“What the heck is a death doula!?” It’s a question I’ve gotten in bars, Ubers, public parks, and via telehealth platforms—essentially, whenever I tell people what I do. And I admit—it’s a question I love answering, because death doulas address a universal need. Every person eventually faces the fact of death and dying, whether we lose a loved one, are faced with a terminal diagnosis, or feel anxious about end-of-life. This is where death doulas can help.
What is a Death Doula?
A death doula is a non-medical support person who serves a dying individual, their loved ones, and/or their caregivers. Prior to medicalization and the emergence of professionalized death care, most people died at home where members of their community or family would tend to them and serve as a peaceful presence. Many people today state they want to be at home, but instead die in hospital beds, their caregivers unequipped to meet their needs or feeling incapable, intimidated, or overwhelmed. Death doulas can be part of the team that makes dignified home deaths possible. (Though we work anywhere we are welcome!)
We answer questions, ease anxieties, serve as guides, and advocate for autonomy and dignity. And death doulas aren’t only for the imminently dying. We assist people in all stages of life with advance care planning, resolving death anxiety, supporting grief, education and social justice activism, and other related issues. Death doulas tend to be a flexible, curious, and present bunch—if there’s a need, we’re going to try to anticipate it, and if we’re not the ones to fill it, we’ll find the right person for the job. Whether you’re caring for sick elders, wrapping your head around your own end, or grappling with a chronic or life-limiting illness and its ramifications, there’s a good chance that a death doula’s services could be of use to you.
6 Questions a Death Doula May Ask
In a society where we often struggle with facing end of life issues head on, death doulas ask questions that others might not think or know to ask…
- What sounds would you like to hear during your dying process? Would you like it to be quiet, or would you like ambient sound? Perhaps you like rock music. Would you like conversation to happen around you, or would you prefer peaceful contemplation?
- What is a memory that brings you strength, or showed you your own strength? When in your life did you feel most strong and capable?
- If you died today, what would you want your epitaph to be? If you don’t want an epitaph, perhaps consider what sort of ‘closing statement’ you would like about your life and legacy.
- Is there something you’ve always wondered or wanted to ask, but didn’t? Would you like to ask it now? Why or why not? What’s complicated about the asking?
- How do you want to be remembered after you die? If you feel inclined, choose three adjectives that you hope those who know you will use to describe your memory.
- What is the best advice you’ve ever received? How did you put it into action (or didn’t you) in your life?
Engage with these questions as you feel comfortable. You can journal, simply sit in contemplation, or perhaps use these questions to spark conversations with friends and family. Just be sure to check-in along the way and show yourself kindness as you reflect.