You may have experienced the services of a doula during the birth of your children or the children of friends or family. Birth doulas support women and their families through the process of a child being born. Many people find comfort in knowing there is an advocate there during one of the most exciting, precious and scary times- so it’s no wonder that the business of death has become a service a doula can provide. Death doulas support people during that other huge event, the one we don’t like to talk about.
The idea isn’t new, but in the western world, death has become a medical matter, says Hermione Elliott, director of the charity Living Well Dying Well, an organization that is pioneering the use of death doulas in the UK. “In other cultures around the globe, and for thousands of years, people have stayed in their homes to die, looked after by their family and local community. We want to see a return to this.”
Although some death doulas have a spiritual approach, there are many that simply offer a hand to hold, and list of wishes to complete. The interest and demand for death doulas is on the rise. “It’s because most of us would prefer to die at home, cared for gently,” says Barbara Chalmers of Final Fling, the UK’s first “one-stop shop for end-of-life planning”.
“I don’t offer any views or advice. I don’t try to prove that death isn’t scary. I can’t – I don’t know what death is. And I don’t soothe or placate people when they’re afraid, but rather walk directly into the state of fear with them, as a companion, and without going into a state of fear myself. This can be done as a conversation, as a walk outside together, and often – in fact in most cases – what we talk about is not death, but something else.”
Everyone involved in the field agrees that interest in preparing for death is on the rise.The problem, they say, is that people don’t know how to prepare for it, face it — in ourselves or our loved ones — or cope with it after it happens.
“We see lots of deaths on TV, in video games, but we’re detached,” said Laura Saba, founder of Momdoulary, which trains and certifies birth and death doulas. “A doula is more comfortable with death. We can provide the framework to address it. We can help make space for a conversation.”
While the practicalities of death are important, the fact is, “most of us don’t even know how to go into a room where someone is dying in a way that is helpful,” said Frank Ostaseski, founder and director of the Metta Institute, which offers an End-of-Life Practitioner Program, a five-day residential program for $1,000.
“We walk right in and start blabbing away with our nervousness,” Mr. Ostaseski added. Instead, he said, pause at the threshold before walking in. Talk less. Listen More. “It’s not your opportunity to have some deep psychological experience. Maybe all they want is someone to do their laundry,” he said. “It’s their dying, not yours.”
Those who run the training programs say they have enrolled chaplains, funeral directors, social workers, nurses and doctors who want to serve their constituencies more “mindfully and with compassion,” Mr. Ostaseski said, whose institute has a program solely for those professionals.
Since death doulas are unregulated, it’s important to ask questions before hiring someone. Ms. Saba offers suggested interview questions on her website, which include asking prospective doulas how they were trained; whether they have any political or spiritual aim; how well informed they are about end-of-life documents; and any limits placed on support in terms of time, activities and tasks.