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Conversation with a death doula: "It's one of the most magical times of life"

Molly "Bones" Nelson is a certified death doula who helps guide people facing death through the end of their life with information, dignity and a plan

CORNISH, Maine — It's something that everyone will experience but few are eager to talk about: death. 

For Molly Nelson, the end of life can be something beautiful. Nelson, who goes by 'Bones,' a nickname she earned as a child from being so "scrawny," lives on a farm in Cornish with her husband Johnny. 

 "I started farming when I was ten. My first job, and fell in love with it," Nelson said as she rested in an armchair after filling a pickup truck with pumpkins. Her hands were still stained with earth. 

Credit: contributed
Molly Bones Nelson has always loved feeling the earth in her hands and working the land.

Nelson spends a lot of her time in the woods when she's not working the land. She tracks animals and observes them. 

"I am just super fascinated with animal behavior and plant behavior. I just love observing. I have always been an observer," Nelson explained. 

Death abounds in nature, and in her own life, it's been close by. Nelson was born with a heart condition. Doctors told her mother she was not going to make it, but she did and had surgeries throughout her life to keep her heart working. 

"I guess I have always known that death is right there ... I've always been told I could blow at any moment, which is kind of rowdy," Nelson said, smiling.

For the last several years, Nelson has worked as a certified death doula, helping people through the end of their life. She has worked with 13 different people and was present for five deaths, which she considers an honor. 

"It sounds like a downer but it is a total upper," Nelson said. She helps people facing death get their "ducks in line," aiding them with wills, planning their own services and deciding what they want their end-of-life care to look like, among other things. 

Nelson helps clients come up with what she calls a "legacy project," where they can leave something of their legacy with friends or family, whether that be donating land to a nature conservancy, making a cookbook for the kids or a quilt. 

Nelson worked with one client for three years until he passed away at the age of 99. The man thought of death as graduation from life, so Nelson helped him hold a graduation party where he invited friends and neighbors to his home to celebrate.  

He also believed death isn't discussed enough, so he and Nelson filled a bowl with questions that would trigger conversations about life and death. They asked party-goers to pair up with someone they did not know, take a question and walk around the farm to answer them together. 

"Those guys went for three-and-a-half hours, and they didn't want to quit. It was amazing, so that kind of magic can happen," Nelson said. 

"She has a way of getting in, delving in without offending you, without ... invading your personal space and drawing things out of you. And she's very honest and open. She just tells it like it is in a kind way," Cathy Mainardi, who has been working with Nelson for the last year-and-a-half, said. 

Mainardi has metastasized cancer. The cancer is currently being held at bay by an experimental drug she takes that depletes her energy. 

Credit: NCM
Cathy May Mainardi is living with metastasizing cancer.

"Death is not at my door but it's in my yard," Mainaridi explained.    

"The good thing about having a death doula is she is an outside person. And she can discuss (death) with you without the emotions of talking about it with your child. Your child or your close people aren't always comfortable having those discussions, and of course, she is because it's what she does," Mainardi said. 

Nelson and Mainardi were the subjects of a documentary called “Death and her Compass” by Annie Munger, which was recently screened at the Camden International Film Festival. 

There is currently no nationally recognized certification for end-of-life doulas. Nelson is certified by the International End of Life Doula Association or INELDA, which was founded in 2015. There are other organizations that train and certify death doulas in America. Nelson is the only death doula in Maine certified by INELDA, though there are more than two dozen that have been trained by the organization. 

Denial is a big part of what Nelson observes as she works with clients and their families, something she said holds them back from missing a rich experience. 

"That is something she helps with is having you let go. What do you want to continue to do, and what memories do you want to make, and what can you give up," Mainardi said. 

Nelson works to prepare families of her clients, and she checks her own beliefs of death and afterlife at the door, letting her client's belief systems be the guide. 

"At this point in my life, death doesn't scare me, but it's sad because you are not going to watch your grandson do this or your son and wife do that. So there is a sadness to it, but you just try to make as many memories as you can and leave all that behind," Mainardi said. She is planning for the next three to five years. If she lives past that, then she will plan for another three to five years. 

She's called a death doula, but Nelson is really a guide, helping people find their way from this life, not without pain or sadness, but hopefully with acceptance and gratitude. 

"Don't rob yourself of the experience of how beautiful and amazing it can be. Don't rob yourself of all the emotions that come up. Like I say, it's one of the most magical times of life. It's one of the biggest things that happen to us," she said.

To learn more about Nelson, click here

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