TREND: Dying Well
Death Doulas—Delivering You a Better Death
Death has become medicalized, hidden and lonely. We need more caregivers that give the dying their full attention and companionship and work to meet their unique physical, emotional and spiritual needs during their extraordinary last days or months. In essence, to deliver people a better death. It’s a painfully pressing cultural need, and to meet it, a new class of wellness practitioner—the death doula—is fast arising.
The concept was born in 2003 when a NYC hospice social worker named Henry Fersko-Weiss was frustrated by the care medical staff were able to give dying patients and their sad, stressed-out families. He saw what birth doulas did to help women during childbirth, so he created the first professional training program to teach death doulas (also called end-of-life “midwives,” “transition guides” or “end-of-life integrative nurses”) how to provide the right emotional support and environment for dying people.
And now the death doula movement is hitting tipping-point traction in more countries around the world, such as the US, UK, Canada, Australia, Brazil and Mexico. Ellen Goodman, famed newspaper columnist and founder of the Conversation Project, has likened the rise of death doulas to the earlier movement for natural childbirth, noting, “Birth was perceived as a medical event, and then in came the women’s movement. It wasn’t doctors who changed the way we give birth…It was women who said that giving birth was a human event…Dying is a human experience. We’re trying to put the person back into the center of the experience.”
Death doulas are like death coaches and are trained to deliver continuous, kind and honest support before, during and after death occurs. And while the spectrum of what they provide varies, they’re essentially inventing new—and restoring lost—positive and personal rituals around dying, creating a special space around the event. A crucial aspect of what they do is to actively engage the individual dying in the process, not only by helping them do soul work, such as talking to them about their fears and anxiety, but also helping them plan what they most desire in their final days.
Death doulas are also super focused on helping the dying create living legacy projects so they take a creative role in the stories they leave behind. They help them create artistic things, such as memory books and boxes, audio and video recordings, letters, interviews, collages and scrapbooks, so they can review and process, and leave behind, who they really are.
Death doulas not only sit with the dying and bear peaceful witness, but they also create rituals and experiences to soothe the dying. Because many death doulas come from careers in the healing arts, they often deliver much traditional wellness to help with anxiety and pain: memory-triggering and calming aromatherapy, massage, meditation, conscious breathing exercises, reiki or guided visualizations that can take the dying hiker or surfer on detailed journeys through the forest or on the waves.
And more people are doulaing-it-themselves, including in our own organization. As Nancy Davis, GWS chief creative officer and executive director, noted about her own recent experience supporting her mother’s death: “Without knowing it, I was a death doula to my mother. If you love someone and want to help at the end of their life—and if that person is lucid and still in control of their own narrative—then it’s a deeply positive experience. I felt the end of my mother’s life was her parting gift to me—a last lesson in love, respect and fearlessness. I arranged for visits from family and friends; coordinated emails, texts and video chats with dear ones far away; acted as scribe for my mother’s various wishes; helped organize and itemize her treasured belongings and who should receive what; and slept in the room with her at hospice. Hospice was another great gift—a caring, easy and loving atmosphere, where my mother felt at peace. I asked my mother if she preferred to die at home (to arrange in-home hospice), to which she replied, ‘Oh no! That’s so creepy for the neighbors.’ Being so active and present for her final act was a profoundly moving experience for me.”
Forecasting The Future
- More positive changes have happened in attitudes/practices around death in the past few years than the last 150. This will only speed up: more action to make the dying process more humane, more reinvention of memorials/funerals, more ways for people to work on their fears.
- Death is a growth industry. This isn’t a cold statement; it’s a fact. Global deaths will rise an incredible 25 percent by 2030, and how we care for people at the end of their lives is one of the biggest wellness challenges the world faces. The wellness world will need to get more illness- and death-inclusive.
- Baby boomers, the oldest now entering their 70s and facing mortality—the generation that redefined aging and invented wellness—will shake up what it means to die, insisting that a good death is part of a well life.