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Death Doula A Cultural End of Life Paradigm Shift by Rev.Elizabeth Dieleman

Picture a New Orleans jazz funeral. Like any other typical American funeral, dozens of people gather to honor a departed loved one. But we recognize the striking difference: raucous music, ornate outfits and a grand processional— not typical elements found in the average parlor memorial service. The difference between brass band and Bach may seem inconsequential at first. After the burial, however, what seems more cathartic: ecstatic dancing in the streets or a somber conversation over ham on bun in the church basement? This is not to suggest that our great uncles must get up and dance. It illustrates a desire and a need in our culture to celebrate the life cycle with a bit more enthusiasm.

Expecting enthusiasm around death is a bold statement. We can rephrase it as expressing gratitude for life through sacred ritual, humor, remembrance and healthy grieving. Typically, American culture is not accustomed to such an occasion. There is a taboo around death in our society and we no longer have a healthy place for death in our homes and our hearts. Because of this, a ‘new’ role in the community is emerging: the death doula, or “thana-doula.” Thana is the Greek word for death or dying and doula is the Greek word for household helper.

The term doula is becoming common with the rise of birth doulas who prepare pregnant women for childbirth, assist during labor and help out with postpartum needs. Birth doulas help women re-discover their body's wisdom which has been lost in the process of medicalizing birth. The same has become true of the death process.

Relinquishing our responsibility for the dying to nursing care and the undertaking business removes us from the sacred circle of life. It has taken death out of daily experience, turning it into something foreign and uncomfortable. Denying death leads to unprocessed grief, mental instability and spiritual emptiness.

The Role of the Doula

Death doulas assist in three areas: healthy preparation for death for both the dying person and the family members, possible attendance during the active dying process and assistance caring for the body and supporting the bereaved after the death.

Preparation for death involves grief council, helping organize a memorial service, creating a legacy of memories and stories and planning a “vigil” or a ritual to be executed during the active dying process. Each family member present for the moment of death may play a role such as reading a passage, playing a song, telling stories or holding the dying person’s hand.

The doula may peacefully guide the dying out of their bodies using breathwork and visualizations, integrating and supporting those who bear witness. He or she remains on-call for a given amount of time after the death should a family member need to reach out for support.

Creating a Sacred Space

Doulas specialize in the art of creating sacred, safe containers during which we can explore our grief and gratitude, and demystify death. A doula can assist anywhere, whether the death occurs at home, a hospital or a care facility. They can actively or passively participate, depending on the needs of the family.

Working with a death doula is not for everyone. It is for those who are willing to go deeper, roll up their spiritual sleeves and get a little messy. In the mess, intuition and bliss will be uncovered like diamonds in the ruff. These are the trials and rewards of an authentic rite of passage ritual so essential to a mentally and culturally stable society.

Having an advocate and witness present during a major life transition empowers those moving through a rite of passage. The presence of a doula and grounded family members provide an opening into which the individual can let go with grace, catharsis and trust. This is the wisdom that has been lost in our society. When the taboo on death has been lifted, existential tension will be lessened. People will be able to live and die with a greater sense of purpose, connectedness, and peace. This is the Circle of Life, and for this we can dance in the streets.

Rev. Elizabeth Dieleman is an ordained interfaith minister who assists in rites of passage work as a professionally trained birth doula, death doula, ritual coordinator and spiritual counselor. Her healing modalities involve music, healthy cooking and meditation. She also is a singersongwriter, Reiki practitioner and mother. She lives in Woodstock and can be reached at 609-744-9188 or ritesofpassagework@gmail.com or by visiting RitesOfPassageWork.com.

Resources: 

BeyondHospice.com 

AccompanyingTheDying.com

MourningDoula.com

DoulaProgram.org

DeathMidwifery.ca

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