Guest speaker: Helen Roberts, end of life guide
Helen Roberts was our Guest Speaker this week. Helen does so much in the space of supporting people around death and dying. She is an end-of-life guide, Heartfelt photographer and volunteer palliative care worker. She is physically based in Adelaide, South Australia but her work reaches people across Australia and the world, thanks to the internet.
Helen joined us online via a zoom meeting. This is our first week using zoom to meet as we are no longer able to meet face to face due to the Corona virus social distancing rules. She called her presentation: Doing Death Deliberately which summarises how she does her work in this space.
There are many terms that people are using to describe the work Helen does including Death Doula, Deathwalker, Deathtalker, Griefwalker, Soul midwife, Death midwife, end of life companion, end of life guide.
The term ‘midwife’ is a trademarked name in Australia so that term cannot legally be used. ‘Death Doula’ terrifies some people. Doula is a Greek word meaning woman servant which is the work women have done throughout the centuries, helping women give birth at home and people to die at home. Helen calls herself an ‘end of life guide’ because this is not so shocking as some of the other terms and she feels it engages people in a more gentle, kind, caring way.
Helen sees her role as one of service, providing families and the dying with non-medical support anytime from diagnosis to death.
An end of life guide can include many components such as community education, providing information, supporting the family and the dying person through the dying process, helping to organise the funeral or memorial service and being there for the grieving process. Some Death Doulas specialise in specific components such as just being there to help people die at home.
Training for the role is currently not certified, meaning you will get a bit of paper saying you have completed a course but there is no peer body for certified end of life guides at this stage. Some of the courses currently available are the Soul Midwives course in UK which is what Helen did to get started. Also Zenith Virago’s Deathwalker training in Australia, another course that Helen did. The Australian Doula College in Melbourne also offers a comprehensive course.
Helen brings a diverse set of skills and experience into her role which converge into a powerful mix. She was a Paediatric Intensive Care Unit Nurse (PICU) nurse for 28 years where she witnessed child deaths and learned about life, love and how to bear witness to suffering and be with families in that kind of trauma.
After leaving nursing she became a Professional Photographer. For the last 12 years she has used her photography skills volunteering for Heartfelt. From the website: “Heartfelt is a volunteer organisation of professional photographers from all over Australia and New Zealand dedicated to giving the gift of photographic memories to families that have experienced stillbirths, premature births or have children with serious and terminal illnesses.” She finds this work humbling, sometimes hard, always sad and sometimes very beautiful work. She hopes to continue this work for many years to come and feels it provides great comfort to the bereaved parents at a time of great trauma. Sadly in this time of social distancing because of Covid-19, Heartfelt is unable to provide their services for the moment.
Helen is also a Volunteer for Palliative Care where she can have one to two clients at a time and visits them between 3-5 hours each week. Her opening line is asking people “where did you grow up”. People light up and share wonderful stories with her and the relationship of trust begins. Helen’s role finds her doing whatever the person needs and wants each visit. She plays cards with a 90 year old man for 3 hours a week or takes others more mobile out for a coffee or shopping, whatever is required. During this time of social distancing, she continues to take one of client’s dogs for a walk, where the dog goes in and out through the doggy door and Helen doesn’t need to get close or even see her client. She has been doing this work for 5 years and finds being with her clients in those hours a humbling, privileged experience.
Helen easily forms relationships with people from all backgrounds with no judgement, offering a friendly face and lightness. Her greatest gift is being light in dark places.
Helen is passionate about the power and benefits of everyone having an Advance Care Directive. She has ongoing work with Ongoing work with Palliative Care SA creating and facilitating sessions that help people write their own Advance Care Directive. Next week is Advance Care Planning week and Helen had several sessions planned ready to go. Sadly, because of Covid-19, these sessions are now cancelled. Palliative Care and Helen are planning to run these sessions online.
Helen also facilitates community education around death and dying including running Death Cafes and workshops. She stressed how important it is that we all tell our families what our wishes are, document those wishes and put them in a folder and tell people where that folder can be found.
There are many sources to find out more about Death Literacy including The Groundswell Project, Compassionate Communities and Helen’s resources page on her website, Graceful Dying.
Helen is reading Caitlin Doughty’s latest book, Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death, and recommended it to all of us. Another great read is Caitlin’s first book: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematorium.
We were captivated with Helen’s session, hearing her stories and ending with lots of questions. Helen is such a kind, caring, compassionate being with a unique mix of professional qualifications, skills and life-experience that she brings to her role. As my beautiful friend, I can vouch that she does indeed shine light in dark places. Here are her contact details:
Helen Roberts, End of Life Guide
Helen Roberts Photography
- M: 0412 117 560
Show ‘n tell
In the second half of our zoom meeting, each person gave an update on where they were at with their coffin or shroud. We must all remember to take lots of photos of our making progress which will form part of our stories for our exhibition.All of us have been adjusting to the changes in our day to living this last week, working out what it means for each of us and changes to our normal routines.
Sadly we had to postpone our Death Café and Exhibtion scheduled for 18 April due to the Corona Virus social distancing and essential services only regulations coming into force. The upside is that this will give all of us more making creative time with out he stress of a deadline. We may also be able to exhibit as part of SALA for an even wider dissemination of knowledge from our project. Always a silver lining!
Tracey & Eloise
Tracey is working on a coffin and Eloise is working on a shroud. Spotlight had a 40% sale so they snapped up some linen/cotton material for the shroud. Embellishments will be stitched on such as feathers and buttons. Tracey found a blue that she liked and the paint man was able to make it up in the cheaper paint for her because the blue she liked was of course the more expensive paint. It’s a low sheen paint. Tracey and Eloise are very creative and crafty and enjoy experimenting with natural dyes such as boiling eucalyptus leaves which makes the house smell like a cough-lolly and produces a liquid that will dye a red to brown range of colour. Also wrapping material tightly around rusty pieces of metal and boiling produces incredible patterns and red-brown colours.
