mental health

Finding peace: How this ‘end-of-life coach’ helps the terminally ill face death

Steph Arnaldo
Finding peace: How this ‘end-of-life coach’ helps the terminally ill face death

Photos from Charity

From corporate leader to cancer survivor and now a cancer coach – this 'life doula' is there for the sick and elderly during their last moments

MANILA, Philippines – Are you scared of death?

Many of us are, and would prefer not even think about about how, why, and when we’ll die. The uncertainty of what happens after we take our last breath is so overwhelming that we’ve kept the door to these existential thoughts locked shut. But for terminally ill patients and the elderly, death is already knocking on this same door, with many of them already peeping through the keyhole, staring the uninvited guest right in the eye.

This process – physically, mentally, and emotionally – can get very taxing and depressing, both for the patients and their loved ones. The transition from this world to the next is never easy, but thankfully, there are non-medical professionals who are trained to help patients move on with as much grace, ease, acceptance, and joy possible.

You may have heard of a “life coach”, but have you ever heard of an “end-of-life coach?” A life doula? A cancer coach and grief coach? As jarring as these terms may sound to you, these roles are actually the bread and butter of Charity Marohombsar, whose vocation in life is to assist the sick, dying, and terminally ill, as well as their loved ones, in coming to terms with their demise.

Life coach…for the dying?

The term “doula,” which is similar to “midwife,” originates from a Greek word that refers to women who care for pregnant women until they give birth. As a life doula and non-medical practitioner, Charity cares for cancer patients until they have to say goodbye.

To navigate the whole cancer journey, Charity helps them manage or treat the spiritual, emotional, and mental “dimensions” of their well-being. She also attends to patients on active cancer treatments, whom she calls “cancer warriors.”

As an end-of-life doula, Charity’s clientele consists of terminally ill patients – those with cancer or even the elderly – who are trying to live a meaningful life, knowing they do not have much time. She also caters to patients in palliative care who just want to live as comfortably as they can before they die.

According to Charity, the main goal of doula work is emotional and mental preparation, as well as acceptance.

“I help them prepare by making their remaining weeks, months, or year/s more comfortable and memorable. I help them embrace death as a natural event. This includes the preparation of their loved ones as well,” Charity told Rappler. Some of her clients even ask her to help them prepare and plan for their memorial.

Charity is also a grief coach; she helps those who have just lost their loved ones, as well as those just about to – she calls them her “Anticipatory Grief” clients. She also caters to “Transitional Grief” clients, who are about to make major changes in their lives, like leaving a relationship or marriage, physically leaving home for a new place, or adjusting to being an empty nester.

Whatever type of grief is present in her clients, the ultimate goal for Charity is to help them “navigate” through it. It’s not to solve the grief or remove it – grief is not something that can be “fixed” anyway – but rather, to help these clients “swim along” with every moment, every day, she said.

“I help them do so, with the hope that they will be able to use the pain and shift it to honor their loved ones and move forward in life, even with their pain,” Charity said. Basically, Charity is there for you during your last moments. A life doula helps you accept, cope, and move forward with a loss.

From corporate leader to cancer coach: How it happened

You might be asking: What makes someone want to be there for death, pain, and grief? What pulls someone to pursue this as a full-time career? Most would think “depression,” but for Charity, it was actually a dream. And it took staring her own mortality in the eyes to realize that her difficult journey of beating cancer wasn’t going to be in vain.

After graduating from Ateneo de Naga with a degree in English, majoring in Literature, Charity went to spend 35 years of her career as a corporate executive and leader, solving complex organization problems for big companies. In between, she also became a mother of three. But her fast-paced life took a turn in 2016 when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.

She began undergoing chemotherapy and weekly treatments, and after 33 days of radiation, the hospital soon became Charity’s second home. It was during her hospital visits that she started seeing the gaps between the patient, caregiver, and medical team. Charity said she felt like she needed to offer an opportunity to “hold space” for these cancer patients and the people who care for them, whom she called “love givers.”

Charity was suddenly at a crossroads. “I thought my life was pretty set. I would continue to rise up the corporate ladder and make more businesses profitable,” Charity said. “But faced with my own reality, I suddenly realized: With this huge possibility of dying, how would I live my life differently?”

