Doula of Death

Any chaplain, or even any counselor, will tell you the training is intense.

Well, the good ones will say that.

The bad ones won’t notice.

You’re not only learning rules and techniques and interventions and styles and theories and mad skills for helping people. You also spend time applying them to yourself, diving into grueling internal work to examine every shadow you can find, learning that the more light you shine the more shadows are revealed. You have to learn to do this always, without getting in the way of the people you are trying to help, so you don’t get in the way of trying to help.

I have ghosts, like anyone else, the most obvious being the deaths of my parents.

Both of my parents worked for the VA for my whole entire life.

This is the VA in Muskogee, and the library in which my mother reigned, in which I learned to eat crackers and crawl and walk and read:


I had to go to today after work, to interview for the CPE program next year. I got in, and was offered a $30,000 additional stipend to do the residency program next year, which I had to turn down because I want to keep my job I have and need to be more present for my family than what that program will require, oh, and because I never know how many kids we will have. He even talked about me moving there, and years ago I would have accepted the position in a heartbeat. But I am better at pacing now, even when there is a lot of intensity on my plate, and I knew it was not the best thing for my family at this time. That was hard to do, but the right thing, I know, so I am at peace about it.

So I will start a more individualized plan sometime next year, working in hours after my other work and in between. It will take much longer to finish the program that way, but I am grateful they are letting me do it and providing some flexibility. There will be a weird month where this program and the one at the hospital in Tulsa overlap, and that will be the hardest time, I think.

I also interviewed for another chaplain position at a different hospital, just across the Kansas border but closer to my house than Tulsa.

The chaplaincy interviews were intense, though, grilling me on theories and boundaries and counter transference and all kinds of medical ethics.

Because, as it turns out, that’s what chaplains do.

They pray with people in the hospital when requested, lead the Sunday morning services (including passing communion) at the hospital, provide rituals and rites as requested by patients who are dying or their families, funeral services, and serve on the ethics committee of the hospital.

And that, apparently, is part of why I got called to do this.

I am to become a Doula of Death, and an ethics master.

No pressure, right?

That’s when it all started clicking into place: not just the extra theological classes all these years, but also my dance with death as loved ones passed, miscarriages were endured, and challenges beyond my capacity were met. Everything begins to make sense now, finally, and while I hope to be of some help to someone else, it helps me already to see this. There is meaning in what I have endured, and experience is what has been gained through my deep losses.

And that’s how I found myself full circle at the VA in Muskogee of all places.

I am not seeking a career here, but it will be my training ground for the next couple of years.

And these are halls I walked as a child.

My mother’s handprints are everywhere, and her footprints sound before me.

The feel of my brother laughing echoes around the corner, and my father might burst through the door at any moment to pick us up.

We have chased each other around these bushes, my brother and I, and hidden in the trees. The new building stands where we used to play four square, and the canteen still has a store that sells the most random stuff we would have found under the tree at Christmas.

I answered the hard questions in the interview, about my experiences with death, about angels and sprits, about multicultural healing, about things we can’t always explain. I answered the theology questions, like infant baptism and what it means for deceased baptism and how I will handle that since mormons, like many other evangelical faiths, don’t do that, and rituals for other faiths than mine.

I listened as he read back those essays I wrote a month ago. I watched as he cried, heard as he talked about my writing, and walked through the tour of the hospital, this time as a grownup.

Except, he says, I am like a child in a candy shop, and how do I maintain that when I have endured so much?

Because our circumstances and who we are? That’s two different things, I say.

We can only know ourselves through experiences, and it is experience that marks our progress.

That’s how I know the experiences are not against me, even when they are hard. Really hard.

And these experiences have affected me; I am not naive about that.

But for now, I am accepted and approved, which always feels good to anyone, and I feel at home here. I know it will not be easy, neither practically nor in learning, but I know it is right for me.

And so when I finish the paperwork, before the cold drive home, I walk across the way to visit the library.

And it is more powerful than I expect.

Memories wash over me, in this place my mother built, in this place where I was born and grew, and I feel her here.

And I sit down and weep.

And rather than traumatic, it is perfect: this new beginning in my life starting with a ritual of closure.

It is good and right and as it should be, as I sit and honor her there, and I am good and right and where I should be, as I honor my parents here.

And maybe, a little restitution.

Because what I also know about this whole chaplaincy thing is that I wasn’t called to it just because I am awesome and special, though Nathan would reassure me of truths in that, but so that I can receive preparatory training, so that I can get better at this whole ministry thing.

Posted in Life, Work permalink

About Emily

I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 2009. I serve as a Chaplain, and work as a counselor. I got bilateral cochlear implants in 2010, but will always love sign language. I choose books over television, and organics over processed. Nothing is as close to flying as ballroom dancing - except maybe running, when in the solo mood. I would rather be outside than anywhere else, especially at the river riding my bike or kayaking. PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy, and currently doing a post-doc in Jewish Studies and an MDiv in Pastoral Counseling. The best thing about Emily World is that it's always an adventure, even if (not so) grammatically precise. The only thing better than writing is being married to a writer. Nathan Christensen and I were married in the Oklahoma City temple on 13 October 2012, and have since fostered more than eighty-five children. We have adopted the six who stayed, and are totally and completely and helplessly in love with our family. Nathan writes musical theater, including "Broadcast" (a musical history of the radio) and an adaption of Lois Lowry's "The Giver". He served his mission in South Korea, has taught song-writing in New York City public schools, and worked as a theater critic for a Tucson newspaper. This is not an official Web site of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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