What is a Death Doula?

A death doula is a person who has received specialized training in order to assist the dying and their loved ones. While the word “doula” comes from a Greek word that means “servant woman,” a death doula can be of any gender and come from a wide range of backgrounds. Death doulas typically work through hospice and in-home care programs in areas where they are available for the dying.

Caring for a dying person can be traumatic and confusing for family members, especially if they come from a culture where caring for the dead is not ingrained. A death doula can help family members understand the death process preparing them for what to expect and acting as an advocate for them and the decedent with hospital, funeral home, and other personnel involved in the process.

A death doula provides comfort, support, and companionship to those who are dying. Doulas may sit quietly with the dying, sing to them, talk with them, or perform other acts of companionship. Many death doulas work in groups so that someone is always available to sit at the deathbed. Death doulas with nursing training may be able to provide some end-of-life care, such as medication and bathing the dying.

Because of the growing doula movement, which provides support and advocacy for expecting mothers, many people associate the term “doula” with a midwife. Death doulas see their work as equally important to life doulas because life and death are two sides of the same coin, and some even refer to themselves as “death midwives” to emphasize the link between the two. Death doulas, like doulas who assist expectant mothers, may offer a variety of services, tailoring their offerings to the needs of their clients.

Thanadoulas, as they are known, are generally nonsectarian, though they are usually willing to read from religious texts or incorporate religious ceremonies into the death process for those who request it. Many will stay to help with the funeral if asked, and some will pay follow-up visits to family members in the weeks and months following the death to talk about the experience.

A death doula usually works with people who have less than 18 months to live. When a doctor gives a life-threatening diagnosis, he or she usually refers family members and the patient to a hospice agency. Individuals interested in working with a death doula should speak with their doctors or contact their local hospice agency; those interested in becoming death doulas can receive training through hospice organizations.