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What does a death doula do?

Renee Adair is a “womb to tomb” doula. She’s also the founder and director of the Australian Doula College based in Marrickville. Some of us might know what a birth doula does – providing non-medical support and information to parents in pregnancy, childbirth and the postnatal period. But what does a death doula do?


Renee: Being an end-of-life doula is about filling the gaps, offering resources, information, kindness and compassion, but most importantly, providing continuity of care. Continuity of care is missing today in our systems, and most people will die in hospital not knowing that they have other options. Research has proven time and again that when we’re going through major life transitions, continuity of care is key for how we experience that transition and how we carry that forward, whether that’s positively or negatively, into the rest of our lives.

In Australia, we do death and birth pretty badly. There’s little to no emotional support within the systems we’re birthing and dying in. We’ve lost the experience of caring for our dying person and, as individuals, we are frightened of death. Death was handed over to funeral directors about 100 years ago. I think a medium like a doula has a really unique opportunity to bring back that compassionate community that was lost, and to give families the power and the dying person the power to die in the way that they want to, surrounded by loved ones – because that’s what we deserve, to have a better experience of dying and, for those left behind, not to walk away feeling traumatised.

When my own grandmother was dying and had stopped eating, I told my mum that I wanted to be with her the whole time. I engaged a doula because I knew I was emotionally involved and would need some help, so I got onto the amazing Vic Spence – a holistic funeral director and doula – so the doula (me) had a doula (Vic)!

I hired Vic to come to be with our family after my grandmother died because I knew I wanted to do all the things I would ordinarily do like bathe and dress the dead person, but in this case the dead person was my grandmother.

My cousin and I took it in shifts to be with my grandmother, so she was never alone in the seven days it took her to pass away. At the time of death, my cousin was with her. I was about 15 minutes away. When we arrived, I called Vic, and the feeling for the family, the nice part for the family, is to see someone with confidence gently and lovingly care for their dead loved one.

For me, the blessing [of being a doula] is that I can assist other people not to be afraid and to continue the love for that person in their death; the final act of love. For me, with my grandmother, it was my way of saying, “I love you and I’ll never forget you.” I spoke to her for the two hours I was with her. I brushed her hair and we bathed her. We put the dress on that she wanted to wear, and did all of the things that show love. To be able to give that gift to another person is why we do the work, right? It’s really beautiful and it’s deeply personal and it’s an incredible privilege to be in that space.

With Covid people have become a bit more interested in talking about death and dying, and it’s now understood that talking about these things won’t kill you! Actually, it’s helpful to talk about what it is that you want to happen at your end of life – and doulas are being invited in – even helping people with their advance care directives and making plans for voluntary assisted dying if that’s the person’s choice.

For the first and last breath, it’s critical that we humans feel deep connection and that we have an opportunity to not just be clinical in those spaces but also to feel. To have our journey acknowledged, seen, and heard. To be respected and loved and nurtured because those transitions stay with us for the rest of our lives and mould us in how we think and feel about ourselves, the human condition and others. And I think the world would be a much better place, if we acknowledged that truthfully for ourselves.

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