I am honoured to host a guest post from Emma Dixon – human rights barrister, end of life doula in training, and a wonderful human being. Emma has written some wonderful words about her experiences in 2019 and the lessons that she has taken from them.
I would like to thank Emma for so generously penning such a rich, moving and ultimately joyous and inspirational post. Please consider following Emma on Twitter and Instagram. And may 2020 be nothing but kind to you and yours, gentle reader!
- Update (15 February 2020): There is a delightful sequel-of-sorts to this post. Emma has shared a beautiful tale of the kindness of strangers, resulting in part from this blog post. I have included a link to this tale in Be kind to all.
A year in the life of Emma Dixon: No fear but only love
I’m on a big journey, and I’m still at the beginning. But I can tell you this…
A year ago, I was the epitome of the perfectionist over-achiever. From toddlerhood, I had striven to learn, to be a clever girl, to be a good girl. Put up a year at school when I was still in kindergarten, I went from strength to academic strength. My mathematics degree at Trinity College Cambridge was followed by success in law exams and a career at the Bar. I had somehow managed to grow and raise three babies while remaining the main breadwinner and astonishing everyone by ‘having it all’…
The ‘five wells’ approach to life asks us to look at five areas where we need to replenish ourselves: emotional; creative; physical; spiritual; and cognitive. If one or more of these wells is low or empty, something is amiss.
In my cognitive life, I was achieving perfection. But what of the other four wells?
Emotionally, I struggled to express my emotions or to hear others express theirs. The slightest negativity, to me, was a criticism. Bad feelings were made to be swept under the carpet. Pain was something to be swallowed and pushed down into my body.
My creativity was stifled by the analytical nature of my job and the constant demands of being the main breadwinner. The only time my imagination could soar was when I was asleep and dreaming.
Physically, I was carrying so much tension in my body – in my shoulders, in my hips, in my head. A mal-coordinated child who hated sports – but especially loathed and feared any form of dancing – had inevitably become an increasingly stressed-out adult.
Spirituality … really, I barely knew the meaning of the word.
In the late spring of 2018, my lovely, energetic mother lost her voice. A few weeks later a doctor’s appointment revealed that she had lung cancer which had spread to pretty much every organ of her body, including her brain.
Eighty-three days later, she was dead and my world fell apart.
The one thing I clung on to in that dark time was this: much as I had feared watching my mother draw her last breath, in the end, there was no fear but only love.
I became interested in the process of dying and death – and wondered how I could help others to have the loving final experience we’d had in my mum’s last days.
By the wonderful serendipity of social media, only a few weeks after my mum’s death, I saw a tweet from Dr Kathryn Mannix, palliative care specialist extraordinaire and author of With the End in Mind, saying that volunteers were needed to become death doulas or ‘friends at the end’.
That quickly led me to discover Living Well Dying Well, and their extraordinary programme for training end of life doulas.
Doula training looks at the dying person, and the doula as their companion, in all their richness – not just as a mind, but as a body, heart and soul. This was a revelation to me! I barely knew I had a body, let alone a heart or a soul…
I am now part-way through my training with Living Well Dying Well. It has brought me huge joy as well as a lot of pain as I come face to face with my own assumptions about life and death, my own limitations, my own need to work on my relationships and on myself.
In the course of my training I have danced like a whirling dervish; I have been to Quaker meetings; I have visited a funeral director (including a tour of her mortuary); I have learned to care for the body after death. I have trained as a Compassionate Neighbour and volunteered at my local hospice. I have spent time with people of all ages who are at the end of life, listening to them, reading to them, being with them.
I have read poems. I have drawn pictures. I have heard and written stories.
Studying death has in turn has led me to discover whole new aspects of life. I have taken up dancing, including a magical ‘dance in the dark’ event at the Psychedelic Society in Hackney. I have studied bioarchaeology and recently passed my end of term exam having memorised all 206 bones in the human body – 29 bones in the skull alone!
I have travelled alone and with friends. I have stayed in a tower by the sea, where I have bathed and dreamed alone. I have swum in the Arctic and between the Scilly Islands. I have crocheted beautiful blankets for my friends. I have baked bread and cakes and made yoghurt for my children. I have met and loved a new tribe of amazing doula women – people with whom I can be completely honest about myself, people who will listen without judgment to my emotions, the negative as well as the positive, without trying to ‘fix’ me.
Truly, all five of my wells are now running over.
But more, more than all of this, I have finally confronted myself. I have been honest about who I am and what I feel. This has been painful, and it will continue to be so. But ultimately, it is uplifting. It is about seizing the day, about valuing life. About replenishing every aspect of my energy and moving on to each new day with a sharp and vital appreciation of what a privilege it is to be alive. The sky has never seemed so blue, nor blossom so beautiful, nor a home-cooked meal so delicious, as it does when one has truly stared one’s own mortality in the face.
As a popular song of my childhood had it, “I’m gonna live forever/I’m gonna learn how to fly, high … I’m gonna make it to heaven/Light up the sky like a flame”.
I’m on a big journey, and I’m still at the beginning. But I can tell you this:
Heaven is here on earth. Don’t let it pass you by. As Robert Frost put it in “Carpe Diem”, “Be happy, happy, happy, And seize the day of pleasure.”
I want to finish with another poem, The Messenger, by Mary Oliver, who puts it so much better than I ever could.
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird –
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,
Which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
Here’s to a beautiful, peaceful and hopeful 2020. Love and joy to you all.
- Pictures of Emma Dixon kindly supplied by Emma Dixon.
- Skull from Gray’s Anatomy, via Wikimedia Commons.