6 September 2023

Death Cafe speaker provides support for people on their end-of-life journey

| Eileen Mulligan
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Carolyn standing in a library.

End-of-life doula Carolyn Vaughan helps people navigate the last chapters of their lives. Photo: Eileen Mulligan.

Let’s talk about death. It won’t kill us. In fact, it may help us live better.

That’s the view of Carolyn Vaughan, an end-of-life doula who walks with people on their final journey.

“I’m quite clear about the fact that I’m not just a death doula, because I don’t focus on death. I focus on living – and living well,” Carolyn said.

The Greek word doula has come to mean ‘a person of service’. A doula is there to bridge any gaps in available services and to provide education, advocacy and emotional support.

Carolyn will demystify her work at a Death Cafe on Friday 15 September at Warrawong Library. The event will also include speakers from Tender Funerals, Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District’s Bereavement Services and Wollongong’s Memorial Gardens and Cemeteries.

Much of a doula’s work is practical, accompanying people to medical appointments and encouraging people to make or update their legal documents with regards to their will, power of attorney, enduring guardianship, advance care directive and organ donation.

On an emotional level, a doula can provide support, sit with family and friends during vigils, advise with funeral choices and help with bereavement.

“I don’t diagnose, I don’t administer medication. I don’t give them my opinion on anything,” Carolyn said.

“The role that I have is solely to encourage people to take back their choice, their capacity and control over their own lives.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘Do you think this treatment is a really good thing?’

“I say, I don’t know. What do you think? How can we get more information about that? Who do we need to go to, to find that out? Who is your doctor? Who are your specialists? I’ll take you, let’s go.”

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Carolyn believes the end of life deserves just as much time, attention and love as we give to births and weddings.

“It’s a significant rite of passage,” she said. “It’s a time of life that we’re all going to face whether we like it or not. It’s part of the deal when we arrived.”

More people without family and friends nearby are turning to doulas for support at life stages such as ageing, the diagnosis of an illness, palliative care, dying, bereavement and care for the living.

Carolyn recalled a time she sat with a family at an elderly woman’s bedside in palliative care.

“I was encouraging them to talk, to share, to hold her hand, to take every opportunity to say everything they wanted to say gently and lovingly and to come in and to not be frightened,” she said.

“It is an incredibly beautiful space, a very honouring space to be with someone as they die.”

Carolyn was inspired to become a doula after the deaths of her parents. Her father’s death was in hospital and the family didn’t know what to do or what questions to ask.

But they built on that experience when her mother died in an aged care home.

“My mother had fairy lights, and an oil infuser in one corner of the room,” Carolyn said. “She had soft lighting, she had music, she had the window open, she had the door open because she wanted everyone to come in and say hello to her.”

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Carolyn has a background in early childhood education and aged care.

Technically there are no formal qualifications needed to be a doula, but Carolyn is studying for the first national accreditation Certificate IV for end-of-life doula services.

“I never consider myself to know it all,” she said. “I like to learn and challenge myself and hear different points of view and that course is 15 modules, very detailed, in-depth. It’s more like a degree.”

Support networks Preparing the Way and Holistic End of Life and Deathcare Australia provide guidance and debriefing for doulas and help them cope psychologically.

“I don’t see it as coping because I don’t have a resistance to it,” Carolyn said. “It’s not something I have to endure. It’s something I love working with.

“But because it is such an emotional space and it is a space of giving, you have to allow to receive as well. So, for me, that is that exquisite self-care. It is walking, exercising and having a normal life and going home and cooking, being with my family.

“I take the time to tell my husband I love him, to take those moments to honour the relationships you are part of, because one day they won’t be here, or I won’t be here.

“You value life, you really value life.”

To book tickets for the Death Cafe at Warrawong Library on Friday 15 September, at 2 pm, visit the website.

To book to attend the Death Cafe at Gerringong Library on Saturday 11 November at 3 pm, call 4233 1133.

For more information, visit the Death Cafes Illawarra Shoalhaven Facebook page.

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