“It was at this point when I started reflecting on what truly matters most. I started ‘repacking my bag,’ and I found myself realigning my priorities,” she added. It was after getting sick herself that she realized that the global healthcare system is very disease-centric, and not patient-centric.

Thankfully, she was lucky enough to meet a very compassionate oncologist who not only became her doctor, but also her best friend. This relationship helped her see the importance of addressing the spiritual, emotional, social, and mental needs of patients.

“I have always loved interacting with people and studying the various dynamics of human interactions and I realized I had the ‘appetite’ to hold space for people. I wanted to create a safe space so I can help people process what they were going through,” she said.

One year after being cleared of cancer, Charity left her stable job, which she had thought was “everything” to her. Faced with the uncertainty of the future, she began equipping herself with certifications in leadership coaching, life coaching, end of life certification, self love teaching, and grief coaching.

Now Charity wears all hats – grief coach, life coach, life doula, self-love teacher, cancer coach, and more – and she hasn’t looked back since.

A day in a doula’s life

Just like a therapist or psychiatrist, Charity first comes up with a specialized treatment plan after meeting her clients, as she is also a core member of the patient’s “cancer support team,” collaborating with oncologists and geriatrics doctors. Mainly, her role is to hold space for the patient spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. She offers the patient a safe space for expression, to help lighten the load and ease the personal burden of going through such a challenge alone. 

Charity uses several tools, but her main one is coaching – processing what a client brings into the space. Since she is also a certified Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) practitioner, Charity also helps them manage their anxiety and negative emotions. The other tools she uses include meditation, breath work, muscle testing, and more. To Charity, it’s really a “holistic management of the ecosystem” of cancer patients, and those that are grieving – she offers both a Patient Centric Package and Family Centric Package.

“My methodology as a coach is I do not have an agenda. It is the client’s agenda I serve, so whatever they bring in the space is what we tackle,” Charity explained. Part of her training is to see each client as already naturally “creative, resourceful, and whole” – all she has to do is “dance in the moment with them” and ask powerful questions that in the end, will give them clarity. All of this leads to helping her patients navigate their own cancer journey by learning how to shift from fear to faith, and live a full life amidst their cancer.

“Cancer is a chapter in their life; it is not the entire book,” she said.

It can be an emotionally demanding job, but Charity’s passion for healing sees her through. The most fulfilling part, for her, is being “of service” when she starts to see the positive shift in mindset and perspective. “While it’s very heavy emotionally, it is fulfilling to see people – both the patients and their families – shift their perspective on death and how they will transition,” Charity said.

Burnout is real? When grief becomes too much

It’s work that requires a lot of empathy, compassion, and sensitivity. At the end of the day, Charity helps take on her clients’ problems and emotions, and as an empath, is susceptible to absorbing a big chunk of them. So just like how we “destress” after work, Charity also has to be strict with her self-care routine and do a lot of “cleansing” and self-preservation of her own mental health and energy.

“The challenging part is to be able to manage my own emotions, but over the years I have learned some tools to be able to protect my energy while I hold space for them,” she said. If you thought your job burnout was real, it could not be more real for Charity. Almost every day she is faced with the possibility of losing her dear clients and friends.

“It gets overwhelming, especially when patients – who have become friends and confidantes – had to say goodbye suddenly and unexpectedly due to COVID. In 2021 I lost practically all my friends/clients to cancer and COVID,” Charity said. It was this same year that Charity “hit rock bottom” – losing clients week after week caused her mild depression.

“I told my own coach, ‘I don’t want this,’ and she said, ‘Okay, don’t do it, but who will?’ So I honored this calling, knew I was meant to do it, and studied more to equip myself so I can help my clients and take care of myself better,” Charity said. This is also why she became a “Self-Love is The Solution” teacher and coach.

Here are a few of the tools, self-care rituals, and practices a life doula does to keep her energy in check:

  • I keep my vibrational hygiene, which means I curate my space.
  • I avoid negative and toxic thoughts and people. 
  • I set unambiguous boundaries – I only meet two clients a day, because I prepare the space for them. 
  • I do long meditations and quiet time.
  • I hear mass everyday because I realize this work is not something I can do without God’s help.
  • I clear my space with prayers and sage, palo santo, etc. 
  • After each session I also “cut the cord” to ensure I don’t absorb any negative energy.

And it’s all worth it. “I love what I do, the world needs it, I am good at it, and it puts food on the table,” Charity said, perfectly encapsulating the Japanese ikigai concept of living a long and happy life.

