Death doulas holistically support the dying person and their family. They’re skilled, trained experts at all things end-of-life planning, from the emotional to the practical. However, not everyone is able to have a death doula, also known as an end-of-life coach or death midwife, at their side at the 11th hour.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Is a Death Doula?
- When Would Someone Need a Death Doula?
- What Should Family Members Do If They Can’t Get a Doula?
- How Do You Talk to Family Members About Death?
- How Do You Handle Disagreements About Plans?
How would someone who has spent extensive time by deathbeds handle some of the most challenging questions around death and dying? What advice would they have for people facing a loved one’s death on their own? Most importantly, how do we all get more comfortable with our own deaths, no matter when they might be?
At Cake, we work with a team of trusted advisors behind us. One of our advisors is Alua Arthur of Going with Grace, a leading educator in the death doula movement. With her death doula training program, Arthur has taught hundreds of death doulas throughout the years. Arthur used her extensive experience to answer some of our team’s biggest questions about end-of-life planning and death.
What Is a Death Doula?
To begin, what is a death doula and what do they do? A death doula is a non-medical professional who is trained to holistically support the dying person and the family through the emotional, practical, and spiritual elements of dying.
Death doulas don’t only work with those who have a terminal diagnosis. They also help healthy individuals cope with their anxiety and fear around dying and end-of-life planning. They’re a source of support, resources, and spiritual help for those navigating their own mortality.
While each death doula has their own specialties within their practice, many have experience working with clients at their deathbeds. This comes with a perspective that’s hard to match. Most people don’t experience death in such a personal and professional way. As a result, death doulas have a world of knowledge and wisdom to impart to their clients.
When Would Someone Need a Death Doula?
There are a number of reasons someone might request help from a death doula. This depends on the individual doula’s practice, but most help with all things end-of-life planning and spiritual preparedness for death.
That means you might call upon a doula for assistance with your own fears about death, even if you’re in perfectly good health. Similarly, if a close family member received a terminal diagnosis, you might wish for a death doula to work with you leading up to the death and after the death to get all of their affairs in order.
End-of-life doulas work with families and clients for any number of reasons. As humans, it’s only natural to have feelings around our own deaths and the deaths of loved ones. Death doulas are the ones who can help us unpack these emotions and in turn, enable us to practical and emotional plans to achieve as much peace as possible.
What Should Family Members Do If They Can’t Get a Doula?
Unfortunately, not everyone is willing or able to get a death doula. While many end-of-life doulas work remotely and virtually with patients in a variety of places, there are still other barriers. From the cost to unwilling family members, a death doula isn’t always possible or practical.
That being said, Arthur believes we all have the capacity to work through feelings around death and dying. While having a trusted guide to lead the way is certainly a help, there is no single path forward when facing one’s mortality.
If you have a loved one who is dying or near death, there are some things you can keep in mind even if you’re not able to get a death doula. “First,” recommends Arthur, “remember this isn’t your death. It’s theirs.”
As a death doula, Arthur always advocates for the needs of the dying person first. Though it’s hard, it’s important that they feel heard and valued. Death can be an isolating experience. This is your opportunity to be there for someone through these new challenges.
Most importantly, Arthur says you must give yourself space to grieve. “You don’t need to be strong all the time,” she says. “Talk about these feelings with the dying person if they’re open to it.” Grieve privately, if you need to, and be gentle with yourself.
How Do You Talk to Family Members About Death?
There is a lot of taboo around talking about death. Though it’s something everyone will experience, it’s also one of the hardest things to speak about openly.
How do you talk to family members who can’t face the fact that their loved one is dying? Arthur’s answer is painfully simple. “It’s okay,” she says. “Death is such a big thing.” She encourages people to be compassionate with their loved ones. Give space to let them be where they need to be emotionally.
An effective way to get them focusing on something productive is to work with them on what Arthur calls a legacy project. They can create a memorial book, do things in support, or write a letter. Talking about death is hard. Some people might have an easier time putting themselves to work or focusing on things they can control. We all have to explore our personal relationships with death at our own pace.
How Do You Handle Disagreements About Plans?
These are big questions. They don’t always have simple answers. And that’s okay.
Arthur reminds people to handle these disagreements with compassion. “You never know what someone is struggling with,” she says. As a death doula, her first role is to be an advocate for the dying. Disagreements might happen, and oftentimes people just want to feel heard. Everyone understandably wants support at this time.
Ultimately, an agreement needs to be reached. The formula is simpler than you think. “The dying person’s wishes always trumps,” she argues. “The dying shouldn’t compromise on their own death.”
Disagreements will happen. They’re a part of life (and even death). Real compromise means knowing when to put the wishes of the dying first. This is truly the best way to honor someone’s life and legacy, no matter what feelings are mixed up in these choices.
Achieving a ‘Good Death’
Everyone is on the search for a good death whether they realize it or not. A death doula is one of the many experts who lead individuals and their families towards a good death, whatever that means to them. Yet, everyone has the ability to find inner peace with one’s own mortality on their own.
Arthur helps her clients and prospective death doulas create their own search for a good death. She encourages others of all backgrounds to ask what they need to feel more comfortable with death and dying. Grappling with these feelings head-on is no easy task, but it’s also one of the most rewarding.
What does a good death mean to you? How can you be there for family members in need? There are no right answers, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask these questions.