• Dina Stander

Companioning the Dying: say what?

Updated: Feb 29, 2020

Companioning the Dying: say what?

Today I was interviewed by a college student about my work. She asked how I came to be called an End-of-life Navigator and what it takes to become a death doula. She wanted to know what the word 'holistic' means to me. We talked about training and certification, the range of services any given practitioner might offer and the differences between a 'concierge death midwife' (ala Forbes Magazine), the folks like me who work on a sliding scale, and the example of 'community care circles' where the very same support is given but no silver crosses palms. And we talked about the work of being with people who are dying, and supporting their caretakers.

But before I headed out the door and down the hill to the local university, I'd sat at my desk thinking about what it has taken to get to a place where I feel like I have insight to offer in a conversation about my profession. A conversation that inevitably touches on the vulnerability we all experience dancing at the edges with someone close to death.

Knowing what I know now, what would I put on my to do list if I was just beginning?

  • study

  • practice

  • find colleagues

  • volunteer

  • begin to think I know a thing and gain some confidence

  • say sure and dive into experiences I have no map for

  • find a way

  • choose words to name what I do before I even know what it is

  • ask - is it art yet?

And then, more choosing words, trying out awkward verbs because English can't quite contain the relational physics of every action when it comes to death. The word 'companioning' is one of these awkward verbs I thought I had some idea of a meaning for - in theory. And then this week I found myself wading in deep and realized, oh, this is what the word I chose means, this is how the action of companioning feels in my head, my heart, and my hands.

I'm not sure this is an action that can be taught to a person, like how to sew a dress or make a baked alaska. It's not like you're given a recipe or pattern with instructions. The mightiest of meditators are challenged when 'sitting' means to sit with death. Which may be why I've always rolled my eyes when I've heard the term, feeling it would be overbold to call myself a 'companion to the dying', because dying is a road I cannot trav