A death doula is someone who undergoes special training to assist the dying and their family members. While the word “doula” comes from a Greek word which means “woman who serves,” a death doula can be of any gender, and the background of a death doula can be incredibly diverse. In regions where death doulas are available for the dying, they generally work through hospice and in-home care programs.
Caring for someone who is dying can be traumatic and confusing for family members, especially in a culture where caring for the dead is not ingrained in society. A death doula can guide family members through the process of death, telling them what to expect and acting as an advocate for them and for the decedent with representatives of the hospital, funeral homes, and other personnel who may be involved in the death process.
For the dying, a death doula offers comfort, support, and companionship. Many death doulas work in groups, so that someone will always be available to sit at the deathbed, and doulas may sit quietly with the dying, sing to them, talk with them, or offer other acts of companionship. Death doulas with nursing training may also offer some end of life care, ranging from providing medication to bathing the dying.
Many people associate the term “doula” with a midwife, thanks to the growing doula movement which provides support and advocacy for expecting mothers. Death doulas regard their work as equally important, as life and death are two sides of the same coin, and some even call themselves “death midwives” to stress the connection between birth and death. Like doulas who help expecting mothers, death doulas may provide a range of services, tailoring their offerings to the needs of their clients.
Thanadoulas, as they are sometimes called, are generally nonsectarian, although they are usually happy to read from religious texts or to incorporate ceremonies of a religious nature into the death process, for those who desire this. Many will stay to assist through the funeral, if requested to do so, and some do follow-up visits with family members in the weeks and months after the death to talk about the experience.
A death doula usually works with someone who has 18 months or less in which to live. When a diagnosis this dire is given, a doctor usually provides referrals to a hospice agency for family members and the patient. People who are interested in working with a death doula can ask their doctors, or consult their local hospice agency; individuals who want to become death doulas can receive training through hospice groups.