What is a Death Doula?

What is a Death Doula
iStock/Stígur Már Karlsson /Heimsmyndir

Do you know what a death doula is?

If you would have asked me or many of the women I work and study with that question a few years ago, most of us would have been stumped. However, since then, we’ve all taken the plunge into this previously obscure line of death work.

I heard my death doula call in 2017, soon after I decided to leave mortuary school. Thankfully, before I quit the program’s classwork, I had the opportunity to interview a local death midwife about her work. Her desire to educate the public about death and death planning inspired me to look into the field.

After a year or so of research, I was gifted entrance into Quality of Life Care’s online death doula mentoring certificate program from my parents. Since starting the program, I created Gather the Leaves LLC, an end-of-life care business that serves pets and people.

I also had the opportunity to interview two women who practice in the alternative end-of-life field. Read on to discover what we do.

Hearing the call

Deanna Cochran

Registered nurse, end-of-life doula, mentor and educator, and founder of Quality of Life Care, LLC

When Deanna Cochran’s mom was diagnosed with gastrointestinal cancer, she was distraught for two reasons: Cochran was upset because her mother was very ill; and as a hospice nurse, Cochran had insider knowledge about the disease.

Cochran knew that the people who came into her care over the years experienced a lot of suffering before receiving hospice care. “This fear was in me with my mom,” Cochran says.

“I thought, ‘holy cow… I know what people deal with before they get to hospice; [and] my mom doesn’t want to be on hospice.’”

Cochran knew her mother was going to die, that her mother did not want to die, but that death was inevitable. So, Cochran implemented a unique care program.

Cochran did everything she could to keep her mother out of the hospital. Cochran helped implement a palliative care program (specialized medical care for people with a serious illness) for her mother. “There was no medical system set up for [palliative care] where she was, but we did it on [our own] with friends, family, and my mom’s physician,” Cochran explains.

Cochran’s mom ended up dying within five weeks of receiving her diagnosis. When she died, Cochran realized that she and the team she helped form had “midwifed” her mother the way birth midwives help expectant and new mothers.

In the past, Cochran had received exquisite care from birth midwives during the birth of her second child. The midwives, with the help of a good doctor, helped Cochran heal from the trauma she experienced during her first child’s birth.

“When my mom died, all of that flooded back because it was so traumatic,” Cochran says.

“[And] I [saw] first hand how traumatic advanced illness and dying is for people in the medical system. [So, I thought I could] be like these birth midwives, and provide healing from some of that trauma.”

Cara Schuster

End-of-life guide and massage therapist, Fox Den Folk Care

Cara Schuster didn’t know anything about death doulas, death midwifery, or green burial until a few years ago. “I was going through a personal journey and doing some shamanic work [and] my practitioner had told me to do a week-long journey,” Schuster says.

“During that journey, I came across death midwifery.”

Prior to learning about alternative death work, Schuster didn’t have a lot of personal experience with death besides losing grandparents, pets, and friends. “I don’t think I experienced anything more than your average person at the age of 40,” she says. “I did lose my father when I was a baby, so, I did have a very interesting concept of death from a young age.”

What death doulas do

Death doulas provide a wide range of services; all are non-medical. Some doulas only “sit vigil,” meaning they provide emotional support and a caring presence for the dying and the dying’s family. Other doulas enter a client’s home well before hospice is involved and provide practical help in the home. And some doulas are well-versed in helping people plan for their death; they prepare advance directives, wills, and more.

Since I only recently completed my coursework and started volunteering for hospice, I tend to provide practical services. However, as I gain more experience and sit bedside at more vigils, I will expand my services accordingly.

Currently, Schuster, who is a certified death midwife and doula, considers herself an end-of-life guide because she is not helping people transition. “It hasn’t been my experience thus far,” she says. However, Schuster knows her work is ever-evolving.

So far, Schuster has assisted two families with home funerals. Both of those families had different needs she helped met. “I was with one of the families for a week off and on and was present through the transition of the passing—I had known that person for 20 years,” she adds.

Cochran has practiced as a death doula since 2005, but has worked as a registered nurse in end-of-life care within and outside of hospice since 2000. She currently trains end-of-life doulas online and in-person at various workshops and conferences throughout the United States.

Cochran’s service list, along with her teachings through her School of Accompanying the Dying, are ever-evolving, too.

Why this work is inspiring

Many people tend to wonder how death care industry workers “do it,” and I get it.

Death, loss, and grief are incredibly tough things to deal with. However, most any death doula or end-of-life caregiver will tell you that their work has many redeeming qualities.

“The elation I have felt from helping these two families—there’s nothing that can compare to any of the work I’ve done,” Schuster says.

“It was incredibly fulfilling.”

Cochran adds that she continues to do this tough work after 18 years of service because it’s her gift to give to the dying. “I’ve tried to not be a hospice nurse and death doula more than once because maybe I had seen too many people die within a couple of days…” But she says that feeling never lasts.

“What I’ve realized in all this is that I have to care for me, because that thing inside of me that wants to help you doesn’t go away,” Cochran explains.

“I have so much to give. It’s a gift from God—I have nothing to do with it.”

And although I’ve yet to serve an actual client through the dying process, my studies and volunteer work through hospice compel me to agree with Schuster and Cochran’s sentiments.

This work isn’t easy—human emotions and death are often messy. But the support death doulas, midwives, and guides provide families can truly help many people find some peace and closure during an indescribably hard time. And that’s beautiful in its own way.

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