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A companion to the dying

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‘WE’RE TRANSITORY SOULS’ Westport woman Tereasa McGuire.

Tereasa McGuire finds new purpose in life by becoming a death doula

Michael Gallagher

Last Thursday morning in Westport, the rain fell from the sky and I was off to a meeting with a death doula. To be truthful, I hadn’t a clue what a death doula was, but I knew who was waiting for me in the coffeeshop and that erased the sense of dread.
Tereasa McGuire was my coffee companion, so all was right with the world. Tereasa is well-known as a former teacher, Westport town councillor and Mayo county councillor. However, with all those careers in the rear-view mirror she now works a death doula and a psychotherapist.
‘What is involved in her new job?’, you may ask – and I did.
“There are many ways of describing the role of a death doula, but the simply way I look at it is I’m a helper, a companion for someone in the last chapter of their life and for their family afterwards too, if I’m required.”

New energy
How did a former teacher and politician become a companion for someone on their final journey?
“I suppose I’ve always been involved with people, and I’ve always had an interest in death and how we deal with it. I was very happy teaching and loved it, but it was time for a change, and now I feel a new energy doing this.
“We Irish are renowned for doing the wakes and funerals and all that brilliantly, but what about the lead up, what about the preparation for death? We don’t want to talk or speak about the chapter of our life just before the end. What about the couple of months beforehand?
“Then the end comes and there’s nearly World War III about who’s doing the readings and there really is World War III about who will get the site down the road that mammy always said was going to be Johnny’s but never put it in writing,” Tereasa stated.
“My role is to assist the person who is on their final journey, whether that’s getting legalities in order, doing things they always wanted to do, sitting down and talking or anything their heart desires. That’s what I’m there for.
“I worked with a man recently who was dying, and he had a young daughter. Not being there for her was bothering him, so we did a legacy project. We put together something she’ll have for the morning of her marriage, and that gave him great comfort. The likes and needs of people I work with are hugely varied – it might be that they’ve always wanted to go to the zoo, so we’ll arrange that, or it might be that they just want to cry and complain and roar and shout.”

Sad silence
Tereasa recalled another time a death stood out to her. “Many years ago, before I ever became involved in this work, I remember spending an evening in the home of a woman who was in her last weeks of life,” she said. “I was downstairs with her daughter who said, ‘Isn’t it great Mammy doesn’t realise she’s dying?’. I then went upstairs and the mother said ‘Isn’t it great my daughter doesn’t realise I’m dying?’.
“I thought this was one of the saddest things I’d ever heard. This mother and daughter who loved each other so much were denying themselves the opportunity to spend such precious time together in a real sense.
“They could have talked about things that mattered and said things they needed to say, but instead they were pussyfooting around each other denying the reality both knew existed,” Tereasa added, before asking a question of her own.
“If I told you there were four weeks left in your life, what are the things you’d have to do?” The question threw me a bit. Tereasa was right – we all know there’s no avoidance of death, but we rarely if ever talk about our own mortality.
“Is there someone you had words with that you need to have a chat with? Is there something that needs to be taken care of? Is there something you’ve always wanted to do? Is there something you want to leave for the future?
“Everyone is different and everyone has different requirements, and that’s what a death doula is there for. We have no medical expertise or input whatsoever, our only role is to be a helper to the person on the journey towards death,” she explained.

Protective mechanism
Tereasa then returned to the subject of Irish people’s ability to talk about almost everything except our last journey.
“I’m fascinated about our reluctance to talk about impending death. There seems to be a reluctance to broach the subject in case it creates a reality – it’s a protective mechanism. Part of our human condition craves permanency and ownership, but there’s nothing permanent about our existence – we’re transitory souls. Death takes away all that permanency and ownership in the blink of an eye,” she said.
Our chat may have entirely focused on death and dying, but Tereasa is one of the most positive people on the planet. She loves life and the fun to be found in it, and has no intention of leaving that behind any time soon.
“My new job involves helping people in their last weeks of life, and I love it. I’m not afraid of death, and I’m well aware there’s no other ending possible for any of us, but I’m determined to get as much our of life as possible while I’m here.”