What a life doula wants you to know about healing and death

First, Charity makes sure to tell her terminally ill patients – whether still in their early stages or on palliative care –that cancer is not random, and only they can embrace that this is a journey they are meant to go on.

“Making peace with their cancer is a pivotal point in the healing process,” Charity said. For those spiritually-inclined, Charity also offers reminders that “God loves you immensely”; “we don’t own anything in this world”; “we are not in control, God is”; and that “God always provides.”

But despite all these reassuring statements, the fear of death remains real – this is what most of her patients are scared of the most, Charity said. “When you dig deep it’s really the process of suffering before they die.”

“In our culture, death is a taboo, and that’s why I talk about this a lot. Death is not a medical event; it’s a natural process, like being born. So I encourage them to make peace with death, to see it as a culminating adventure of life. As Ram Dass said, ‘It is taking off a tight shoe which you have worn well,” Charity said.

With so many clients helped, are there any success stories that stand out to Charity? For Charity, every patient is different, but the overarching theme is always “triumph over transcendence.” This means that whether a cancer    patient survives or not, the story deserves to be honored, regardless.

“That they have decided to fight is already a win. So I never really say: ‘We lost her to cancer’…to me there is no such thing,” she said.

If you’ve just found out you’re sick…

If you’re just been diagnosed, we can only imagine how overwhelmed you may be feeling right now. If you need a sense of direction, a hand to hold, and a calming presence to get you through the shock, a life doula may help. Charity wants you to know that “terminal illness is a medical jargon,” and that people can “live through it” with the right mindset and support. She also makes sure to teach your family how to hold space for you, which is all part of the healing journey.

I had to go through my own pain so I can hold people’s hand, look them straight in the eye, and say, ‘I understand your pain.’

“I have learned to communicate that cancer patients have this gift that people overlook: the gift of preparation. This became even more glaring during the pandemic when people got COVID and never thought they would die from it, so they weren’t able to prepare. Cancer patients, on the other hand, have time to prepare,” Charity said. This time for preparation is also a way to instill hope – the most important thing patients and their loved ones need as they approach the possibility of death. 

“I always say this: you can lose everything except hope, because hope is the one thing that can help us get through the darkest hours of our lives,” she said

“For a person who is transitioning to death, embracing faith and letting go of their fear, while knowing and believing that death is a doorway to life eternal, gives them peace,” Charity said.

Before you embark on your cancer journey, the first and most important thing to do is give yourself time to sit with your feelings. Write down all your questions, and reach out to a support system or a doula when you are ready – but also remember that with your condition, time is of the essence. But don’t be tempted to go the quick and easy route and consult Dr. Google – this is the biggest no-no!

“Please don’t! Find the right medical oncologist that you can trust with these 3C’s : Christ-centered, Compassionate, and Competent,” Charity said.

“Know that cancer is not a death sentence anymore. Your mindset is also key to beating cancer,” she added. But she also “keeps it real” with her patients so they are better prepared to face inevitable hard truths about their situation.

As for helping family members deal with this new reality, Charity advises them not to “disempower” their loved ones by taking over their life. Allow them to make decisions for themselves.

“They may have cancer but they can still decide. At the end of the day, it’s the cancer patients that need to decide on what treatment protocol they want to have,” she said. This is important for clients to gain clarity and a “better perspective” about their condition. They need to feel empowered enough to heal.

“Each session, my clients look forward to finding peace and calmness amidst their challenging situation,” Charity said.

Being an end-of-life doula is a win-win for everyone involved – the sick and elderly are given the opportunity to thrive despite the sickness, and Charity gets to fulfill her life purpose by helping these patients do more than survive. In a way, this is her chance to give back and show her appreciation for a second chance at life.

“I had to go through my own pain so I can hold people’s hand, look them straight in the eye, and say, ‘I understand your pain.’ I had to go through my darkest hour of grief so I can teach people how to navigate through their own grief,” Charity said.

“And this is also a legacy for my children – I want them to go through life not seeking success but to live a purposeful life.” – Rappler.com

Steph Arnaldo

If she’s not writing about food, she’s probably thinking about it. From advertising copywriter to freelance feature writer, Steph Arnaldo finally turned her part-time passion into a full-time career. She’s written about food, lifestyle, and wellness for Rappler since 2018.