To Serve with Love in Loss
Being a US-based doula, it is easy for me to assume the general ways we practice as doulas are similar around the world. This 31 Days project gives me a dose of reality and shakes up my US-centric thinking when I read stories from doulas like Nicci. I wish Nicci and everyone like her the strength to keep supporting families, the courage to continue the uphill battle, and the heart to handle so much pain. The title for her post is also the motto for her bereavement training program -- thank you, Nicci, for allowing me to share your powerful words here.
My name is Nicci and I am a Bereavement Doula from Pretoria (Gauteng Province, South Africa), dealing exclusively with miscarriage, stillbirth and infant loss. I have been a "death doula" since 2015 and I am currently one of the most experienced bereavement doulas in the country.
Death humbles you. It leaves many wounded and scared (and scarred!) but also just as many people are awakened to the miracle and the fragility that is life. It opens your eyes to the absolute gift it is to breathe (and have those you love breathe) every single day. I deal with indescribable pain and heartache. My job is not an easy one, in fact, it’s probably one of the most emotionally challenging professions out there. But it is made bearable by knowing that I could help a mommy or daddy carry the load, even if it’s only for a little while. There is something unique about child loss. Because you don’t only lose a child you love, you lose the promise of that child’s life. You lose the "could have beens". You miss their first day of school. You miss their 16th and 21st and 30th birthdays. You miss out on every little thing that would have made that child "yours".
Like the character in the book The Shack, I carry The Great Sadness with me every single day of my life. Sometimes The Great Sadness is quite satisfied to sit in the corner of a room or on the roof of my car and just leave me alone – sometimes even for a day or two. Other days, The Great Sadness would just not let go of me. It will cling to me whilst I brush my teeth, when I feed the dogs, when I pray, when I speak to a telesales agent and decline a cellphone contract for the umpteenth time. It will rear its sad head when I walk in a shopping centre and see something or someone that triggers a memory. Sometimes when I walk passed a baby store The Great Sadness would hug me so tight that I struggle to breathe. But the Great Sadness and I have come to an agreement: Whenever I am with a client, it will not show up for a while. But sometimes The Great Sadness breaks its word and all that I can do is be sad with them.
The parents I assist and I usually have a lot of time talk and cry and yes, even laugh. Sometimes it’s much easier to talk about your pain to a stranger – somebody that you don’t feel guilty over because you are "burdening" them with your pain. Someone that won’t judge, just listen – who may shed a tear or two with you but who will not fall apart.
As a bereavement doula I am learning more and more about life, death, loss and everything in between every day. I have seen that parents feel guilty because they are experiencing deep grief over the death of their child. Statements made by well-meaning friends may cause them to question the validity of their deep feelings of sorrow – statements like the following: “Just be glad you didn’t get to know her. This way you won’t have to suffer the grief.” Or “The woman down the street lost all her children in a fire, you are lucky compared to her.”
The fact is that grief cannot be compared – not even between parents. Grief will not lessen just because the grief of another person is perceived to be greater. Also, they may have given birth to another child. But this will be another child, not a substitute for the one who has died. I always say babies aren’t puppies who can fulfill a general need. And to be honest, not even a dog can be replaced, how on earth can people expect parents to "replace" their baby who has passed on with another!
Although primarily my focus, I don’t just assist with baby loss but also with other losses. I have assisted a mother who gave birth via c-section to a healthy, beautiful little baby boy. The reason she needed me though, was because her husband was brutally shot and killed in front of her. This woman was shattered and tears jumped in my eyes when I looked into hers. It was almost unbearable to look at her. But she needed a calm, collected and professional person to assist her during the birth. In hindsight, I was none of the above. I may have appeared calm and collected, and yes, even professional to the untrained eye. But I was falling apart on the inside. The moment the doctor lifted that precious little boy from his mommy’s tummy I had such a huge lump in my throat I couldn’t breathe. The Great Sadness won that day…
Because there is such a huge need for bereavement birth workers in South Africa, I have written an Online Bereavement Training Program to enable as many people as possible in South Africa with a heart for bereavement to assist parents going through loss. Students are equipped with the right information, tools and coping skills to guide families in South Africa going through the unimaginable.
