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What is a Death Doula, and why we should be part of your End of Life support group

Updated: Apr 8



I recently had the honor to present to the Bainbridge Island community at our "Help! What Do I Do Now?!" presentation at the Bainbridge Island fire station (03.27.2024), and I'd like to share my talk with everyone here:


Good evening.  I am so honored to be here with you all and especially with the Threshold Choir. Their music is a gift for all of us, and especially for those of us in the midst of transitioning from our earthly life to whatever we each believe comes next. They say that it is our hearing that is our last sense to go quiet, so what a gift to have this beautiful final serenade.


Creating these heartfelt, emotionally supportive experiences is what we at EdgeWalking specialize in, and what I specifically hope to give to everyone I work with. My name is Danielle Gordon, and I am a death doula. Some folks also call it an end of life doula. The scope and breadth of the work is the same - I provide emotional support to the person who is facing the end of their life and the community that is supporting them. 


We have previously learned about advance care planning with Johanna Munson, about having the heartfelt and challenging discussions of what we want at our own end of life time. And we will be hearing from Robin Gaphni later this evening on the beautiful, heart wrenching work of the grieving process. All of this work is part of the continuum of the death experience and process. A death doula lies in the middle of these two other professional offerings.


There are multiple facets of end of life care that intersect and overlap. A death doula is another member of a support team, in addition to a potential hospice team of doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains and volunteers, and of course, family members. We are all present to ease the transition of the person and help support their community. And a death doula helps lead and support kind, calm and open conversations about any subject matter that may come up - including fears, hopes, wishes, last words, life reviews, stories - and more. 


Dying is a major life transition. It can be scary to talk about death, whether it is that of a loved one or ourselves. It requires bravery, courage, patience, and a loving and present heart. I try to normalize the language, reactions and process around death, because, as one of my recent readings reminded me, “death is 100 percent fatal for 100 percent of the population”. In many cultures all over the world death wasn’t perceived to be a scary event, or something to try and avoid as long as possible. But in many western dominant cultures, with our obsessions around youth and eternal life, some might say we have lost touch with the dying process. I aim to help rectify this attitude by creating beautiful and heartfelt experiences for those I work with.


Let me paint a picture of the environment in which I would work. I am sitting in a room with a terminally ill patient. I sit beside them after I have adjusted the lighting, lit any candles or added any aromatic scents to the room that they have requested, as a way to create a calm and serene environment. There are family members present, they share stories, there are tears and there is laughter, and we all giggle together because someone brought up a funny story from this person’s youth. I might invite anyone who wants to join in on a meditation that I co-created with the dying person as a way to calm nerves and ground ourselves in the present moment. I encourage anyone to hold their loved one’s hand or stroke their arm…After we spend time with our family member, I might sense that they are getting overtaxed or tired from all the company or stimulation. So I invite all of us to retire to a different room where we too can have a snack or sit, so that our patient can have quiet. Because I am a member of the patient’s support team, and because the hospice nurse and I have previously shared what physical and emotional symptoms can occur in the dying process, I remind family that dying is a labor. And that it is a sacred moment, and that the person might need this quiet time to keep transitioning.


We all experience death in a multitude of ways in our lives - expectedly, tragically, quickly or drawn out. And I am someone who has always been drawn TO the bedside of a dying person. I have a desire to support, to be with, to listen or cry with, to hold the hands of and to be silent with a dying person. I hold this space sacred. I didn’t realize until a few years ago that this was not necessarily a typical inclination - to be drawn TOWARDS the dying experience. Once I realized the power of the experiences I had had, I knew it was a calling. 


I want to quote one of my readings on death and dying that speaks to this sacred time: 


“Is it possible to reawaken to the mystery of the world? This mystery does not lie in the hidden recesses of our imagination. It lies immediately before us. The mystery has never left the world, we have left it. We have done so by accepting the conventional ways we’ve been taught to think and experience. Sometimes people who are dying allow the mystery to return. They reacquire the innocent eyes of youth, and the mystery unfolds before them.”


The mystery. What a fascinating and remarkable way to think about this life event. 


A death doula can help at many stages of the dying process, not just during those final days and hours as I described above. And like Cheryl from Multicare Hospice shared with us last week…there isn’t a “too soon” when it comes to including my type of support. A death doula can provide support at the beginning of a terminal diagnosis, or when initial discussions start taking place about end of life wishes, fears and hopes. We can help with supporting the patient in the actual dying process and we of course are able to support afterwards during the many phases of the grieving process. 


I can help conduct a life review, where we take some time to mindfully and lovingly take a step back through time and revisit the stages of our lives, from childhood to current day. I help celebrate the triumphs and I hold a space for the accumulated losses and sadnesses. Death doulas can help patients find meaning in their life by writing down stories, finishing a legacy project or recording memories. These can live on for many generations to come as a way to connect with our ancestors.  And if the patient is not capable of doing these cognitive exercises, I happily work with the supporting community of family and friends to do a similar process as a way to remember their loved one’s life.


I hope I have conveyed to you what a death doula does and can offer you, your family and your loved ones. There is talk these days about the “good death”, and what that means for you and what it takes to support that vision. Creating a good death is not something that happens TO us, it is something we actively engage IN. It is an opportunity to be a creator of a sacred moment, either for ourselves or for our loved ones. Being able to help families experience the “good death” is the driving force behind what I offer, and I hope you are intrigued to learn more about it. Because ultimately, it is a doula’s mission to assure you, that you are NOT powerless, you have all you need in you and surrounding you. As one author stated, “Doula work is an act of sacred altruism” and, I believe, everyone deserves it.


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