Christians should consider training and serving as death doulas.
“Death” is probably the last word you would expect to find paired with “doula.” And no, this isn’t some sort of spiritual metaphor; it’s an actual job in a young but rapidly growing field. Let me explain.
A doula is someone who is trained to help and support a woman during childbirth. Traditionally, the doula or midwife fills the role of a coach who brings wisdom and experience to a family as they bring a new life into the world.
When my wife and I had our second child, we had a friend with us who was in training to be a birth doula. Her presence provided much-needed personal help and comfort as someone who was simply there. Of course I was also there, but aside from the birthing classes and the experience of our first child’s birth I didn’t really have much to bring to the table. The nurses were in and out, and the OB-GYN popped in for a few minutes and was there for the birth, but our doula friend was with my wife in a different and much deeper way, providing a combination of personal care and practical knowledge that was truly comforting.
Birth doulas have become much more widely known and used in recent years for this very reason. They provide something that people sorely need: a combination of functional wisdom and personal support to the expectant mother that soothes her fears and stokes her confidence.
So many people have begun to realize that if this role is so valuable during birth, why not do the same thing during death?
What is a Death Doula?
When someone is dying, there are plenty of professionals involved. Nursing home staff, paramedics, doctors, nurses, surgeons, specialists. Not to mention receptionists and lawyers and insurance reps. It’s easy to lose the thread of what is really going on beneath a constant stream of prescriptions, surgical options, pain management, and insurance company hold music.
The reality is that death is not simply a medical event. In Ecclesiastes 9:5, the Preacher tells us that “the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.” This is not just an end of life, but an end of significance. All the knowledge and experience you have built up; all the rewards you have treasured up; all the memories you have created and shared; everything you had or enjoyed in this life will be gone and forgotten.
When someone knows that they are dying, it’s natural to worry about the pain and try to prolong life. It’s also natural to think about the meaning and significance of life, what comes after death, and how best to leave this world. Medical professionals help with the first part. And now, increasingly, death doulas are being trained to help with the second part.
A “death doula” (or, as they prefer to be called, an “end-of-life doula”) is someone who is trained to help and support the dying one and their family as they prepare to leave this world. In the early 2000s, several medical and palliative care professionals independently saw the need and began offering it themselves. As word spread and interest grew, they began training others and a new profession was launched.
What Does a Death Doula Do?
Practically speaking, a death doula helps the dying person die well. This involves first and foremost respecting the dying person’s wishes while, secondly, providing wisdom, information, and personal presence.
Specifically, the doula helps the dying person and their family with things like:
- Advocating for the dying person, especially when they become incapacitated or unable to communicate
- Choosing where to die (80% of Americans would prefer to die at home but only 20% actually do)
- Creating a peaceful and personal environment for the dying one
- Encouraging thoughtful and purposeful life review, exploration of religious views, candid family conversations
- Planning for and recognizing when to start the vigil (the time when death is imminent)
- Relieving the fear and anxiety surrounding death for the individual and their family
- What to do at the time of death and immediately after
- Help with funeral planning
- Reprocessing with the family a few months after the funeral
You can read more about the role of a death doula here.
Why Should Christians Become Death Doulas?
Teach us to number our daysPsalm 90:12
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Christians should become death doulas because doulas provide help, wisdom, and companionship to people at what may very well be the only time in their lives they are open to being taught how to number their days. People – dying people – are looking for practical help and spiritual or philosophical significance. In obedience to Romans 12:9-18, we should be there to show love and honor, to give hope and blessing, to pray and show hospitality.
Moreover, since Jesus is the only one who is ultimately significant, only in him can our lives and deaths have significance. Since Jesus is the one who conquers death and invites us to live with him, only in him can we truly die well.
As Christians, we should be at the front lines when people are consciously thinking about death, the meaning and significance of their lives, and how to die well. Because the beautiful and valuable work that death doulas provide is only fully realized in Christ.
Jesus is the answer to pain, so be there when the pain comes.
Jesus is the answer to decay, so be there when the body decays.
Jesus is the answer to grief, so be there when the grieving begins.
Jesus is the answer to despair, so be there when all hope is lost.
Jesus is the answer to death, so be there when death is near.
As Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” (John 11:25)
So, Christians: Become death doulas.