by Zoya Saltonstall
In the past months there have been several well-known celebrity deaths including David Bowie and Alan Rickman, both of whom leave artistic legacies in their musical and cinematic talents. Here in Alaska, we said goodbye to Eva Saulitis. Eva was scientist, teacher, writer who lived in Homer and passed away at her home after a long bout of cancer. Eva shared her journey of preparing for death in her writing; her friends and family were there with her as she physically and emotionally prepared for her death. The close timing of these deaths bring our own immorality to the forefront of our minds, as we think about how we live, how we want to live and how we want to die.
How these these final days, hours, and moments of life unfold are crucial for the dying and the living as well. On February 13th is the 5th Annual Heart for Hospice Ball, a major fundraiser for our Kodiak Hospice Organization. Hospice is a group which supports families during the time of death and dying. Kodiak Hospice offers in-home support, palliative care as well as bereavement classes/groups. People can be supported by nurses, volunteers and community support in their final days.
It was in my living room, at the age of 16, when I learned about the importance of the journey of death. I sat with my dad during his last breaths.
My dad suffered from a six month bout of cancer and 3 rounds of unsuccessful chemotherapy in San Diego. When it became evident that the treatment wasn't working, he was encouraged to return home soon so he could die in Kodiak.
During those final days before dad's death, we watched him slowly pass from this world to the next. He spoke of seeing people around him, of a feast. Of strawberries. Of an elevator which went somewhere. He wanted us to take the elevator, to get the food. In a span of several days we saw him get ready for the next life.
Dads agonal, final gasps of air scared me. Even though I knew they were coming, it was something one can never be fully prepared for. "We should call the ambulance" I cried to my family near me. It wasn't a rational response. He was prepared to die. We knew this was coming.
My family shared that space with him, as he passed from this world to the next. He didn't seem scared. By the end, he seemed ready. I wasn't ready and never would be ready. I was 16 and just starting life with him.
Our family was supported by the community in his decision to die at home. I remember a doctor home visit and little need for dad to leave the house for palliative care. There was no hospice at the time, but yet an overall feeling of support of dad being at home.
On the day of dads death, I witnessed how powerful and important this time and space is. Honoring the sacred passage of life. We're never fully prepared for these life changes. No class or book can fully prepare us. Which is why that support nearby matters so much.
As one of my life callings, I am a doula-a support person for women in labor giving birth. I am with women and their families at the time of birth. It was many years into my doula work before I realized how similar this presence is at birth and death.
As a doula I honor the moment as well as the overall journey.
As a doula I hold hands, comfort, encourage, smile, cry, laugh, listen.
Birth and death jolt us out of our existence and make us question all we've ever known about living. Birth and death take our breath away and knock us off our feet-in good ways and hard ways. They are times when a loving presence and kindness can be even more important than words.
Whether it be first breaths, or final breaths, these are the times when we need our hand held with caring support in more ways than one.
Thanks to the dreams and amazing hard work of many local citizens, Kodiak now has a Hospice Program. They are here to support us, to help normalize the death and dying process. To acknowledge a more comfortable, quieter, calmer way of approaching death.
Thank you, Kodiak Hospice.