Death doulas in the USA

Emily Dickinson poem: Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me. Image from dead

Death doulas help people who are facing the end of life alone. Even for people who have family, often no-one wants to talk about death — and that can be very isolating and lonely.

There are increasing numbers of death doulas in the UK, but I thought I would share some of a recent article about death doulas in the USA.

The word “Doula” has often been used to describe those volunteers who offer support and comfort to people during pregnancy. More recently, death doulas — women and men — help those who are dying. The word derives from the Greek for a female servant

Death doulas are volunteers who aren’t medically trained ― they’re there to offer support, to listen, and to develop a relationship with the person they’ve been matched with that goes beyond his or her illness. It’s not so much about being there at the moment of death — though of course that can happen. Instead, it’s more about being present during the final stage of a person’s life and getting to know them on a deeper level than just their illness.

Anybody who has a calling and an open heart can do the work of a death doula.

Unlike most medical professionals, and some birth doulas, there is no national or international body that oversees certification requirements or scope of practice for death doulas.

In New York, The Doula Program to Accompany and Comfort, has about 60 active volunteers, working with people of any age who have been told they are going to die from their illness and who are facing the end of their life alone.

Doulas from the (American) International End of Life Doula Association (INELDA), are also trained to help the family of the dying person plan for and process their death. Since now we’re not used to seeing death, dying can lead to a lot of anxiety. INELDA doulas can help the family put together memory books, videos, audio recordings, and collages ― things to pass down after a person’s death.

Increasing numbers of people are applying for doula training both in the USA and in the UK. Janie Rakow, president of INELDA explained that, although it may seem curious that so many people want to be a companion for those individuals who are dying, it’s not at all morbid. “People always ask how we can do this work. They think it’s depressing,” she said,  “But when you do this work it is the opposite of depressing. It’s profound work.

Deanna Cochran, a hospice nurse and the founder of Quality of Life Care, which trains and certifies death doulas, explains that she isn’t aiming to create another health care profession but to empower individuals everywhere to emotionally support their loved ones as they die.

“I want to get the message out that you can do this too. You can learn to take care of your own dying and dead,” she said.

Cochran encourages death doulas to be advocates for their clients, helping them navigate the medical system and ask their doctors what options might available to them, including palliative care.

“We [all] need to accept that we’re not going to live forever,” Cochran said. “We’re going to die. We just don’t know when, and we don’t know how. Empowerment comes in planning for it and letting your family know what you want.”

But INELDA’s vice president, Jeri Glatter says there’s another way to look at it.

“I see death as an opportunity for change and growth,” he said. “You see awakenings, forgiveness; you see new bonds made and old wounds healed, which I believe send the dying on their final transition peacefully and bring new opportunities for the people who remain.”

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