It is my dream that my profession will be formally recognized and acknowledged in South Africa and that bereavement doulas’ services will be covered by all medical aids. The motto of the bereavement doulas trained by Nicci.doula Bereavement is “to serve with love in loss” – I hope to be able to do this for a very long time to come.
Ever since the traumatic birth of her firstborn, the subsequent birth of his brothers, 6 infertility treatments, 3 miscarriages and 1 adoption, it has always been Nicci's dream to make a difference in the lives of bereaved parents. She is Birth and Perinatal Bereavement Doula, and a certified SBD Doula®. Passionate about ensuring families of all kinds have the unique support they need, she is the former director at Voice of the Unborn Baby, and Managing Director of Doulas of South Africa. Nicci is an avid writer and has written many short stories on her experiences as bereavement doula. Nicci also wrote a book about her infertility struggles. Besides being a doula, she is also a professional stillbirth photographer. Nicci believes in the power of encouragement, and in building confident and empowered doulas to make a difference in South Africa. She also believes in dreaming big and working hard. She is passionate about people in general and more specifically about the doula profession. If you would like more information on the work Nicci does, please visit www.niccidoula.com or visit her Facebook page. For international bereavement training please visit www.stillbirthday.com.
Nicci lives in a leafy suburb at the foot of the Magalies mountains, in the Pretoria area of Gauteng Province, South Africa.
The parallels of birth and death aren't unknown. They both require suspending judgement, supporting in the moment, and holding space to respect individuals' journeys and nature's timeline. Today's feature isn't as happy and joyful as many others in the 31 Days project, and yet every doula knows endings are inevitable. Hold on to your hearts.
There was a woman who named herself after the mountains where she had communed with other women and wrote poetry. In the end she went berserk with agitation, climbed out of her hospital bed in an attempt to lie on the earth again. We covered her in blankets as her community of friends took turns sitting vigil. Her strong body and spirit would not give in to disease without a great fight. Back in bed, she lasted for weeks like that, feeding off the fuel she had accumulated over a lifetime until one day, the flame burned all the way to the core and released her free at last.
There was a woman quiet and withdrawn, who only nodded yes or no. Yet when a dear one entered and approached, she open her arms to bring them in close. Her adult children had lost a father just two years before and her illness had mostly been a secret, a failed attempt at protecting her loved ones from pain. All we can do is be there to support and minimize suffering. The existential journey is their own. At a time when one can no longer deny death, loved ones gather with tears and smiles for all the healing that can finally begin. In the end, friends and family gathered in the chapel to acknowledge and honor her life. Then came a parade of flowers our way, grandiose bouquets perking up the solarium.
A volunteer angel drops in every now and again, effortlessly singing A cappella, opening the portal within the spirits of the dying, attempting to free them of blocked emotional meridians and move them forward on their individual path, on the labyrinth of existence.
An emaciated woman already a skeleton slowly turned to look at me and offer a weak smile, appearing to wonder about my treatment or judgement of a lifelong multi-drug abuser lying on her death bed before she was even old. She is estranged from all family. I offer reassurance that she will be cared for with kindness and respect. She replied "thank you". I suggest that she has experienced a lot of trauma in her life. She replied "scary". Perhaps at birth, or in the mother's womb, she was already addicted. Maybe now, in a time as vulnerable as birth, she can finally just receive love and care without having to do anything to earn it. She seeks to have her pain and anxiety resolved, just like any other human being. And in a couple days, after a week hiatus in the desert, I will return to this work, wondering if she survives still. As a death doula, I will either care for her with kindness and compassion, or if she is gone, I will care for the others who come next to this house.
It's no surprise to me that Christa's heart holds room for these monumental bookends we call the beginning and the end. She and I had the pleasure of meeting years ago when she moved to Chico, CA as a birth doula, wanting to connect. This was serendipitous, and she, four other doulas, and I went on to create the Chico Doula Circle. Christa was planning to attend nursing school in New York as soon as she had all her pre-requisite classes. Knowing her passion for mothers and babies, I was surprised to learn she was working as a nurse in a hospice home. She admitted she didn't imagine herself there -- life brought her to serving those on the other end. She holds a reverence for nature and its ways, and I know she is right where she needs to be.
♥ four young boys and a boy dog (offspring)