Death happens. It is unavoidable. It is a time of change, varied emotions, and has long lasting repercussions. The person you loved created a shape inside of you where your souls touched. When one dies that imprint, that space for them, is always there. It can never be filled by another, or things, or places, or actions. Every person we touch has an effect on the shape of our souls. In Western cultures there is pressure to get on with things after a death doing a disservice to the loved one now gone and those left behind to grieve. Death has become frightening and lonely, relegated to hospitals and for the very lucky, hospice care. I’ve always believed that it was the way our culture treats death and grieving that make it feel so foreign and stunt the healing process of everyone…and the acceptance of those that know death is coming for them. There is a movement now, pushing back against this paradigm, reclaiming death from fear and stigma.
Doula is a from Greek and means “female servant”. This has been adopted by the midwife community to mean individuals of all genders that help assist a person in labor and the first few days of life with the new baby. The Death Doula movement further appropriates the word to mean individuals of all genders that stand beside the dying and help the family with the early stages of grieving.
Janie Rakow, president of INELDA, the International End of Life Doula Association, describes a death doula as, “... someone who acts as a guide and companion through the end phase of an illness. This work can start as soon as someone is admitted to hospice.” She says, “the doulas work with the dying person and their loved ones through the final dying process and into the early grieving stages afterward.”
Death Doulas are on the forefront of a movement to take dying out of hospitals and institutions and into compassionate care. The primary role for a Death Doula is to literally stand and take witness. To hold the hand of those that are dying alone or help loved ones hold the hand of the dying and give peace on the start of this journey. No one should die alone, unless they have chosen to do so. A Death Doula stands present for the dying and gives them what care they can. A soft voice. A song. A story. A held hand. A hug. Gentle brushing of hair. Reminders that it is okay to free themselves from the fetters of this world and all the pain being caused by whatever it is that brought death to them. Reminders that there is nothing to fear and they will not leave this world unloved.
A secondary, but equally important role, is to help the loved ones left behind. Even when you know death is coming, even when you take the time to say all the things and are present for the moment, it does not diminish the grieving, the fear, or the pain. Even shock may still happen. Part of that, as I said before, is because of our own societal mores on what grieving looks like. Loved ones are left to clean up all the loose ends, comfort others who may not have known the dying nearly as well as they, and then get on with it. Shove themselves into a awkward box that no one truly fits into, and lock it up tight. The death turns into trauma. Death Doulas seek to end that.
Often this role will just look to outsiders like the busy person. Giving hugs. Listening. Making calls. Talking them through dealing with remains and appropriate remembrance services. Taking in all the information that may get missed when the medical staff bring in forms or speak. The grieving sometimes zone out and can’t catch all of that. It is being the strong one so the loved ones don’t feel they have to be strong and can actually begin to grieve in a way that is meaningful to them.
This work is very similar to hospice care, whom I hold in the highest esteem, but with less emphasis on the medical side and physical comfort, and more on the spiritual needs and peace of mind. Death Doulas can sometimes work with a specific faith but more often they will be secular but spiritual, offering to learn about the beliefs of the dying and to speak about other cultures until they find what is right. Or in the case of being unable to meet the dying before the event to walk the family through those same things. This is midwifery to the soul as we send them on their journeys. It doesn’t matter if that journey is to feed the ground and rejoin the earth, to walk into Hel (Norse/Germanic afterlife not the same as Christian Hell), to dance in the summer lands (early pagan belief), or live in peace in Heaven. All of that is valid and necessary to help the dying take that step with peace.
The movement, it should be important to note, are not advocates of suicide as we understand it in Western cultures. There is a difference between having no medical options to stop or slow death and choosing to go out on your own terms (assisted suicide), and suicide because of depression, trauma, or mental illness. Even in the Death Doula community there is a split on beliefs about assisted suicide. Death Doulas celebrate life and honor it’s passing with reverence. Helping someone to take their own life is not a part of the average Doula’s belief system. Even in extreme cases it is not taken lightly or easily.
I walk the path of a Siedr, an early Norse/Germanic hedge witch. These were the witches of yore that traveled where they willed and could be helpful or not as they deemed necessary. One of the primary roles of the Siedr was to assist in births and deaths. I gladly serve as a birth or death doula upon request. It is how I practice my faith and honor my gods. Every Doula has their own journey to bring them to this space. Some will do their greatest work here, and some will move on. We are as varied as humanity, but we all come together for the belief that death is not something to fear and should be treated with respect and love.
Susan is a plural writer and artist by day, a child and pet wrangler by night, and occasional crazy person on the weekends.