Meet the death doula who will be with you until the very end.

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Doula’s aren’t just for birth. You can hire them for any “transitional” time in your life including moving interstate, illness, recuperation or even death. They are called “death doulas” or “end-of-life doulas” and demand for their services is increasing in Australia and around the world.

We live in a society that is largely afraid of death and who can blame us? Not all of us have religion to fall back on and even that isn’t always a comfort. However that fear of dying has lead to an inability to even think of death let alone discuss it and prepare for it. Thankfully we can now hire “death doulas” to help us navigate the process of dying and ease the burden on family and friends

The Australian Doula College trains doulas to deal with life and death. They describes their end-of-life service as:

An End-of-Life Doula is someone who undergoes special training to empower and support the dying and/or their friends/family members, however the journey unfolds. Their role is to preserve the quality of well being and self-worth up to and beyond the end of life as we know it. They are the “informed companion” bringing comfort, support, compassion, and assist a person and their family in feeling safe and supported during this important transition.

Helen Callanan is an Australian end-of-life doula, someone who you pay to be there with you until the very end, supporting you as you pass away and helping loved ones through the process. I asked Helen if she’d answer some questions about her profession to help us better understand what it is that she and her colleagues do to help people die better.

Doulas deal with birth and death, are there any other services you offer?

Given the pace and demands of today’s world I anticipate more people engaging the services of a doula at a variety of transitional times.  For example: moving interstate, illness and recuperation, supporting a sick or elderly family member etc. Recently, I was engaged as a ‘doula’ to assist a person who had a medical emergency requiring surgery and 11 days in hospital.  I assisted that person in hospital, liaising with the medical and nursing teams, managing things at home and preparing for her coming home and the first week at home.

Helen Callanan. Image supplied.

What is an end-of-life doula specifically required to do?

In regard to death and dying, an end of life doula is commonly engaged in cases of terminal illness.  It can be when a diagnosis is received to assist navigating the myriad of issues, choices, options one is faced with and/or further along the life trajectory when additional support is needed and sometimes towards the very end in the active dying stage to support the dying person and the family/friends

What is your most important role during those final days?

Providing a peaceful, safe, nurturing space for the person approaching death as well as those around them by doing all we can to ensure that the person who is dying has all their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs met.  A doula does this by being a resource: providing options, explaining what is happening and what one might expect, giving support, listening and caring.

How important is it for you to support loved ones as well?

Supporting the family and others close to the person dying is an essential part of an end of life doula's role.  Sometimes that is where most of the support is given...providing support and resources to the person/s who care for the person dying.

How can family and friends best help their dying loved ones during those final days?

Firstly, coming to terms with their loved one's situation.  The more we are able to do that at first the more we are able to provide for the person we care about. Learning about what is happening to them, being there, listening, relating to them as 'alive' right up to their last breath because they are!  It is often very difficult and the more we are able to 'be' there, with and for them, the richer the experience for all concerned.

Australian journalist Andrew Denton has said that watching his father die "remains the most profoundly shocking experience of my life." He spoke about the issue of voluntary euthanasia on ABC's Q & A.

Do you work with kids and adults?

Yes, and oftentimes an end of life doula will provide primary support to the parents/family of a young person who has a terminal diagnosis - often the young person is dealing with it best!

How does your service differ between kids and adults?

Every person and situation is unique so end of life doula services are different most of the time.  Each person needs different things, eg: a young person may need 'distraction', fun and normalcy, or a place to download outside those very close, or explanations.  Often young people, on one hand, desperately need their parents and on the other, worry most about them.  There are of course similarities with working with adults as well.  Again, each situation will be different.

How did you come to specialise in end-of-life services?

Working as a professional Reiki practitioner I often worked with people who were very ill, terminally ill or at their end of life.  Over time, I was with more and more people who died and it was such an extraordinary privilege and so impactful that I started to really be drawn to being with and supporting people on this journey.  I learnt so much, was so inspired and uplifted by each and every experience I shared with people and those close to them that it became my 'calling' it feels.

Are doulas nurses as well?

A doula is a non-medical role so no formal medical or nursing training is required.  Having said that, at Preparing the Way we are seeing many nurses and other allied health practitioners participating in this work and attending the End of Life Doula training workshops.  Many describe feeling 'drawn' to assist people at end of life.

How do people react when you tell them what you do?

People are generally either surprised or curious when I explain what I do. They often want to ask questions about what it is like or share a story of an experience they have. Even though death is an often avoided conversation, my experience is that once the door is open for the conversation it is usually walked through. There are a few who are a little uncomfortable and who prefer to change the subject.

Image supplied.

Do you find yourself getting more attached to some than others?

That's a good question!  There are definitely some people I work with who I have a strong relationship with, you know where you really 'connect'.  I think there is a part of me that falls a little 'in love' with the incredibleness of the people and the human spirit I see and get to witness over and over again.  It's a very precious relationship that whilst may only be shared a while is very close and treasured.

Have you had to face a situation where a loved one has passed and did your training help? 

Yes, I have had the cherished opportunity to be with several people in my life who have died.I have lived in hospices with them, been by their side, held them in my arms as they left...my mother, father, a couple of very close friends as examples. I am so grateful for the experience of their end of life journey as they have taught me so much and helped me open my heart more and more to this work.

Does everyone find peace at the end?

Peace is such a personal subjective state and in my experience, most do reach a place that, from the outside, looks peaceful and accepting when they have an environment where their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs are being met and they have those they love and who love them around them.

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  • flutterby

    Good to know these services exist, respecting a natural process.
    Tibetan Book of Living & Dying is a great resource for keeping death in perspective