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Accepting Unexpected Change: From Life Scientist to Death Doula

How Embracing Change Can Help You Find Your Higher Purpose in Life.

Image: Shutterstock

Co-author: Samantha Paternoster.

A lot has been written about fear of change – in business and life, both minute and radical. It is difficult to fully apprehend its impact on our lives until we step out of our comfort zones and face it.

When you think about it, we are surrounded by and embrace change every day without even realizing it.

We expect the weather to be different tomorrow, that we’ll want something new for dinner the next day, that as the seasons change so do our daily activities. Yet when it comes to the bigger picture, we often freeze at the prospect of change. Why?

Embracing change presents the opportunity for growth, happiness and meaning in life. It’s uncomfortable. Unfamiliar. And yet, it’s the only constant in life. It’s what led me to my current passion and career. Being a death doula is quite the change from being a life scientist! My hope is that through sharing my story you too will be encouraged to embrace change as a positive sign of living and growing.

Facilitating Change by Living in the Moment

In college, when I started delving into genetics, biophysics and cell biology – Mendel and his peas, enzymatic kinetics and activation energy – I was surrounded by change. In appearance, in content, in structure, in velocity. I was fascinated, living in the moment, learning as much as possible about life sciences.

I had no idea that I would find my greatest inspiration in these molecules. I also did not know the influence they would have on my perspective of the world and my own life.

It was only recently, after a drastic yet organic career change, that I had a breakthrough in understanding how I got to where I am today.

Embracing Change to Create the Life I Wanted

Growing up in France in the 70’s and 80’s, we were taught to be good citizens by fitting in. Yet in the 90’s I actively chose change. I became a researcher, working with an invisible world of molecules interacting with each other, needing energy to work together.

I also moved to a foreign country – alone! The shy and insecure young woman that I was had to develop a thicker skin and talk to people to survive, and in a new language nonetheless! Still, the change I embraced was seen by many as a sign of failure. In their eyes, I was a runaway.

In 2000, I moved from working exclusively with PhDs to collaborating with MDs. Once again, I was warned of change. I was warned from within my sphere that this was not real science, that I was making a mistake by choosing to go study abnormal phenomenon found in breast and ovarian cancer. The most obvious subject prone to change – life, organisms, cells – trying to understand physiological mechanisms to help cure life-threatening diseases and delay death, and still we had problems dealing with change!

It did not make any sense to me.

Perceiving Negative as Positive

I had been working in the biotechnology industry for over a decade and had a total of 25 years' experience in scientific project management when I hit a wall with a project. My boss at the time asked where I was going with the project and I genuinely felt that it was time to kill it and move on.

In business these decisions are common, but in the academic/biotech science industry it’s generally seen as failure. As scientists, we would rather keep a project alive at all costs than admit we can’t take it any further.

I thought I had overcome the pervasive thought that you are somehow married to your projects and that switching gears would be a terrible defeat. I had spent most of my life switching gears and embracing change!

Not long after the conversation with my boss, I was asked another question – what do you want to do next? I was surprised with how ready I was to answer: I want to help make things more efficient for the team. I want to influence. I want to help get things done.

In other words, I was asking for a promotion to manager.

The response was negative and not entirely unexpected. I was expensive and had reached the glass ceiling. Nevertheless, their response freed me to negotiate my exit. Looking back, it was probably the best ‘no’ I have received to date because it forced me to change once again.

Be an Agent of Change

This became my motto. I wanted to work the way enzymes catalyzed reactions of change: effectively, getting things done efficiently and smoothly. Using a scientific approach, design thinking toward social innovation and connection, I looked for a business model that would suit my interests and use my skills and strengths so I could keep feeding my growth mindset while paying my bills.

Then I found it. A business that allowed me to act as a catalyst to improve communication and transmission of knowledge between communities and their healthcare.

I became a Death Doula.

“You’re not a doctor anymore?”

“You are what?? A death what? A death doula?”

“Working with deaf children?”

“End of life? End of what? Why? What happened?”

“Are you nuts?”

Once again I embraced change and caused a shock wave around me. I was judged for not fitting in, for never doing anything conventional. There was no one word that could describe my profession of choice or my career path. I chose to study and provide solutions toward the most obscure subject one could think of, the most frightening (after public speaking, of course): death.

What is a Death Doula?

We live in a death-illiterate society. No one talks about death. Well, no one talked about cancer at the dinner table either when I was studying genes involved in breast and ovarian cancer. Now there is Death Over Dinner and Death Cafe.

Death Doulas are highly skilled professionals acting as agents of change. We are former scientists, nurses, attorneys, physicians, licensed social workers, caregivers, chaplains, consultants, funeral directors, midwives, grief counselors, hospice workers, and life coaches.

Death doulas demonstrate proficiency, competency and familiarity in the following core competency areas:

  • Communication and interpersonal skills

  • Professionalism

  • Technical knowledge

  • Values and ethics

For those of us who choose to open private practices, we are also small-business owners and entrepreneurs, having to educate ourselves with the latest marketing tips so we can make smart connections.

We deal with the most difficult change that exists – the change from Life to Death.

We are patient advocates, educating people on how to live well and die well through planning and conversations with loved ones and healthcare providers. We save them money and aggravation while helping them find peace.

Most importantly, in becoming a death doula I found a professional network where mentorship was an integral part of the culture. Unlike the STEMM field I came from, the new death-positive business community uses mentorship to help each other further strengthen and grow as individuals and professionals. We even have a National End of Life Doula Association.

Had I not embraced change, I may never have found my true calling.

Change is the Only Constant in Life

I find it fascinating that in business, like in nature, we must change in order to adapt and survive. It is a matter of success or failure. It is inevitable. Change can be disastrous – but change can be good too. It is how we grow.

I found meaning and happiness in learning to deal with change and advocating for end of life planning. Embracing change, becoming an agent of change, has helped me write my story.

How will it help you write yours?

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