Kathy is working on a nuno shroud that will be used as a blanket until needed as a shroud. Nuno is a felting process that felts together wool and natural fibres like silk. During the week Kathy had another practice and make a scarf. She bought 11 meters of silk from Perth from http://silkwholesalers.com.au. She ordered it on Sunday night and it was here on Tuesday. She also sourced offcuts from sari silk from a shop in Salisbury run by Luba Chambers at https://woolchambers.com.au. Another natural fibre Kathy is using is called SeaCell which is celulose and brown algae (seaweed) from the Icelandic Fjords also at https://woolchambers.com.au. Another supplier Kathy used was: https://knitspinweave.com.au in Clare SA.
She asked the group: Do you know how they actually get the silk? The answer is your boil the cocoons with the little grub in it and then spin the silk. Kathy found this distressing that living creatures were killed to make silk for humans. Then she learned about peace silk which is a process that waits until the little bug comes out and turns into a butterfly and then they make the silk out of the cocoon. However peace silk is very expensive. So Kathy is aiming to do as much of her shroud in peace silk as her budget will allow.
She said: “I haven’t actually started it yet. I’m hoping to be able to start soon. I’m just really reluctant about starting because I don’t want to muck it up. It’s just getting started and cutting the silk. I just have to make that first cut and that’s going to be the hardest because I’m worried about wasting”. Kathy now has all her materials and the gorgeous colours she is after: yak and merino wool, corn silk. A concern is whether 11 metres of silk will be enough as the process requires 30-50 percent more material than you end up with due to shrinkage. Kathy also needs 4 trestles for her making space. Felting is a very physical process. which we will drop off to her place during the week.
Murray did a lot of research during the week on paints, assessing their eco friendliness. He found the mineral earth paints that we used for the launch worked better without a white primer underneath. But the quantity in the packets was not sufficient for anyone to do a whole coffin. Also not all the colours of the rainbow were available with these mineral paints.
Murray found that acrylic house paints really don’t have a lot of toxic material in them – very minimal. Will only need about half a litre to do a coffin.
As Murray wants to be cremated there will be filters to catch any of the small amount of toxins in the paints he will use on his coffin.
He suggested that anyone using paint on a coffin should start with a primer or even a ceiling white to seal the wood so not so much paint needs to be used for the design.
Could also use water-based spray paints that had brilliant colours – all the colours of the rainbow. Bunnings offers paints with very low toxicity with refillable spray cans.
Murray is a creating a design for his coffin that will use all the colours of the rainbow.
Jan is working on creating stencils made from cardboard to get her design on her coffin and will then use paint. Gem and Murray suggested using small rollers to roll the paint over the stencil for an even finish.
Maursie is working on a shroud. She showed us a sketch of her design. It’s a small boat with her in it on the sea. The colours will be oranges and yellows with white caps on the blue sea. She would like to use hemp I will use the hemp but hearing the others today is now also open to linen/cotton or seacell fibre. Maursie is thinking she will use a combination of gluing her design onto her shroud with fancy stitching like Gem showed us. Her main focus at the moment is finishing her wicking bed because she is keen to grow her own veggies with these changing times.
Ash is working on a coffin. Her first step will be to get a base layer of paint down to seal the wood as Murray suggested. Ash will be making and using stencils to get her design onto the coffin.
Gem gave some great tips including using old x-rays to make your stencils.
Carol was having audio problems so used the chat typing box to share her progress.
She is looking for lemon scented gums and Tracey advised there are plenty around the Gawler racecourse.
Carol has spent the week taking to people about the Eco Coffin Project.
She is working on a shroud and is starting to experiment with tie dying gum leaves and lemon scented grasses with different types of clothes.
Carol is probably going to use old Scandinavian sheets from great grandmother. Very special.
“I’ve decided that I’ll do a quilt that would cover the coffin and I’ll try and use fabrics that I’ve got already. I’m thinking of perhaps having a floral theme.” Gem went to a local garage sale this week and bought a $10 bundle full of bright silk material pieces that she will incorporate into her coffin-quilt.
I continue making balls of yarn from old t-shirts and then crocheting my shroud which will be used as a floor runner until I need it as a shroud. Am thinking that I will soon run out of Robbie’s t-shirts and will do a shou out to family and friends for their old tshirts. Am thinking it will be special wrapping my body in clothing worn by people I have loved in my life.
I find it interesting that the corona virus has brought back sudden death into our world, our psyche – where someone is sick and in a few days they are dead. We haven’t experienced that before in our lifetimes since antibiotics and penicillin came into being. The main way we have been dying is a slow fading away through frailty. Corona virus is a new way of dying for us in the 21st century.
Eco Glue Recipe
For those of us making shrouds and decorating the eco coffins for natural burial we need to be mindful that all our materials we use must be biodegradable as per the SA Burial and Cremation Act 2013. I found a glue recipe that I made a few batches that we used at the launch. That was 5 months ago and all the material and paper that we stuck on the coffin are still stuck on and there is no smell. Plant material that we stuck on like leaves has come off but that is because they were fresh leaves and they have now turned brown and dried up and come off. The eco earth mineral paints still look vibrant and strong.
Here is the ingredients list:
- Flour – plain – 190 grams
- Water – room temperature – 1 litre
- Sugar – 300 grams
- Vinegar – apple cider – 3 tablespoons
- Bicarb soda – 2 tablespoons
You can see how its made here:
The Eco Coffin Project is only possible thanks to the generous support of our sponsors and partners: