Nancy Radonich’s son Daniel died of cancer at age 21 in 2007. Another of her four children, Jessie, died of a brain aneurysm at age 23 in 2013.
How does a parent deal with that?
Radonich talked about this in her role as one of the eleven human books at the Human Library event at the Nelson library last month.
She has thought for years about how the last days of her children’s lives, and the hours or days after they died, could have been done differently. She felt that her children, after they died, were torn from her too soon. And she thought the medical system was not set up to support the terrified parents of a dying child.
So she has trained to be a death doula.
Death doulas, also known as death midwives or end of life doulas, help clients navigate the non-medical aspects of the death of a loved one or of their own death. It’s an emerging profession and Radonich hopes to practice and promote it through an organization she has helped launch, the Nelson End of Life Society.
“I knew I had to make a change. I was not sure what it was. Society does not talk about death, and I got slapped in the face with it not just once but twice.”
Daniel went through one bout of cancer and survived, but it came back again. He had to go to Vancouver and get a bone marrow transplant.
“I was eventually told he was dying. The doctor sat in front of me and said, yes he’s dying, and got up and left. We were left in the doctor’s office with no options.
“I have never felt so alone and scared because I felt I had no support. If I had had someone there to help me through all that, some support system. I mean I had family with me but we were all in the same boat.
“I really resented the fact that I was taken away from him (after he died). If I had known I could have been with him I could have stayed with him. He did not have to be dragged down to the morgue right away and I would never get to see him again.
“It took everything to get through that one. It took me a long time and I grew in many different ways.”
Radonich had separated from Jessie and Daniel’s father some years before Daniel got ill.
A few years after Daniel’s death, when Jessie was 23 and studying to be a nurse, she was planning to come home to Nelson for Thanksgiving. The night before her flight she admitted herself to the hospital via ambulance with what turned out to be a brain aneurysm. She had two lengthy surgeries in two days and was in a coma. The family had to make the decision to take her off life support due to severe brain damage.
Again, Radonich felt she was left without support.
“We were just caught up in so much emotion with her as well. If there had been someone who could have explained it differently, explained what the next step was. There was such a huge group around us at the time, students, all her family, everybody. The doctor would say something to me but you are such a state of shock, and you need somebody else there to interpret it for you.”
How would she have done it differently, knowing what she knows now?
“I would have done a three-day vigil with my kids, I probably may not have cremated them. I may have may have preferred a green burial. I would have wanted to sit with them and wash them and let my soul catch up to the deaths.
“I would have helped my son not be so afraid. In the end he was taking care of me, but I would have loved to be able to give him more strength and teach him not to be so afraid of the next step, whatever that was.
Radonich says the death of Daniel did not prepare her for the death of Jessie.
“All the things that had helped me to accept my son’s death didn’t do it for me. I knew I had to find something else to keep me going. It forced me to look at life differently.”
In her desire to help others with their own death or that of a loved one, admitting that this sounds like a cliche, she says she wants to help people look at every day as being the last day of their lives.
She says a death doula is similar to a birth doula except at the end of life, to help people through the transition before, during and after death.
“It could be helping the person talk about their own death, getting the conversation going, or maybe mending their past if there is a loved one they haven’t talked to in a long time. It is about setting up what they want after their death, what kind of ceremony they want and who they want there or if they want a ceremony at all, if they want music. Or helping to set up a bucket list, things to do while still physically healthy. Helping them work out the steps, including financially and spiritually, for where they want to be.”
She says the end of life doesn’t have to be scary.
“For me being involved in helping people walk through the end of life is an honour.
“My children have left me with an amazing gift and there is really no other way to look at it. I am grateful for every day no matter what it brings me. I see life as a huge learning curve, but I am not afraid of it. I am so enthusiastic about what the next step is for me: after you die, there is whole other realm out there.”