Death Doulas: Guides at the End of Life

Close-up of holding hands
KatarzynaBialasiewicz / Getty Images

A death doula or end-of-life doula is a person who helps the dying transition peacefully by offering support to them and to their families. This community-based role has emerged over the past few years to aid in the process of preparing for death, helping with tasks such as planning funerals, offering spiritual guidance, and creating structured death plans. Much like a birth doula or midwife, death doulas help to empower their patients to take control of their own dying process.

Did You Know?

  • Death doulas are sometimes called death midwives, end-of-life guides, or end-of-life doulas.
  • Many death doulas also work as members of the clergy, social workers, nurses, home health aids, and grief counselors.
  • This community-based role is becoming more and more popular in the United States, and there are numerous private organizations that offer certification and training.

Responsibilities of a Death Doula

Death doulas are strong advocates of the right of individuals to have control over their own passing. A professional death doula is trained to provide a wide range of services, such as:

  • Home-based Funerals: As more people wish to care for their dying and their dead at home, a death doula may assist with education for families and patients in transition. They can teach clients how to bathe, dress, and prepare the dead for burial, and offer alternatives to traditional embalming and creation—green burials and home funerals are becoming increasingly popular.
  • Companionship: As someone is dying, they may wish to simply have someone to talk to who is not an immediate family member. A death doula isn't the same as a pastor or a mental health counselor; instead, they provide the gift of a listening ear, and are an objective, non-biased party who can hear the things someone wishes to share prior to dying. They may be able to offer spiritual counseling in the person's final days, and help the dying consider their legacy to their loved ones.
  • End-of-Life Planning: A death doula may assist with planning a funeral or memorial service, or even a pre-death celebration of life. They may aid in finding resources for preparing a will or power of attorney. If the individual is terminally ill, a death doula can help make arrangements for hospice care or pain management, although they are typically not medical professionals themselves; a death doula simply facilitates this care in a holistic way.
  • Assisting the Family: Families can be overwhelmed by all the things there are to think about when a loved one is about to die, and a death doula can help by guiding conversations about their wishes. The death doula can also provide a bit of respite for the family by helping with caregiver tasks like bathing the dying individual or monitoring them while the family is out of the house.

According to Antonia Blumberg, of the Huffington Post, death doulas are prepared to help families create lasting memories during their loved one's final days. "That includes helping the family put together legacy items, like memory books, video tapes, audio recordings, and collages―things they will have to pass down after the person’s death."

Training and Education

For centuries, care of the dead and dying was the domain of women, and many women today find themselves drawn to the role of death doula in their community. In recent years, as the death doula movement has grown, more structured training has become available to end-of-life guides.

At present, there is no national governing body that oversees the activities of end-of-life consultants. However, there are several private organizations which offer training and certification. In addition, the International End of Life Doula Association (INELDA), founded in 2015, is a non-profit group which seeks to help educate those who are interested in fulfilling this valuable role in their communities. INELDA's death doula education has served as the model for a number of hospice programs around the United States, and the organization says their goal is to "foster the use of end of life doulas in hospices, hospitals, communities, and directly to dying people through the service of private practitioners."

Although anyone can train to become a death doula, the ideal candidates are people who are involved in their community and feel called to aid both the dying and their families during the transitionary period at the end of life. Many death doulas also work as members of the clergy, social workers, nurses, home health aids, and grief counselors; their death doula work is simply one more service that they feel called to provide those who need their support.

Sources

  • Altman, Mara. “The Death Doula.” Modern Loss, 2 Sept. 2014, modernloss.com/death-doula/.
  • Baldwin, Paula K. “Death Cafés: Death Doulas and Family Communication.” MDPI, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, 26 Apr. 2017, www.mdpi.com/2076-328X/7/2/26.
  • “How ‘Death Doulas’ Can Help People at the End of Their Life.” Healthline, www.healthline.com/health-news/how-death-doulas-can-help-people-at-the-end-of-their-life#1.
  • Raymond, Chris. “Death Doulas Assist Dying Individuals and Their Families.” Verywell Health, www.verywellhealth.com/what-is-a-death-doula-1132512.