How a ‘death doula’ brought peace to a Madison family

Veterans' advocate and author Doug Bradley enlisted a professional to help his mother die peacefully.
Author and veterans' advocate Doug Bradley kisses the hand of his mother, Lucy, as she gazes lovingly at him from her bed.
Courtesy of Doug Bradley.
Author and veterans' advocate Doug Bradley at the bedside of his dying mother, Lucy.

Lucy Bradley lived long and well. And when, at 98, it became clear that her life was ending, her family wanted her to die well, too.

That’s where Elizabeth Humphries came in.

“I didn’t know what a death doula was,” Doug Bradley, Lucy’s son, told me recently.

But he knew Humphries from her work as a hospice nurse when the father of Doug’s wife, Pam Shannon, was dying. Humphries subsequently started Seasons of Life Madison, a senior home care and end-of-life agency. She’s now a certified end-of-life doula.

“What death doulas do is they come into the space of the dying person and help them find a peaceful place,” Humphries says in a new article on green burials, home funerals and end-of-life doulas in the March issue of Madison Magazine.

Lucy’s story — not included in the article — begins with her birth in Philadelphia in 1919. She was the youngest of 11 siblings.

“She had to be feisty,” says Bradley, a longtime Madisonian and well-known veterans’ advocate, and the author of well-received books on the Vietnam war and the role music played in how U.S. troops experienced it.

Bradley moved his parents to Madison in 2006. His father, Jack, died in 2009 and Doug worried that his mom — she and Jack had been married nearly 70 years — would become depressed and reclusive. Not so.

“She became the belle of the ball of All Saints Neighborhood,” Bradley says, referencing the senior living community where Lucy resided. Lucy was responsible for others most of her life. As the youngest daughter, she passed up college to care for her aging parents. Later, she looked after her husband. At All Saints she started a pinochle group, learned to play euchre and sheepshead, and captained a Wii Sports bowling team.

“She was making up for the previous nine decades,” Bradley says.

When Lucy started to decline at 98, Bradley turned to Humphries and her team at Seasons of Life. They did a reconnaissance on Lucy’s room, moving furniture, removing rugs and recommending a bed that Lucy could access without a footstool. After that, they visited Lucy twice a week.

Shortly after turning 99 in April 2018, Lucy suffered two falls and, her son says, “decided this was it. She stopped eating. She said, ‘This isn’t living for me.’”

Bradley recalls: “That’s when we engaged Liz in a fuller capacity. Somebody from her staff would be there overnight. It was presence and support and more than the physical stuff. Sure, they’re better at changing and bathing her. But it was helping us get ready for what was coming.”

Lucy went 47 days without eating anything but ice chips.

“I don’t know what we would have done if Liz hadn’t helped us understand that this is the way things work sometimes,” Bradley says. “The ritual, the passage, you’ve got to accept this. You’ve got to be there for her.”

There were light moments. One day, Lucy, who had been in her bed for weeks, announced to her son that she needed to get up and get dressed. That people were waiting for her.

“You can’t get up!” Bradley said. “Who’s waiting?”

A short time later, Humphries arrived. Rather than argue, Humphries said, “Sure, Lucy. I’ll help you get ready.” Once Lucy was sitting up, she immediately fell back, chuckling, as if to say, “Who are we kidding?” She knew she couldn’t get up — and Humphries knew that she knew.

“We laughed about that from then on,” Bradley says.

One afternoon in late June 2018, Bradley was home after visiting Lucy when the phone woke him from a nap.

“When we got to the last moments,” he says, “it was Liz who knew it. She called and said, ‘You better come back. It’s happening.’”

Bradley and his wife went back.

“Liz had helped her get cleaned up,” Bradley says. “She had on her clean pajamas. She was lying there and Pam and I were holding her hands. Liz was down by her feet. We were just watching her breathing.”

He continues: “Then her shoulders — her whole body — lifted, almost like she was ascending. It was amazing to watch. She hadn’t done anything for hours. Then this final breath and lift. It was beautiful. Sure, I cried, and I miss her dearly, but I never thought seeing a loved one go would be like that. Peaceful and perfect.”

Bradley is currently working on two books; a memoir that focuses on his high school years, his time in Vietnam and the importance of music to both; and a collaboration with a physician and music therapist on a volume about music and how it can help lessen pain. He remains grateful to end-of-life doula Humphries.

“It’s a rare talent,” Bradley says. “For us, it was essential.”

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