What is a Death Doula?

By Guest Contributor Catherine Durkin Robinson

Catherine Durkin Robinson is the owner of Anitya Doula Services. She completed the End-of-Life Doula Program at the University of Vermont and is a member of the National End of Life Doula Alliance (NEDA).

What is a death doula?

If the pandemic highlighted anything, it’s how important it is to have a good death. We’ve seen countless pictures and heard heartbreaking stories. Too many people have been dying alone. Loved ones in hospitals hooked up to machines and tubes. Those at the end of life want another way. More and more, people are making plans. They’re thinking about ways to transition peacefully amidst support and love. A death doula can help them do that.

Planning for end of life.

When someone receives a terminal diagnosis, they suddenly feel overwhelmed.

There’s so much to do. Decisions must be made that include medical treatment, getting affairs in order, and dealing with the emotional aspects of dying.

Too often, people navigating this world feel lost and alone.

Doulas live in this world. They help families sort through what they want and determine what’s most important.

Many families don’t realize an entire network of support is available. As a society, we don’t easily talk about ways to die good deaths. We aren’t even aware of what we need or when we’ll need it.

On the other hand, a growing segment of the population wants to change this. They are planning for their end of life before a diagnosis happens. They just need assistance with the details.

A properly trained death doula helps at either stage.

Death doulas serve in many ways.

As a professional end-of-life doula, I work with clients and their families. I support children, young adults, or those who’ve lived long lives. Doulas also collaborate with grief counselors, elder care attorneys, home health care agencies, and funeral homes.

Every doula is different, but most listen, companion, and validate with actively dying people. They also:

  • Write obituaries. Everyone has a story to tell. This includes traditional writing for public announcements, but also for future generations to enjoy. Shortened versions can be used for eulogies, and social media posts.
  • Draft advance care directives. Many doulas have experience facilitating difficult conversations. With living wills in place, caregivers are relieved to know what their loved ones want and don’t have to guess.
  • Plan funerals or memorial services. We incorporate music, prayers and rituals from many different faiths.
  • Connect clients and families with a wide variety of pre and post-death services. Every community has a network of ethical and supportive professionals ready to help.
  • Create a warm and loving space. Doulas bring candles, rugs, pillows, and anything else that might help make the room more comfortable.
  • Coordinate care. We help visitors and volunteers help in the most effective way possible. This allows clients to focus their energy visiting with loved ones.
  • Work on legacy projects. Doulas can create recipe books, necklaces, life stories and other gifts to be cherished by grieving loved ones.
  • Companion. Many clients don’t want to die alone. At the same time, they want their families to be able to live their lives. Doulas provide important respite care for other members of the team.
  • Doulas help make this time less frightening.

When doulas sit down and explain the dying process, clients are visibly relieved. Fear and apprehension seem to dissolve. Clients begin to relax and understand that this universal experience won’t be nearly as bad as they thought.

Doulas can do this for caregivers as well.

We know what questions to ask:

  • What do you want from your final days?
  • How do you want to live the rest of your life?
  • How do you want to die?

People loathe the idea of discussing these issues, but the actual discussion is enlightening. It often relieves tension and guilt.

A good death doula will show a family how to sit down and talk about what’s coming in the next weeks or months. We model empathy. Respect. Family members are encouraged to listen without judgment.

This isn’t easy work. But these sacred discussions allow us to understand better the people we love.

Death doulas work with the medical team.

Doctors help people stay comfortable. They provide vital care that often ensures reduced physical pain and suffering at the end of life.

At the same time, the medical team has neither the time nor the training to help with emotional or spiritual suffering. A death doula does this kind of work. We alleviate emotional pain and facilitate conversations that help people live out their days free from regret.

“I can’t afford that.”

Yes, you can.

Depending on the services you need, the time you require, and your ability to pay – many doulas operate on a sliding scale.

Good deaths are similar to good lives.

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