“If I were the dead person, I would hate this,” Kathy Miller recalled thinking when she attended funerals as a child. She found the ceremonies to be hot, crowded and impersonal, but what traumatized her most was seeing her loved ones’ embalmed bodies.
“It was so clearly not them,” she said, stressing how fake and disturbing the bodies looked. “That wasn’t how I wanted to remember them.”
Miller attended over 30 funerals before she turned 18. Due to her large extended family, she witnessed a lot of deaths as a young girl, which sparked her curiosity and prompted her to later choose a career that would allow her to improve the experience of death for everyone involved.
Miller is now a death midwife serving the Chicago area. Much like a traditional midwife who helps women through the process of childbirth, she guides people through the process of dying.
“Death should be just as loving and celebratory as birth,” she explained. She spoke softly and slowly, but there was a hopeful quality to her voice that lightened the mood of an otherwise heavy topic of conversation.
Miller described herself as an advocate for the dying person. While she lends a hand in a variety of other ways, such as organizing documents and acting as a liaison with medical professionals, she said her top priority is to make sure her client’s wishes are respected.
She asks how they want to be remembered, listens to them reminisce and discusses different funeral options. In making the process feel as intimate and genuine as possible, Miller ensures the family can say goodbye to their loved one in the best possible way.
“Death will never be easy, but having your plans in order is one of the best gifts you can give to your family, so instead of fighting about what should be done, families can focus on supporting one another in their grief,” she said.
Death is an uncomfortable topic for most people, but for Miller, it is a chance to be there for someone she never knew and help them “embark on their next adventure.” She described a touching moment when she sat vigil with a woman on her last day.
“There was a full summer moon shining through the drapes,” she said. “I just talked to her about it. I don’t even remember what I said. At first, she was agitated, but after sitting with her for awhile, she calmed down a lot. It was such a sacred experience, and I was honored to be able to be there for her.”
Though she strives to maintain a composed demeanor, Miller admitted there are times her emotions get the best of her. She allows herself to cry and take breaks when she needs to, but she never beats herself up over showing too much empathy on the job.
“I err on the side of genuine connection,” she said. “I’m not a robot. I’m a human.”
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