What is a death doula?

I subscribe to the belief that no one should die alone or afraid, and death is a natural part of the life cycle that can be—should be—a sacred, deeply meaningful experience.

Sadly, too often that’s not the case. Our current health care system doesn’t do death well at all. Unless they qualify for hospice, patients and their families are left feeling helpless, confused and afraid. Sometimes angry.

No one expects us to be experts at childbirth if we’ve never had a baby. Why should we be experts at death if we or a loved one has never died before?

I just learned about death doulas, or death midwives, who are trained to help patients and their families through the death experience, much as a traditional doula or midwife helps with childbirth.

I never knew such a thing existed, but I think it’s a great idea!

Related story from the New York Times: Doulas, who usher in new life, find mission in support for the dying

Death doulas act as a death “coach” to the patient and family. Some are volunteers working within a hospice or hospital setting; some are paid consultants.

Exactly what services they offer can vary from providing information about end-of-life documents (there are several and it can be confusing) and end-of life care, being present during the active dying phase (hosting a “vigil” is common), or assisting with funeral and burial arrangements.

Related post: End of life forms – Living Wills, DNR and POLST

They can work with a patient and family to create a death plan (rather than a birth plan) that might include instructions about the atmosphere of the room (light levels, flowers, pictures, aromatherapy, etc.), music, readings, massage or other comfort measures, spiritual counseling and visitors.

Doulas provide the support and information a family needs to feel in control of—and at peace with—a physically and emotionally challenging event. One that comes to us all eventually.

There is no national society of doulas, and there is no state or federal licensing board, either.

If you want to look for a doula in your area, I would google “end-of-life doula” and your city, or contact a local hospice program.

If you are interesting in learning more about death doulas in general, or perhaps are interested in a training/certification program, here is a list of several doula organizations:

I think it’s unfortunate that some of the most common emotions at the end of life are negative ones—anger, fear, confusion, embarrassment, ignorance and antipathy—which then lead to painful memories.

It doesn’t need to be that way, and a death doula might be the answer for some families.

Sláinte,

Frugal Nurse

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