What is a Death Doula?

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A doula is a non-medical person who provides support and nurturing to a person in life transition. Birth doulas provide information and nurturing care before and during birth, and death doulas do the same in the days and months leading up to death.

Death doulas generally have a holistic view that encompasses the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of end-of-life experiences, working with the family as well as the individual.

Other terms used to describe this work include end-of-life doula, end-of-life coach, end-of-life guide, death midwife, soul midwife, transition guide, death coach, and doula to the dying. Practitioners may have completed a certification course for death doulas, and usually bring a rich background of other training and skills that help them guide people through the end-of-life experience.

Who is a death doula?

A lawyer, a psychologist, a nurse—all are death doulas. In the videos that follow, you’ll hear each of them describe how she approaches her work with the dying.

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Alua Arthur is a lawyer and one of her specialties is advance planning documents. But her services encompass much more, as you will see. You can find out what she does at Going With Grace.

In her video, Alua refers to “memento mori.” I had to look that up. Here’s what I learned from Merriam Webster: 

Memento mori literally means “Remember you must die.” The early Puritan settlers were particularly aware of death and fearful of what it might mean, so a Puritan tombstone will often display a memento mori intended for the living. These death’s-heads or skulls may strike us as ghoulish, but they helped keep the living on the straight and narrow for fear of eternal punishment. In earlier centuries, an educated European might place an actual skull on his desk to keep the idea of death always present in his mind.

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Sarah Kerr has a PhD in psychology and additional training that has led her to focusing on non-religious ritual and ceremony. Her purpose is to help people naviagte death, loss, and transformation.You can find out more about the scope of her work at Soul Passages.

Sarah’s website is highly educational. She says, “We’ve forgotten how to meet death well, and we need to develop a wider literacy in the culture.” To that end, she posts short videos that I highly recommend. You can find them here and here. And you’ll probably want to download her Free Holistic Death Resource Kit.

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Suzanne O’Brien is a registered nurse with extensive experience in palliative care. She’s the founder of a training program who those who wish to be certified to work as end-of-life doulas. You can find out more at Doulagivers.

You don’t have to want to become a death doula to benefit from Suzanne’s work. I highly recommend the 90-minute free webinar she offers regularly. You can register by  scrolling down the home page on her website. Anyone who might one day be dealing with a dying family member will benefit from the detailed practical information she covers in this webinar, including what to expect as the body shuts down and how to help when the person is in the last stages of dying.

I’m not sure if I would hire a death doula when the time comes. But right now, I’m glad to know they are an option. And you?

More to dying than meets the eye—two researchers talk about what they learned.

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I loved the gentle way that Dr. Kathryn Mannix, in a previous post, described how the body shuts down as we approach our end of life.

I’m also interested in what happens as my soul meets death. In a way, I feel as if I actually know, but just haven’t quite remembered yet. So I’ve been looking into it in hopes of jogging my memory. Today I’m sharing what a couple researchers have found out about deathbed phenomena.

Martha Atkins is a death researcher and educator. In this TED talk, she describes deathbed phenomena based on what she learned from both the dying and bedside witnesses. It’s her view that this knowledge can bring comfort to patients and caregivers by helping them understand what they are experiencing. Her book is Signposts of Dying: What you need to know.

Dr Peter Fenwick is also a researcher in end-of-life experiences. He’s a British neuropsychiatrist who worked in hospice care and documented many fascinating phenomena including premonitions, clocks stopping at the time of death, relatives seeing light in the room of the dying and shapes leaving the body, visions of the dying and terminal lucidity. He is co-author of The Art of Dying.

This next video is a long one, but interesting for those wanting to know more. He starts out describing neuroscience and a theory of consciousness based on his research into near-death experiences. End-of-life discussion starts at 15:25 if you want to skip ahead. At 19 minutes he begins talking about what you might expect.

Dr Fenwick concludes by saying that the way we medicalize death, sweep it away, don’t talk about it, is producing a culture  in which we deny our responsibility. Yet, what we really should be doing is starting with the children. Bring death into the open, discuss it, teach them that it’s a normal part of living.

When children know about death…

Be prepared. When they know, they might say surprising things. This is one of my favourite grandchild stories.

When my older granddaughter was about seven, we were looking through a photo album. As she oohed and aahed over her mother’s wedding dress, I said, “I made that dress, you know.”

“Ohhhh,” she said with wide eyes. “Will you make mine?”

Before I could reply, she paused and I could almost see the wheels turning in her head. Then she quickly added, “If you’re still alive then.”

Matter-of-factly. No drama. The way it should be.

Your thoughts about end-of-life phenomena or about teaching children about death?

What does normal dying look like?

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I’ve never seen someone die. I probably will in the next while. I don’t know what to expect. So I’ve been looking into it and have found some reassuring information.

Dying is not as bad...

Kathryn Mannix is a medical doctor, who has worked as a palliative care consultant in hospices, hospitals, and in patients’ own homes. From this experience, she has written With the End in Mind. Here’s an excerpt from her description of it:

Dying is a bodily process. Just like pregnancy and birth, it has recognisable stages of progression. We can recognise the progress of life-limiting illness; we can predict, less reliably early on yet with increasing accuracy as death comes closer. It’s usually possible to gather the right people in time, and help them to prepare, because for most of us, dying affects not only the dying person but also their dear ones. Whether or not we are related to the people we hold most dear, dying is a ‘family affair.’…

My life in palliative care has shown me that the process of dying is made less frightening and more peaceful, the better prepared we are. Knowing what to expect, and knowing what our dear ones will see as we die, helps people to plan, to speak to each other openly and honestly, and to relax. It also helps people to enjoy each day as it arises, instead of fearing a sudden and unexpected onset of dying, because usually, death approaches us gradually.

I usually write a conclusion, but I think she’s said it all. I hope you found this helpful.