It’s the fear of the unknown, leaving behind loved ones, and the fact that the world continues in our absence.
Perhaps the most terrifying thought of all is that we are all destined for the same fate from which nobody can save us, not even doctors, scientists, priests or philosophers.
When I heard the term “beautiful death” during an interview, I was shocked and fascinated at the same time and I had to know more.
The woman who introduced me to this unfamiliar expression is Castlemaine-based death doula, Annie Morabito.
Doulas are usually associated with the creation of life, offering support, help and advice to women during pregnancy and childbirth.
As a death doula, Annie deals with the other end of the spectrum, assisting people in their final days.
“Birth and death aren’t so different when you think about it,” she explains.
“They are the two most intense moments of life for us and our loved ones.”
Born into a predominately Italian family, with grandparents who were part of the large Italian community in Egypt, Annie grew up in an environment where adults spoke of death in faint whispers.
But her attitude towards death changed dramatically following an intense love story which was cut short by illness.
Seventeen years ago, having moved from her hometown in the western suburbs of Sydney to Beechworth, in rural Victoria, Annie met her partner Zol, who came to the town as a fruit-picker.
“It was instant love; I always believed in fairytales and that was my fairytale,” she recalls.
Just days after they met, Zol was diagnosed with cancer and told he had six months to live, though he lived for five more years.
Annie explains that the diagnosis taught the couple how to live every moment to the fullest.
“We both discovered art; I began to paint, make jewellery and sing, while Zol dedicated his time to photography,” she says.
“When we felt like things were getting on top of us we would throw ourselves into creativity.”
Art was present in every moment of Zol’s final days, from the hospital room to the funeral, where a simple coffin was decorated by friends and family as a final gesture.
Annie remembers every detail of the afternoon of October 10, 2005, when Zol died.
The hospital room was full of friends and family, and as Annie told Zol she loved him and reassured him she would be OK, he looked at her, smiled and passed away.
Annie explains that the experience was unlike anything she had imagined, beautiful even.
“I’ve given birth to three daughters and to me it felt just as beautiful and intense as birth,” she says.
“It surprised me because in our society we don’t really talk about death, let alone speak about death as something beautiful. The experience really changed my direction.”
Following Zol’s death, Annie took a long time to grieve and make sure she had healed completely, during which she studied counselling and art therapy, before undertaking a death doula course with Denise Love in Daylesford.
She also studied ‘soul midwifery’, training in a profession which is already recognised in the UK, and which Annie hopes will soon become officially recognised in Australian hospitals.
Annie explains that her profession is similar to that of a production manager in some ways.
Aside from staying by the dying person’s side and making sure that their wishes are respected, Annie designates tasks to their loved ones to take the pressure off and ensure that things are as easy as possible during the final stages.
The Latin proverb “Nihil morte certius” is right: nothing is more certain than death.
Up until not that long ago, death often occurred at home with the help of a priest, parent or child, and was a more familiar concept integrated into everyday life.
With the medicalisation of death, this inevitable occurrence has become foreign and feared by many.
Nowadays, many people die in a hospital surrounded by machines, and while this is a reflection of the positive progression of science and technology, it has also caused death to become a strange, distant and fearsome event.
Furthermore, many people are faced with a sense of awkwardness when dealing with dying loved ones.
“When we visit somebody in hospital who is dying, suddenly we don’t know what to say to them anymore.”
Annie reminds us of a golden rule, which is so obvious yet so often ignored: “We are living until the moment we die”.
We are the exact same person, with the same passions and interests, even if we know that not long from now we will no longer be on this Earth.
Of course, with death come tears and pain, but much of the fear disappears when we openly confront the concept of death and accept that it’s a natural part of the life cycle.
“As soon as people are able to speak about death and know that they have control over how it will happen, they seem to find a sense of peace and completion knowing they can let go,” Annie explains.
The importance of being in control and being able to decide how to pass our final moments plays a crucial role in an ongoing discussion which has been at the centre of political discourse both in Italy and Australia.
The Victorian government has decided to allocate a $5 million fund for community palliative care agencies to provide at home palliative care, and support more Victorians with a terminal illness to be supported, and die, in their place of choice.
The funding is part of a suite of reforms that the Andrews Labor Government is undertaking, including introducing legislation into the Parliament later this year to legalise voluntary assisted dying for terminally ill people in Victoria.
In Italy, the recent death of 40-year-old DJ Fabo, who was forced to travel to Switzerland in order to legally end his own life, stirred great debate and opened up an important discussion in Italy.
When Italian students were surveyed, 78 per cent said they would like to speak about end-of-life care, euthanasia and assisted dying in classrooms in order to form an educated opinion on these issues.
Now more than ever, it’s important to prevent death from becoming (or remaining) a taboo topic.
Lately, it seems that people want to speak openly about death more and more.
In some corners of the globe, including Melbourne, ‘Death Cafes’ have even begun to pop up, where people gather to talk over a cup of tea and a slice of cake in order to raise awareness around death and dying.
At the end of the day, the fact that we are all destined for the same fate shouldn’t be viewed with despair, but rather as form of reassurance as we pack our bags for a mysterious trip that all of us will embark on sooner or later.