Have you made a plan for your death? I asked my 64-year-old friend this exact question. He just laughed and said, “Nope. I don’t want to think about it.” And I think many of us feel that way. Who wants to think about their death? But we wouldn’t bring a baby into the world without some kind of birth plan, so why do so many people die without a plan for that powerful experience as well?
What is a Death Doula?
Guy Harrigan of Holding Space Hawaii has been a death doula for two years and has worked with around 100 people in their dying process. He finds that many people don’t know what a death doula is. “I ask them if they know what a birth doula is, and they say yes. Then I tell them I do the other end of life.”
The idea of a death doula has gained popularity in recent years. “The baby boomers brought in the birth doula and now they’re bringing in the death doula as they age,” says Harrigan.
Defining Death Doula
Inelda, the International End of Life Doula Association defines Death Doula as someone who “provides emotional, spiritual, and physical support at an intensely personal and crucial time. They assist people in finding meaning, creating a legacy project, and planning for how their last days will unfold. Doulas also guide and support loved ones through the last days of life and ease the suffering of grief in its early stages.”
Similar to birth doulas, those who midwife death are there to help you ask the important questions. If you are bedridden, who do want around you? Do you want music playing, and if so, what kind? Do you want to be touched? Do you want to have privacy? Could psychedelics ease the transition?
Some people want everyone to come visit them and some people want to be discerning about who they have around them at that sacred time. How do you want your body to be honored once you die? Do you want to be buried? Cremated? Green burial? These are all questions that need answers so that your loved ones know what your desires are for your death and beyond.
Death doulas can also walk you through creating a living will, your plan for your pets, children, and belongings. They can get you connected with websites and information that you’ll need to finalize your paperwork for end of life, of which there can be a lot more than people might realize.
What does it mean to be a death doula?
“People don’t usually consider how they want the experience to unfold,” Guy explains. “It’s beyond ‘If you only had six months to live’. We say, ‘These are your last three days’. Where do you want to be? What do you want the room to look like? Who do you want there? Things like that.
A lot of people don’t realize that we can control how we experience death, and a Death Doula is here to support that process. I have a more holistic approach and like to work with guided imagery, and I’ve found that to be very effective for pain management as well.”
But according to Guy, there’s lightness within what can be an intense time. “If death were a party, then a death doula would be your party planner,” he says and laughs.
Death Doula vs. Hospice
The role of a doula is to support what the patient/client requests for their end-of-life care. This is a non-medical role. Hospice is generally staffed by licensed nurses, social workers, and physicians. Doulas do not need to be licensed to practice, though there are many certifications now offered around the world.
The role of women in midwifing those who are dying is not a new role. From ancient times, the wise woman tradition has passed down the understanding of how to take care of those in our tribe. In this modern world, however, doulas are considered a new idea to many people, and anyone can step up to learn to hold space in this way.
The work of a doula can be alone or in conjunction with hospice, depending on the type of support that you need. A doula trained by a reputable organization will know what they are legally able to help with, and then support you when you need to work with medical professionals.
Doulas vs Funeral Directors
According to Guy, “Some doulas work with you until you die and then let someone else take care of the funeral. Some doulas only work with the burial or home funeral aspect, and some doulas take care of all of it. It’s best to talk to a doula to find out what they offer and find the balance that works for you and your family.”
Doulas can become licensed to be funeral directors, but it’s not generally part of the training process. There are specific laws in each state that need to be considered when making burial plans and your death doula should be able to help you with that or find someone for you who can.
Death Doula Certification
Guy has trained with the Conscious Dying Institute, Inelda, and Respecting Choices which is advanced healthcare planning, an integral part of being a death doula. This helps people make decisions with their healthcare choices as well as their end-of-life plans.
There are many organizations now offering trainings and certifications to be a Death Doula. It’s best to research organizations that are reputable and find the one that resonates best for you. As Guy said, there are many different ways to be a death doula and different schools of thought. Each organization or teacher has their own way of certifying you for supporting your community on their dying journey.
Almost two years ago I completed an introductory weekend of training as a Death Doula. When I arrived at the training, I thought I was only going to learn the ins and outs to support others with their end-of-life plans. Instead, I had a wonderful wake-up call to make a plan for my own death.
I hadn’t fully considered how I want to die if I get a chance to choose. I also hadn’t thought about what I want done with my body and who I want in charge of those details. It was sobering to make an end-of-life plan, but it was also empowering to be with the reality of my death. We all know it’s coming, but how often do we consciously and tangibly plan how we want that to look?
“Isn’t it funny,” says Guy, “how we practice and rehearse for everything in life. Graduation, concerts, births, weddings, you name it. But the second most primordial event in our life – which is death – we refuse to look at until we are there. People don’t realize that you can find life in death.”
Bloom Post is a freelance writer, ceremonialist, teacher, and author of the books Shaman’s Toolbox: Practical Tools for Powerful Transformation and Plant Spirit Totems. For more information: www.BloomPost.com