What is a death doula?

What is a death doula?



I have been getting a lot of questions about being a death doula. Such questions as whether there is a training for it, if so where it is or which one is better keep coming.

A Death Doula is a person who assists people in the dying process and/or their families and yes, there is a training for this. In fact, there is so much training that you could be surprised. I have been conducting online studies on this topic for the last one year in Turkey. Apart from this, the ones I know are all abroad (now it is possible to reach nearly all of them online) including the ones I have taken.

I was unsure about what choice I would make when I decided to receive my first training. First, I started to search by reading the articles or the Facebook posts of the instructors I came across. I listened to their talks. Then, I chose one among them following my intuitions. This is how I started my journey in training.

The term Doula originally came from ancient Greek and it means a helping (serving) woman. While its usage as birth doula has a more ancient history, the presence of it as Death Doula has a history of nearly a decade. For sure, supporting people in the dying process and/or their families is itself not a new job; however, the spread of hospitals in the last two centuries, the families’ hectic pace of life and the approach to death as a more medical procedure have transformed/are transforming this natural process into a need.

Primarily, I want to express that I don’t approve of training being viewed only as a means of service for the ones who will do it as a profession. Isn’t death everywhere? In our era when death and grief have become taboo subjects, I think we need to be involved in these issues in our daily life to develop our skills related to death and grief we, sooner or later, encounter. What I mean is even if you have no intention of doing this job as a profession; its training has an appeal for everybody.

Training programmes are basically about providing support, but there is no definition of this support. We can call it all the supports given except the medical one. There is a flow associated very closely with the instructor’s perspective, experiences, and the culture of the country they live in and what they believe as important. That’s why it crucial that you search for the instructor in advance.

Some instructors (especially former nurses) enrich the content of the training with technical details maybe due to their own experiences/backgrounds. For example, they describe all physical changes the body goes through talking about active stages of death or go into details like at what temperature and how we should keep the body immediately after the death. Some others emphasize funeral choices and how to conduct burial procedures related to the culture of the country they live in. Briefly, there is a wide range of differences among trainings.

In the area I feel close to and from my studies, the doula herself/himself forms the basis of the study. What I mean by this is that a doula needs to look at her/his relationships with life and death before looking at the ways to how and in what way s/he will support the dying person and/or her/his family. To me, being a Death Doula is a study of awareness before anything else. It is a study a person needs to do with herself/himself. All other issues are secondary and come after this. However, it seems like the difficulty and depth and even the magic of the study stem from this. What does it mean to look at my relationship with life and death?

Once I heard a story

. A wise man in the past asked a man passing by: “How are you?” The man replies: “I owe 20.000 dram” and continued walking. The wise man sold all his belongings and paid off the debt of that person. Then, he said: “I will think about it first next time I ask a person how he is”. Al-Ghazali said: “It would be factiousness to ask how a person is if you didn’t worry about his problem.” Here this story is one of the best narrations to sum up my studies and my intention in my heart in an indirect way.

I have never died nor I know what dying is. I am trying to exist with my fears under the shadow of the obscurity of death and to approach this mystery with respect. To be eager to support the dying people and/or their families without studying with myself first reminds me of Al-Ghazali’s words.

When a fish is asked what water is, it says: “Bring me something other than water and I’ll tell you what water is.” Like the fish, we are shaped by the influence of the era we live in, and form our beliefs or views by the effects of that era without realizing it. If we had been born a hundred years ago, our attitude towards the relationship between men and women, our upbringing of children and our relationship with money might have been different. The same thing is valid foot death. The period we live in forms our perspective about death unknowingly. Therefore, I start the awareness of death doula at this point. It is not possible for us to have a healthy relationship with death without knowing which effects we are under. The opposite is a mere repetition of the cultural repertoire of this era like a parrot. The reason for death getting out of the natural cycle and transforming into a monster to be fought to the last drop of our blood lies here. The judgements in our mind aren’t ours, but they belong to this era and the realization of this is the first step. After the realization of the judgements, if you still think that you are satisfied and that you need to preserve them, it is allright, as there is an informed choice involved, not rotes or expression followed at automatic pilot.

Then, there come deep waters. At this point, I quota from a former article of mine named

“It is important to do active listening while holding a space. You try to hear the person with all your existence so to speak. Well, what if the person does not want to speak at all? Are you ready to listen to the silence to last maybe hours?

To not talk even if you want to,

To stay motionless even if you want to move,

To see the refusal- denial of death,

To sit in a long silence,

To spend time with smells, sounds and body fluids that could be disgusting in daily life,

To leave your own dramas and anger behind,

To keep your calm under any circumstances,

Are you ready?”

You are the most important tool in your utility box as a death doula. Knowing what this tool can do and being aware of where its screw squeezes and where it might have difficulty are the continuation of the study. We, as humans, are not empty vessels, nor are we exempt from being triggered or wavering. You see, to me, getting to know ourselves, knowing where we might have difficulty, sharing our experiences with others in the study, questioning, searching for ways to approach ourselves affectionately in difficult times are the most important parts of this study.

In my view, it is impossible to stay in those difficult areas without being one with myself or not knowing where I am triggered. I am conducting my studies to feel the privilege of witnessing (not an easy job) a person about to say goodbye to the world from the heart, to present our existence without being a parrot or reducing death only to “What are the 10 things you want to do before dying?” level.

Some other issues we go over in the study are how we talk to a dying person and/or her/his family, how we can hold a space for them, what could be in our utility box, what the stages of active death are etc.

In the studies, I do not try to beautify death or facilitate the view to that side. I share what happens as it is based on my experiences. I keep the mastership of death and grief and our apprenticeship in my mind all the time. Naturally it would be unwise to think that all knowledge could be gained with only one study like a pill as practise is life itself in these matters. I don’t feel like calling my studies education maybe because of this. Wisdom is in the topics themselves and mine is an invitation to remember and share.

I cannot present a source as I don’t remember where I heard or read the story.

Click here to read the Turkish version of the article “What is death doula (accompaniment)?”


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