When most people hear the word "doula," they think of mothers, babies and childbirth. However, a growing group of healthcare professionals and volunteers are choosing to specialize in a very different -- and yet equally important -- area of practice: end-of-life care. Read on to learn more about "death doulas," along with the invaluable services they provide to the dying and their families.
What are Death Doulas?
While birth doulas have been providing vital support during childbirth for years, death doulas -- also known as "end-of-life doulas," "mourning doulas," and "death midwives," did not exist in an official capacity until 2003. Says the International End of Life Doula Association (INELDA) of the role, "It is a model that honors the life of the person dying, offers them control over how they approach their death, and thoroughly supports loved ones. By doing so it transforms the dying process into a richer, more spiritual experience."
One point worthy of clarification: While some doulas are trained as nurses, they are non-clinical in nature. Reports death doula resource MourningDoula.com,
"A death doula does not provide clinical or nursing support; nor do they provide support in assisted suicides. Their role is solely to provide physical, emotional, and informational support."
The Impact of Death Doulas
Last year, a New York Times piece highlighted the many ways death doulas can ease the dying process across everything from practical matters to emotional support in a variety of settings, including private homes, nursing homes, and hospices.
While the concept has been around for as long as hospices have had volunteers, the move toward formalizing the role of death doulas is underway. And with good reason: The article reports that
"Everyone involved in the field agrees that interest both in hiring and training to be such a doula is growing as an aging population grapples with how to gain some control over this most uncontrollable stage of life."
Hiring a Death Doula
There are no formal death doula accrediting agencies or processes as yet. However, a number of death doula training programs exist, covering a breadth and depth of topics like understanding end-of-life options, safe food handling, and even helping families choose caskets. And while saving money may be secondary at this point, mourning doulas can also help reduce costs for grieving families thanks to their expertise and advocacy.
Because of the lack of regulations, experts recommend doing your research before hiring a death doula. In addition to meeting with candidates face to face to ensure compatibility at this intimate point in life, asking the right questions can also yield many useful insights.
Check in with your doctor, hospital, or member of your healthcare team to connect with a death doula in your region. Additionally, your local area on aging may have additional resources related to finding an end-of-life doula. Keep in mind that fees vary widely depending on the services offered. Many doulas even work in a volunteer capacity.
Families can't always provide the necessary support and/or make the
practical arrangements. Doulas step in to bridge the gap.
While coming to terms with death and dying is anything but easy for individuals and their loved ones, death doulas can play a beautiful role in helping people live as positive a life as possible until the end. Writes death doula Anna Lyons,
"Instead of 'treating' inevitable death, let's plan for it and make it the best we can. There is an undeniable beauty in the impermanence of life and its inherent fragility. If we embrace our mortality, as all living beings must, we can begin to end our lives with grace and dignity."
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