Death. It’s a taboo topic for many — some avoid the topic altogether. But there are those who confront it head on and help the rest of us do so, too.
They’re called death doulas. Similar to birth doulas, who work with families at the early stages of life, death doulas help at the end.
“It’s really about threshold work,” Nina Guertin, a death doula of two years said about the work those in her field do.
When it comes to death no one wants to talk about it or plan anything, she said. That’s where a death doula comes in, she said.
Just like a birth, the dying process is a big and sacred time in a person’s life as well as in their family’s, Guertin said. Her work as a death doula is rewarding because she gets to bring comfort and be of service to those going through the emotional process of death.
What is a death doula?
Guertin did her training through the International End of Life Doula Association. She works in the seven-county metro area and parts of Wisconsin. The program is “a broad brush stroke,” she said. It covers things such as what to look for in people who are dying, how to approach the family and handling a body after death, among other things.
There are different programs doulas can get trained through, Jane Whitlock, another death doula said. She was trained through Doulagivers out of New York City in 2016, a certified end of life doula training program. She works in the Minneapolis and St. Paul metro area. Training programs have similar models, she said. They debrief on the experiences and prepare you for what you will see.
Doulas are non-medical but “dovetail beautifully” with hospice workers who are, Whitlock said. Doulas can stay with the patient and family as long as needed and, in turn, they act as “the eyes and ears” for hospice workers, Whitlock said.
They can look for the symptoms or signs that hospice workers inform families about, help reinforce what hospice workers tell the families and inform hospice workers of what they’ve seen, Whitlock said.
When Whitlock’s husband was dying of kidney cancer, she felt completely unprepared, she said. She wished someone would have had a conversation with the two of them to plan for his death. After experiencing this process upclose, intuition led her to being a death doula, she said
Through her own experience, she learned to ask people what they are worried about. She never told anyone that she was carrying around worry when her husband was dying. When no one is asking these questions people are going through the experience quietly in their heads, she said.
Education is also a big part of the job. When the family is educated, it takes some of the fear out of the situation, Guertin said. “Everything may scare a person if they’ve never seen death.”
Death is an emotional life event. Family members can become consumed with the process. Whitlock makes sure family members are rested, eating, drinking, getting up to stretch and taking care of themselves, she said. Doulas are there to provide comfort and soothe anxiety, she added.
Spirituality or religion may be part of some people’s death process. Whitlock can tailor the experience for each person based on their beliefs, she said. She could help say the rosary, give blessings, say prayers or even read comforting poems. Part of the job is preparing people for the spiritual piece, she said.
Being a death doula can be taxing. One of the hardest parts is personal triggers, Guertin said. If a patient is an elderly woman who is very small and frail, she may be reminded of her mother who she saw go through the dying process.
Whitlock too finds herself affected. She needs to take care of herself so that she is emotionally grounded for the people she works with, she said. Spending time in nature and with her dog helps her to find balance. She practices having a calm mind before meeting with families, then afterward trying to leave her work behind, she said.
“It’s kind of like a wave that is building,” Whitlock said about the growing awareness of death doulas. She sees Minnesota as a “hotbed” of interest in the death positive moment, she said.
“We’re trying to help people become less death adverse,” Guertin said. Because of media coverage and death education she thinks the public is more aware. People are hearing about it and “it’s piquing their interest,” she said. Rather than it being macabre, why not look at death with curiosity, she posed.
Thinking about death makes you more present in your life, Whitlock said. It reminds her that she is here to love people and be grateful. “That’s what really matters,” she said, adding “It’s an honor to be a part of this.”
Guertin also offers “Healing Heart Experiences,” which are sessions for those who are grieving to talk and work with clay. “That is born out of the understanding that we carry things internally that we don’t process,” she said. By working with clay people can move feelings of grief, fear or anxiety out of the body and into the clay, she said. Because clay is earth and that’s what we are, “it’s an organic connection,” she said.
From her work, Guertin sees how beautiful the process can be and how beautiful human beings are, she said.