What is a Death Doula?
Updated: Nov 22, 2021
I am a Death Doula. If you’re not familiar with the term ‘doula’, it means a caregiver and comes from the Greek language. Perhaps you’ve heard of a birth doula? A birth doula is someone who cares for the mother during childbirth so that she may have the most beautiful and empowering experience possible while ushering in new life. Similarly, I attempt to assist with that other essential milestone, the conclusion of a lived experience.
In our culture we’ve been taught to fear death and have been discouraged from talking about anything even related to the natural ending of a human life. However, I believe it is possible to die well and that we are all entitled to a ‘good death’. While that may look different for every person, the goal of a Death Doula is to ensure final wishes and a peaceful passing.
I offer a comforting presence for the terminally ill patient. My job is to be the supportive, yet objective companion who is neither family nor friend, but simply a compassionate human being willing to actively listen and hold space for families during that difficult time when death is near. I have been trained by the International End of Life Doula Association or INELDA to conduct life review sessions, sit at the bedside during vigils, and create legacy projects. I use conversation to encourage palliative and hospice care patients to shift their focus a bit, from the pain and loss they’re experiencing towards an attempt to create meaning from a life well-lived instead. The hope is to build intention for the last final sacred days. My job is to help implement the wishes of the dying and help loved ones feel more confident, calm, and connected.
Simply stated, a doula is one who provides nonmedical emotional, spiritual, and practical support during a life transition. In the case of dying, we can provide planning assistance early in a diagnosis, a vigil presence during the active dying phase, and initial processing for loved ones after the death. Following that we can help with memorial planning, as well as connect families with longer-term grief support and bereavement counselors.
My passion is to serve my community and be a part of the burgeoning death-positive movement. As part of the Colorado End-of-Life Collaborative, I want to be that objective, yet compassionate non-family member who can help navigate the difficult waters surrounding the cessation of treatment and the embrace of what’s to come. Ultimately, my goal is to provide care and comfort to the person who is experiencing the most natural event that inevitably follows every single birth on earth and to help make it more meaningful and maybe even beautiful.
Vanessa Johnston serves on the board of the Colorado End-of-Life Collaborative and is the founder and executive director of Denver EOL Doula, LLC. For more information, visit her website at https://www.denvereoldoula.com/ or find her on social media @DenverEOLDoula.