff in our bags may be helpful but looking the part and having the stuff is not what dying people, and their people, need most from us. Spend less, be more. Don't sweat over whether you have the right 'grief oil', or if your shoes are ok, or what goes in your bag (or the car if you need more storage capacity). The stuff is all fine and well, and, the value we bring is not in the stuff. The value is in the care. When you can, walk in empty handed. Lean in and listen. We don't need props or boffo to do the work, the boffo just makes it look good. We are the one 'item' our people need. Those few cleansing breaths we take crossing the threshold into their precious hours are how we call ourself 'in' to be a companion in the moment. Holding space. Present. A most welcome and steady guest
flying suitcase by Milad Sefidfard @Unsplash
free bag by Yue Iris @Unsplash
bags in the marketplace by Clay Banks @Unsplash
acorns by Raspapova Marina @Unsplash