What Does a Death Doula Really Do?

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You’ve likely heard of birth doulas, but what about death doulas? A death doula is a non-medical person who has special training to help them care for someone at the end of their life. They’re also sometimes known as end-of-life coaches, death midwives, and end-of-life guides. 

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There has recently been more attention around death doulas and the work that they do, but there’s also no doubt that there’s a lot of confusion around this role. We at Cake spoke with one of our trusted advisors, Alua Arthur of Going with Grace, about what death doulas really do. 

In this guide, we’ll answer some of the biggest questions around end-of-life coaching to debunk some of the most common myths. Death truly is the most unifying part of life. How are these doulas helping people face their anxiety around mortality

What Draws Someone to Becoming a Death Doula?

For someone unfamiliar with end-of-life planning and care, the role of a death doula can seem like a foreign career path. It’s often said that these individuals hear the “call” to become a death doula. It is not typical to find death doula-specific courses in high school or college (at least, not yet), but these individuals tread their own paths to this unique calling. 

For Arthur, her journey to becoming a death doula was not a straightforward one. It began on a trip to Cuba where she met a German woman with uterine cancer. The traveler was trying to experience new places before her impending death, and she was looking for someone to talk candidly with about her life and her death. 

This was Arthur’s first moment of clarity, and it wouldn’t be her last. 

“We should prepare ourselves for dying,” she thought. This became even more important to her when she was called to her brother-in-law’s aid as he faced a terminal diagnosis, not unlike the woman she met in Cuba. She experienced firsthand what it was like to be there for someone in those final months. It became highly personal. 

Through these eye-opening experiences, Arthur discovered that exploring death and dying became one of the most valuable resources for living. 

She’s not alone. Thousands of others have heard a similar call to be there for others in their final moments. Many were sparked by similar experiences helping friends and family through this final transition. 

Emily Dickinson said it best: “Because I could not stop for death — He kindly stopped for me.” Death doulas aren’t afraid to shake death’s hand. They aren’t afraid to face their mortality and all the uncertainty that comes with it. Through this work, they find peace for themselves and their clients. 

Death Doula Duties

What exactly do death doulas do? While most recognize that they help the family and the dying individual navigate practical and emotional concerns, what does this mean in real-life? 

According to Arthur, doulas can wear a range of hats depending on their personal skills and expertise. In essence, a death doula holistically supports the dying person and their family. They assist with the emotional, practical, and spiritual elements of mortality. 

Who do death doulas work with?

Death doulas are known primarily for working with individuals that have received a terminal diagnosis. While it’s true they do assist those who have received this type of diagnosis, they can work with anyone. 

Death doulas help anyone create an end-of-life plan or work through their anxieties about death. No matter where you’re at in your life, you can understand the struggle that comes with accepting your own mortality and creating a realistic plan for the end, whenever that may be. 

In addition to working with the healthy, doulas also assist those with a diagnosis, both terminal and non-terminal. They work with the medical team or hospice to create a treatment plan that’s right for the individual on a holistic and spiritual level. 

What do death doulas do?

As explained above, death doulas juggle a lot of different things. Many offer a variety of services and work with the individual and their family to determine what’s needed. Others specialize in specific things. Here are some of the most common offerings:

  • End-of-life plan: The majority of death doulas assist with creating an end-of-life plan. This could include funeral arrangements, a will and testament, or an advance directive
  • Death anxiety: It’s normal to have feelings of anxiety around death. Doulas are there to work through these fears to create a healthier relationship with the end. 
  • Diagnosis treatment plan: For those who receive a non-terminal diagnosis, they can work with the individual and the family to create a treatment plan that looks like what they value, not just a medical regimen.
  • Terminal plan: For those who have received a terminal diagnosis, they are there to craft the right death scenario, from the death bed itself to care throughout the process. 
  • Vigil: Death doulas can lead the family and the individual through a vigil. 
  • Grief and counseling: Grief takes many shapes and forms. Death doulas have extensive grief training, and can help guide others through this journey. 
  • Wrap up affairs: Lastly, many death doulas also assist with wrapping up loved one’s affairs. This could include closing accounts, assisting with the funeral, and handling the bureaucracy that comes with dying. 

Many are surprised to see just how much these end-of-life doulas do within their practice. While each doula has their own strengths they draw upon, it’s easy to see why these are trusted advisors for life’s biggest transitions. 

Death Doula Fees

Because death doulas are trained guides and resources, they usually charge a fee for this level of care. What exactly they charge depends on their location, experience, and the specific needs of the family. 

Some might charge a flat fee to assist over a series of sessions while others charge by the hour. The hourly rate often ranges from $30 to $100+ an hour. Ultimately, the rate depends on the individual practice and the needs of the client. 

How to Find a Death Doula

No matter your relationship with death, you or a loved one might benefit from connecting with a death doula. As this industry grows, there are more options than ever for finding the perfect practice that suits your needs. 

According to Arthur, the best place to find a death doula is also the simplest: the internet. Death doula practices have gone digital, and most are easy to find on social media and through search results. When in doubt, ask around in your community. If you can’t find one near you, many are willing to work with families virtually through chat or video.

For sourcing death doulas nationally, the National End of Life Alliance directory is a great resource. Stay Near also offers local and national listings to find the right option for you. 

How to Become a Death Doula Yourself

Have you heard the call to become a death doula? If so, you’re in good company. There are a number of reputable training opportunities you can do online. Going with Grace is Arthur’s death doula training program, and she’s helped educate hundreds of end-of-life doulas using her extensive education and practical experience. 

However, before you get started on this path, Arthur offers a few words of wisdom. It’s important to see what it’s like to see what death is like outside of your own family. Volunteering with hospice is her best recommendation for understanding the true nature of this work. 

Aside from that, Arthur reminds prospective doulas that not everyone needs formal training. While having a teacher who feels right to you is an excellent resource, you can also read books, talk to current doulas, and learn the basics of running a business yourself. 

This is a marathon, not a sprint. “Be patient with yourself,” she says. This is a growing space, and there is room for everyone who is ready to help others through life and death. 

The Rise of Death Doulas

Humans have looked for ways to ease the transition from life to death for thousands of years. Death doulas are hardly a new concept, though they’re certainly growing in popularity across the nation. For those who have heard the calling themselves, this is a movement that’s here to stay. 

Arthur and other death doulas can help people answer some of life’s most pressing questions. Namely, what must be done to create the peace needed to die with grace? Death is far from one-size-fits-all. Death doulas are here to curate the holistic, practical, and spiritual side of mortality. 

Mortality is precious and limited. It’s what we do with the time we have that matters. As end-of-life doulas know, nothing will bring you as close to understanding the true value and meaning of existence as confronting your own death. 

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