Many are familiar with birth doulas—professionals trained in childbirth who provide emotional, physical, and educational support to expecting and new mothers. Now there’s a growing trend of professionals helping to guide us through the other bookend of life. The rise of the death doula is part of the “death positive” movement, named one of the Global Wellness Institute’s top trends of 2019. It centers around dramatically rethinking the death experience, from the logistics and preparation to mourning and burials, with the ultimate goal of dying well as a fundamental part of living well.
What death doulas do
So what is a death doula, exactly? At the basic level, it’s someone who works with the dying and their loved ones to help them have a better death. “We are really coming in to fill a space that starts when death enters the picture, whether that’s through aging or illness, or even sudden death,” explains Sarah Kerr, PhD, a death doula and ritual healing practitioner based in Calgary, Canada. “That continues after their last breath and up to the funeral.”
This is different from other end-of-life professionals in that death doulas are not providing health care. Instead, they work in conjunction with other parts of the system—including palliative care (focused on improving quality of life and comforting those with serious illnesses) and hospice (health care for someone with a terminal illness)—to provide interpersonal, social, logistical, and spiritual guidance that complements it.
Not all death doulas offer exactly the same services, however; some focus on one particular area of expertise. For example, Alua Arthur, a “recovering lawyer” turned death doula based in Los Angeles, draws on her legal background to help individuals create an advance planning document, which details their wishes for the end of their life and how to complete their affairs after death. On the other end of the spectrum, death doulas like Brazil-based Amber Joy Rava focus deeply on the spiritual side, assisting the dying through their transition of separating body and soul, and talking with families about what happens next.
Like other death doulas, Arthur says she is seeing higher demand for her end-of-life planning and services (which she offers virtually), as well as a huge increase in people enrolling in her death doula training course. She attributes this rise, in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Death is now in people’s faces in a way it wasn’t before,” Arthur says.
“Death is now in people’s faces in a way it wasn’t before”—Alua Arthur
How death doula teachings can help you cope with COVID-19
One of the major things Arthur does in her work is support those navigating the unknown, such as getting a terminal diagnosis or determining what the end of their life will look like. “I’m seeing a lot of parallels with what we’re all experiencing with the pandemic—not knowing what’s coming day to day, and not knowing who to trust,” she says. Here’s where death doula teachings come into play: We can navigate the ongoing pandemic by controlling what we can, and ceding control to the things we cannot.
To help you do this, Arthur recommends a technique called grounding. If possible, go barefoot out in nature—in your backyard or a park, for example. If that’s not possible, doing it in your living room is okay. Bring attention to all four corners of your feet; if you’re outside, grab some earth with your toes (if in your home, play around with the textures of your floor or carpet with your feet). As you ground, you bring yourself into the present. Much of the anxiety we’re experiencing right now centers around concern over the past and the future, Arthur says; but when you’re in the present, neither of those is there. “The phrase to use is ‘I am here,’ being actually physically here in this moment in time,” she notes.
Another way death doula teachings can help you cope with COVID-19, whether you’ve lost someone you love to the virus or not, is that it helps to recognize nothing lasts forever. “The great teaching of death is about impermanence,” says Kerr. In a way, things become more precious when they are not guaranteed. Think about the Japanese traditions around cherry blossoms, for example: They’re so fleeting and so beautiful, and we appreciate that beauty because it only lasts a few days. “Having death more in our consciousness,” adds Kerr, “can be a teacher about how to appreciate life more.”
We’re all experiencing a lot of “little deaths” in our lives right now, says Rava. Even if no one you know has gotten or passed away from the virus, you’ve lost aspects of your life—social engagements, jobs, routines—that signal an ending of sorts. It’s happening to all of us, regardless of your gender, race, class, what car you drive, or neighborhood you live in. There’s an ego dissolution that’s happening collectively with the pandemic, Rava says, and that can be a positive thing—a rebirth, even.
“This actually gives me a lot of hope for humanity,” says Rava. “Regardless of their background, [no one] can tell us what’s happening next week. That’s a big shift for the modern world.”
Even if no one you know has gotten or passed away from the virus, you’ve lost aspects of your life—social engagements, jobs, routines—that signal an ending of sorts.
Why facing your own mortality is healthy
When we face our own mortality, we value more of our daily lives. Try picturing yourself on your deathbed. It sounds creepy and may be hard to do at first, but this exercise has value. When you consider what your values will be at death—what you’ll be worried about or what you wish you would have done differently—those values translate to living, says Arthur. Looking at your life through a lens of death, rather than the other way around, can help you to make positive changes that help you live to the fullest.
To get into this headspace, try looking into the mirror and repeating out loud, “I am going to die,” says Arthur. “This can be profound, and it can help you shift,” she adds. Do it once a day, at the top of the morning, and you’ll find the decisions you make are more in line with who you authentically are.
Arthur adds that while it’s always been healthy to think about your own mortality, it’s especially relevant now. “I think we can use what’s happening in the world to push us toward doing the work to prepare ourselves for the end of life,” she says. Realizing that anxiety over the pandemic can be useful—rather than just being the thing that keeps us up at night—is powerful. We can use this time to examine our values, go through possessions to decide what to keep and what to get rid of, and spend time with the people we love, at home, having conversations about what we want our end of life to look like. Getting clear on your values in death makes your values in life more apparent.