Listening to the dying and giving them a voice too: The emerging role of the Death Doula

A burial shroud is laid out a Death Doula workshop in Brisbane.

There are two types of people in this world: Those who accept they and the people they love will die, and those who don’t.

It’s the latter who don’t want to talk about the inevitable and who label any such discussion as morbid.

But, like it or not, death happens, sometimes too soon, sometimes not soon enough.

Selling my book The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan at the local market soon after its release, I had a woman look me in the eye, scowl and matter-of-factly tell me it was a “stupid idea”. And off she went.

I felt sad that anyone in her life who wanted to have a discussion about death or their terminal illness or their funeral plans wouldn’t be able to. They would be abruptly and rudely shot down in flames.

Thankfully there are people very open to the idea of talking about death and dying. These are the death doulas.

I recently attended a death doula workshop where, for two days, 15 like-minded people learned about the role of a death doula, death mid-wife or end-of-life consultant.

Some were planning to become death doulas while others, like me, just wanted to learn about the emerging service being offered to the dying and/or their families. Death doulas have been around for years, but they’re only now becoming known in more conventional circles.

So, what is a death doula?

First and foremost, it’s someone comfortable talking about death and dying.

It’s someone who bridges the gap between the dying and their families or partners. Sometimes it’s someone who simply helps the dying person to die – holding their hand, explaining things, offering assurances, or simply being there if there is no one else is.

You see, it’s a challenging and confronting time when someone is close to death. It’s an emotional time that can sometimes see common sense go out the window. Grief fuels sometimes unhelpful emotions and actions, family arguments and confusion. And it’s not uncommon for the wants and needs of the patient to become secondary to the wants and fears of family members.

How often does a mother try to please her children? Let’s face it – when people are nearing death they don’t feel like eating or drinking. They don’t necessarily want their family sitting beside them either, staring and waiting for the next breath to come. Yet the loving daughter pleads for their mum to eat so as to stay strong, hoping for a miracle. But when is enough? When is it time to let go? There comes a time when it simply “is time to die” and the circle of life ends. A death doula can remind family of this. A death doula can offer a balanced eye and hand during these times, offering spiritual care, psychological and social support. They can be someone to talk with.

It’s a paid role. Death doulas are usually hired by the family of the person who is nearing their end of life, but the doula’s responsibility remains with the dying. They’re paid an hourly rate, or can be hired on daily or weekly terms.

A doulas after-death role

If they haven’t already, when the time comes, death doulas can also help organise home vigils and home funerals. (Yes, you don’t have to use a funeral director, and the body can be taken home from the hospital.) Doulas can help facilitate discussions with funeral directors and they can ensure that grief-stricken partners aren’t taken advantage of when making funeral decisions.

Awareness of end-of-life consultants or death doulas isn’t widespread and some in the medical profession are yet to be convinced of their worth. But as our population continues to age at an ever-increasing rate, hospitals and nursing homes come under more pressure, and medical staff become busier, the role of those death doulas willing to sit with and reassure the dying, to listen to and speak for the dying will become even more important.

I shared my death doula training experience with these amazing people. (I’m 4th from the right)

About the author

Author Lisa Herbert

Lisa Herbert is a death awareness advocate, a cemetery wanderer, journalist, and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan – an informative, modern, and quirky workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The third edition is available in Australia for $29.95.  For international buyers, The Bottom Drawer eBook is AU$12.99 on Apple Books, Kobo, Booktopia and Google Books. To purchase, click HERE.

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