A death doula helps with end-of-life care and death. Learn about when you need a death doula and how they can assist with this transition.
I am always grateful to have a host of interesting and skillful neighbors. Karla is not just a neighbor in my coop, she literally lives right next door. I hear her kids practice piano, she hears my kids practice violin. Before I owned a decent blender, I would borrow her Blendtec whenever I wanted to photograph a recipe that involved cashew cream. She enjoys the leftovers from my recipe development.
Neighbors are great!
Then, when we were navigating palliative care and the subsequent death of a parent, Karla helped us understand that death is a natural transition. That, just like breathing, running, and giving birth, our bodies know how to take care of us as we die.
It was reassuring to understand the process of death and to have guidance as we navigated through the complex and emotional decisions involved with this transition.
What is a death doula?
A doula is a trained professional who helps support someone through a significant health-related change. They are often involved with childbirth. However, Karla helps families through end-of-life and death.
She started working as a funeral director in 2008. After a few years, she felt misaligned with the practices of a traditional funeral home.
- It didn’t feel like she was helping people in the ways they needed, as much as executing the funeral home’s routines and policies.
- Being the last person to care for a body was a clinical and anonymous part of her daily duties, rather than a meaningful process for the family.
- She wanted to help families get engaged in the care of their dead. People are often afraid to ask for what they want because they fear it’s strange or not allowed.
- She was uncomfortable with the lack of transparency in some funeral homes. For example, they would rather sell an urn, than let families know that ashes can be stored in any container they want, including a handmade wooden box.
- Having families engaged in funerals helps with healing. It allows them to offer one final act of care.
When do you need a death doula?
Unfortunately, our culture is so removed from death that we fear it without understanding it. One of the main reasons for this fear is that we aren’t directly involved in caring for our dying family members or helping prepare a body for cremation or burial.
As a result, we have become superstitious about death, afraid that talking about death will invite it in. However, talking about death won’t make you die. And it is a good idea to have frank conversations about death before anyone is sick. This normalizes death and facilitates a more peaceful transition.
A death doula can help any time you feel the need for more support and help with planning and decisions:
- Assistance after a terminal diagnosis, which can include everything from help with cleaning and groceries to complex family discussions.
- Post-death for families that want a home funeral or more personal involvement with their dead.
- Planning around MAiD and helping make the last moments matter. If you’re uncomfortable with MAiD, Karla recommends reading Dr. Stefanie Green’s memoir.
Why do we need to talk about death?
Karla believes that everyone needs to talk about death in a direct and normal way. Because it is something that will affect us all, numerous times throughout our life.
Here are a few things you should do right now, even if you are young, fit, and healthy:
- Make sure you have a Living Will and advanced directives for medical decisions (also called an Advance Care Plan).
- It’s also good to have a Legal Will (for your estate) and an Ethical Will to pass along wisdom and history.
- Get the conversation started with those you love. It doesn’t need to be as specific as picking out a casket, but rather just sharing your wishes and values around death. Would you want a green burial? Traditional religious service? Or something altogether different?