by Aleah Weslyn, Volunteer Storyteller
For centuries, death doulas were present across cultures; particularly found in African culture and among Black communities. Being a death doula was considered a spiritual calling that can be traced all the way back to the slave trade, where enslaved people celebrated death as a “homegoing” for spirits, so they no longer had to suffer through earthly hardships. Today, being a death doula is seen as a respectable and viable profession that promotes dignity during a person’s last days. So much so that Doulagivers trained over 1,000 people in 2021 alone, which is a huge jump from 380 in 2019. Death Doulas are now more important than ever because they can help with important tasks such as preparing for care plans, funeral arrangements, and finalizing wills.
These professionals have many responsibilities. They help those nearing their death and their grieving loved ones in many ways. These include:
Helping people work through difficult emotions
Those who are expecting their death may feel like the thought looms over their daily lives. This can lead them to fall into a sullen routine, preventing them from making the most of their final days. In an interview with Arline Hinckley, one of the tenured board members at End of Life Washington, she explains that clients often give themselves up to the prospect of dying. They forget that there is still a bit of life ahead of them. This can lead them to feel depressed and despondent. Many death doulas aim to uplift the spirits of their clients and help them to cope in a healthy manner.
Sometimes, death doulas may also need to help clients feel at peace before they go, especially if these clients have encountered traumatizing experiences throughout their lives. A feature on elder abuse from Maryville University notes that approximately 10% of elders experience physical, psychological, verbal, and sexual abuse, as well as financial exploitation or neglect. Clients who receive care from other professionals such as doctors, nurses, and therapists, may need death doulas to create a safe space where they can come to terms with the negative encounters that they have experienced so they won’t have to leave with a heavy heart.
A death doula is equipped with the training and knowledge to understand how to properly deal with these complex emotions, making them the perfect guide for people at the end-of-life stage.
Ensuring proper care is given
As the name of their profession suggests, a death doula supports those who are dying. These clients may require a different type of care, in comparison to those who are chronically ill. Many people who are in the end-of-life stage also have a caregiver to ensure that their physical needs are met. This can range from physical therapy, medication administration, and even bedside care. A death doula will be able to give caregivers tips on how to support someone who is dying and make sure they are as comfortable as possible.
An NIH write-up on end-of-life care explains that dying individuals have specific mental, physical, and cognitive needs that others might not know about. For example, clients with conditions that induce pain will need relief, as it not only makes them feel comfortable but also puts them at ease mentally. They may also experience bouts of anxiety that makes the prospect of dying difficult to deal with.
Death doulas will be able to recommend ways that caregivers can deal with the situation in a manner that eases a client, and helps them feel supported. This can range from how to approach conversations about death, how to lighten a tense atmosphere, and how to offer support to a person’s loved ones during this time.
Aiding loved ones after death
A death doula can also make arrangements for someone’s death. They ensure that a will is in place and that funeral plans are made to the client’s satisfaction. This not only assures dying individuals that their loved ones are taken care of once they are gone, but it also helps family and friends avoid too much mental stress from their passing.
These professionals can also lend a helping hand and a shoulder to cry on once their client passes away, providing comfort to the bereaved. Since grief is expected, death doulas will be able to keep a level head and be a pillar of strength for their client’s loved ones, if the time calls for it. One study on death doula training from Flinders University even notes how participants often feel like they’re helping create communities through this supportive role.
Death doulas are truly unsung heroes. They take on a lot of work in order to ensure that those they are caring for receive the best care and feel uplifted despite their circumstances. It’s no wonder why there are many people learning to become death doulas and joining the profession.