The Curious Role of the End-of-Life Doula By Deanna Cochran, RN, Doula Educator

Have you heard of the End-of-life Doula? There are people who refer to themselves as this or a soul guide or End-of-Life Midwife, any number of names that refer to the same thing—a person who accompanies another through dying. This is a worldwide grassroots movement in support of dying well in this modern age. Doula is a Greek word originally referring to the service a woman servant gave to another throughout her life. Birthing professionals brought the name to compassionate practical care surrounding a birth and we, in the end-of-life realm, have brought the name to our holistic, non-medical way of support to people who are dying. This is a heart-centered practice, a non-medical practice of witnessing, compassionate care, deep listening, practical support, guidance, education and all around “being there” by someone who knows how to support during the dying time. Who are the people who are doing this? What kind of background do they have? Great questions! The answer is interesting. Some are coming from the hospice field. Some are non-medical, who know they are the ones people call during times of illness or crisis. Some are already volunteers with hospice and hospitals who want to serve more deeply and intimately than they can within the organisation they are in. Some are holistic practitioners who have a deep understanding that death is also part of the life cycle and are part of bringing this holism back into our consciousness. My story is that I was an experienced hospice RN when my mother was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer (she died within 5 weeks). This experience catapulted me into educating about palliative care prior to hospice service and also into a private practice as an end-of-life doula in 2005. It would be years before the present-day end-of-life discussions would surface, the Death Cafés, the Conversation Projects, the Schools for Death Doulas, all the articles and interest and the “movement” we now share. Our communities, hospices and hospitals need our support, as well as the individual person who is dying and their family. We all understand the collective breath holding surrounding topics of death, the polite avoidance of someone’s suffering due to the death of a loved one. We understand that as we try to soften the blow of dying and death, and try so hard to avoid it, that we are paying a tremendous cost to our own well-being. We become split inside. We are wired to survive, so how could engaging with our own dying be positive? That is a question we each must address. For myself, knowing my life is finite, really knowing that and feeling it in my bones makes every choice I make deeply meaningful. Every yes is powerful. I don’t take my goodbyes for granted. I really get it that when I say bye to you after lunch, I may never see you again. Is that heavy? Sometimes. But mostly its extremely intoxicating because I’m VERY aware of the preciousness of my time with you, my time enjoying this life, serving others and it brings me daily doses of deep gratitude that I did not have before this profound awareness. This consciousness shift is growing all over the world. What is coming with it are people who want to be a part of helping others during the vulnerable dying time. They see the writing on the wall—the demand for skillful care, for guidance to navigate the advanced illness and dying time, is increasing exponentially (due to the aging of the population). These ‘doulas’ are coming forward for training and to volunteer and are setting up private practices now—long before there is a demand for them. They are spending their time, energy and money learning artful and skillful practices to serve others well, long before most of the public even know they are there! So when someone is dying in your life and you would like knowledgeable, loving support and guidance, there is a person called an end-of-life doula or death doula that may be able to support you and share what may help bring empowerment at a time when so many feel helpless.


Vanessa Finnigan is the founder, editor and publisher of Holistic Bliss.
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