What Is a Death Doula?

Just as there are birth doulas to help welcome new lives into this world, there are also death doulas to help individuals prepare for death. Also called “end-of-life doulas”, “death midwives” or “end-of-life guides”, these specialists provide practical, emotional, spiritual and if qualified, medical support to loved ones who are dying and their families. They typically work through in-home care and hospice programs, and can go through a training program to become certified to do this type of work.

Although doula comes from the Greek word meaning “woman who serves,” death doulas can be of either gender and could come from any background. They typically work in groups or teams so that someone is always available to be with the person who is dying. They usually sit quietly with a loved one, sing or talk with them and offer other gestures of companionship.

About Death Doulas

The concept of a death doula stems from the idea that people who are near the end of life should receive the same qualities of care and compassion as women do giving birth. While birth doulas have been an active part of a woman’s pregnancy and delivery for many generations, the same is also true for death doulas. However, there’s been a surge of interest in death doulas in recent years.  

In 1998, chairman Phyllis Farley at the Maternity Center Association in New York City, realized that way too many people were dying alone. In response to this, she put together a group of volunteers to accompany those who were dying. The non-profit group, Doula Program to Accompany and Comfort, has a few dozen volunteers to visit terminally ill patients in healthcare centers or in homes around New York.

The Role of a Death Doula

The role of death doula is not always well-defined. They can work in a medical setting or in a client’s home. They can also be contacted by healthcare professionals, family members or by the clients themselves. The earlier a death doula is contacted, the sooner he or she can step in and help ill clients and their families. They work to make sure their clients’ legal paperwork, medical care and other details are being taken care of appropriately while also offering emotional support for those facing death.

The goal of a death doula is help create a suitable environment during a death. Some of the duties may include:

  • Offer support, comfort and companionship
  • Guide family members through the process of death
  • Tell client family members what to expect
  • Act as an advocate for the patient and the family when dealing with the hospital, hospice, funeral home professionals and others who may be involved in the process
  • Provide spiritual guidance
  • Help with chores in the client’s home
  • Help create memories such as photo albums, DVDs, etc. for surviving family members and friends

It is usually closer to the actual act of dying that an end-of-life doulas more engaged with a client and helping her spend her final days as she chooses.

How Death Doulas Differ from Hospice Workers

While to some, a death doula and a hospice worker may be one in the same, they really serve two different purposes. A death doula takes an active role in assisting a patient and the patient’s family in preparation for death and take care of any tasks that need to be done to ease the transition. Doulas may be called upon about 18 months before a person dies if that is possible.

Hospice workers, however, are seasoned medical professionals who also offer compassion and support to a person who is dying. They are made up of nurses, social workers, chaplains, aides and other healthcare employees. Hospice workers can help a patient and family fill out advanced directives, determine funeral arrangements, educate about care giving and assess the emotional needs of everyone involved. They also provide whatever medical care is needed to keep the patient comfortable.

Some doulas are professionally trained to provide companionship and support to those with serious illnesses. Others take care of organizing paperwork, helping with funeral arrangements or just providing empathy or support to a patient and family.

Hospice nurses and aides usually have more than one patient, so they cannot spend all their time with one client. A death doula or team of doulas can provide that unlimited amount of one-on-one time with a client.

How to Become a Death Doula or Certified Death Midwife

If you are interested in becoming a death doula, there are certification programs and training now available. The International End of Life Doula Association offers four different levels of certification programs that allow death doulas to work in hospice programs or similar facilities. Three-day training sessions are held throughout the year in different locations in the United States.

Beyond Hospice offers an 88-hour online course for those interested in becoming a Midwife to the Dying and Home Funeral Guide. This program includes viewing videos, listening to podcasts, reading books and writing papers. Some one-on-one training with a funeral home is also required. However, one should keep in mind that there is no accrediting agency that oversees these certifications. Therefore, the number of programs, death doulas and patients they help are not tracked.

How Funeral Professionals Can Help

Word of mouth is usually one of the most-trusted forms of referrals. If you are interested in learning more about death doulas and the role they play in a dying person’s life, check with a funeral professional such as Grace for more assistance. Death doulas are perfect companions especially for those who don’t have anyone to help through this stressful and difficult time.

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