Death Doulas: Understanding the Specialty
You may have heard of a birth doula but did you know that doulas also help with end-of-life care? As with being born and giving birth, dying is a significant life event. Despite this, the majority of people have very little experience with death and dying. Facing end-of-life decisions can be an overwhelming time for a terminally ill person and their family.
Many people want to die at home. Despite this, only a small percentage actually do. Most people pass away in hospitals, nursing homes or hospices. Part of the reason for this is the gap between facility and home care. Families and caregivers can feel that they simply don’t know how to care for a dying loved one at home. Death doulas bridge that gap.
What is a death doula?
The term doula originated in Greece and means “woman servant”. Death Doulas may also be called death midwives or end-of-life doulas. For thousands of years and in cultures across the world, women have taken on the task of caring for the dying.
Death doulas assist the dying and their families through the period before, during and after death. It is a non-medical role, mostly performed in the community but also hospitals and hospices. Death doulas provide practical, emotional, spiritual and psychological support. Enlisting the help of a death doula can enable someone to pass away at home if that is their wish.
There is a growing movement in support of empowered dying. In 2019, “Dying Well” was identified by the Global Wellness Summit as one of eight global wellness trends. Death doulas are an important factor in realizing the concept of a “good death.” They aim to normalize the death experience. Doulas treat death as a natural and important milestone in a person’s life which is to be honored.
If a person wishes to die at home, it is usually their family who are tasked with their care. This can be an emotionally charged and uncertain time. It is both physically and mentally demanding and can lead to carers feeling overwhelmed and burnt out. For many people, caring for a dying person is a situation they haven’t encountered before. The death doula educates, empowers and reassures both the dying person and their family in a new and sometimes stressful situation.
What does a death doula do?
Whether someone is close to death or not, a death doula can help to clarify their wishes around how they want to die. Death doulas can assist with formalizing preferences for care in writing. They can also ensure that plans are in place for a person’s death to occur in line with their wishes.
Doulas educate dying patients on the many options available to them for end-of-life care. They also help family and caregivers on what to expect throughout the different stages of the dying process. Knowing that what is happening is normal can be a great source of comfort to families.
Doulas can assist caregivers to navigate the processes after a person has passed away. Practical support can also include liaising with funeral directors and running errands.
Often caregivers suffer from severe emotional and physical exhaustion. Death doulas can provide valuable respite. They spend time with the dying person to give caregivers an opportunity to rest.
Companionship is important during end-of-life care. Death doulas will spend time with a dying person. They may talk or read to them, or simply hold their hand and be there. Doulas can also participate in “vigiling.” This is the process of sitting with a dying person until they pass away, ensuring that they are not alone.
One of the primary roles of a death doula is as an advocate for the dying. During times of stress or grief, family members can have difficulty communicating their loved one’s wishes. The doula has a clear understanding of a person’s wishes for their death. They can clearly advocate for them with medical staff, care facilities and hospices. This can include communicating preferences for medical intervention and honoring cultural traditions.
Doulas have a thorough understanding of dying and grieving processes and many doulas have personal experiences of losing a loved one. They are well equipped to support families through their grief. As well as offering their own support, doulas can help the patient and family to access other helpful services.
Comfort care includes all aspects of making a dying person comfortable. Death doulas are unable to administer medication but they can help with physical care such as repositioning and hygiene tasks. They can also assist with setting up a comforting environment with music, lighting and aromatherapy.
After Death Care
Many doulas will assist with the care of a person after their death. This involves tasks such as cleaning and preparation of the body at home.
Terminally ill people often find that they have things they would like to do, say or write to their loved ones. Death doulas can help a dying person to reflect on their life positively through counseling and practical support. They can assist with legacy projects like writing letters to loved ones or organizing photographs.
Caring for a terminally ill loved one can be a challenging and stressful time. Although dying is a natural and normal part of human life, many people are not well prepared for it. With the practical and emotional support of a death doula, the dying process can happen in a peaceful, natural and personal way.
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