Why the world needs more death doulas

I LOVE learning new things and diving even deeper into topics I care about which is why you can pretty much always count on me to be taking some sort of course or training.

It’s all about gathering information and inspiration that allows me to show up with even more tools to support my clients.

There was a time when I branded myself as a “life and death coach”. While I was a hit at parties (people secretly love to talk about death), it didn’t translate well into the coaching space. I’m assuming that’s because with coaching it means you’d have to DO something about it, like get your will in place, your advanced directives in order, or start planning out your funeral arrangements But we tend to put these things off because facing our mortality can be scary.

So, I turned my focus to grief coaching instead, knowing that although we all may not have dealt with death in our lives, we’ve all struggled with grief. So, I became certified in The Grief Recovery Method™, and soon enough I found the grief coaching conversations often circled back to death. And, as I started working with terminally ill clients, my curiosity was sparked again. I wanted to ensure I had ALL the tools to help anyone struggling with any aspects of death.

Then, one day this summer, I was having lunch with a friend I hadn’t seen in years, and the conversation turned to their father who refused to acknowledge or accept the fact that he was actively dying of cancer. They told me “Tammy, seriously, if you had a workbook or a training or anything that would help us help him I’d be the first to sign up!” That conversation was the final nudge I needed to sign up for death doula training.

So, what IS a death doula, Tammy?

A death doula is an ancient practice that’s recently been reemerging in modern society. Also known as an End-Of-Life (EOL) Planner, Death Midwife, or Death Worker, I like to think of us as a calming beacon of light and support both to the person who is dying and their family throughout the dying process (meaning pre, during, and post). We bring knowledge, presence, and practical skills to a devastating and often confusing time.

If you’re familiar with a birth doula there are actually a lot of similarities between the two. The word ‘doula’ is Greek for servant or helper and just as a birth doula supports during the labour process, a death doula supports during the dying process. 

  • We both trust that the body knows what to do.
  • ALL of us are born and ALL of us will die.
  • We prefer not to talk about the nitty, gritty details (we’re often just as freaked out about placentas as we are about ‘death rattles’).
  • We love to show up with a plan and it’s a good idea to have one without getting attached to it because in both cases mother nature often has her own plan.
  • We don’t know how long either process will take when happening naturally
  • Babies gain their faculties one by one and the dying lose their faculties one by one until they eventually slip into a comatose state, lose their humanBEingness and pass away.

In both birth and death, the doula’s role is to help provide a safe space for a natural process to happen.

“This work is about trust— trusting the individual to know how to die and trusting yourself. This work is about compassion—supporting with the alleviation of suffering. This work is about intuition—your own keen and quick insight about people, places, and circumstances. This work is about boundaries—knowing how far you can and will go. This work is about communication—which sometimes means not saying anything at all. This work is about emotions. This work is about curiosity. This work is about our relationships with the unknown. This work is about love.” – Alua Arthur (my death doula teacher)

Uncertainty, Fear, and Activism

You know that saying “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes?” Well, it’s true. The one thing we know for sure is that we will all die but the when, where, why, how, and what (if anything) comes next are all up in the air.

And where there is uncertainty there is often fear.

Death can be messy, uncomfortable, confusing, and painful (although modern medicine helps immensely with that).  We feel vulnerable and rocked by a potent cocktail of mixed emotions. Death doulas provide support and empowerment during this overwhelming time. Because it’s possible for death to also be a beautiful experience.

It’s also important to acknowledge that the way we deal with death in our western society doesn’t benefit most people. We live in a death-denying culture. This means at the heart of death work lies activism. We know people can have a different experience and we advocate for their needs and desires to be honoured as much as possible. Death work is activism + LOVE. (get outta here fear!)

As I dove into the training, I was excited about the similarities between life coaching and being a death doula. For both it’s about being supportive, staying curious, asking questions, empowering the person to make the best choices for them, being a witness, remembering there’s nothing to fix, deep listening, presence, holding space, pointing to resources, helping sift through options and being an ocean of love in a challenging time. All things I’ve been doing for years, now I’ll just get to dive in and support others on an even deeper level.

Always your advocate

Many people wonder if you need to share the same beliefs as the death doula you work with. And the good news is that you don’t! It’s about supporting and advocating for whatever the dying person wants for THEIR death – it’s not about the family’s (or the doula’s) beliefs.

The death doula is there to advocate for the dying person’s wishes because sometimes their loved ones get caught up in the intensity of their own emotions. It’s hard to be IN your grief and be a good advocate. Death doulas are there to give everyone a little peace of mind that wishes are being honoured and provide support throughout the dying process.

If you’ve got questions about death doulas or my training I’d love to answer! My hope is that I/we can help normalize the conversation around death and dying so that we can lessen the struggles we have with death, understand death better, and realize how death is one of the greatest teachers in how to live our LIFE. One of the very first steps you can take is to start using the words death and dying in conversation. Euphemisms like “passed away”, “put to rest”, and “lost the battle”, all serve to only make this one certainty in life more confusing.

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