The Holistic Role of the Death Doula

When a Death Doula enters an individual’s life specifically for the dying process, they bring expertise, resources, realistic expectations, and unbiased support to help make sense of an overwhelming journey. We, death doulas, take a holistic approach by addressing the physical, emotional, educational, and spiritual aspects of death, leaving medical to healthcare professionals. 

Towards the end of our clients’ end-of-life journey, a hospice agency is involved with the medical care by providing for the comfort level of our clients.  They are experts at medical interventions to keep our clients comfortable and pain levels low.

A holistic approach to end-of-life care: physical, emotional, educational, and spiritual

Physical Support at End-of-Life

In this previous blog post, we discussed the importance of creating a sacred space for our clients and their families.  This ensures both clients and family are comfortable having those meaningful conversations and spending quality time.

In addition, doulas are familiar with different and unique therapies that can bring additional pain, anxiety relief, and relaxation.  These are some resources we either provide or can coordinate:

Therapies Available

  • Pet Therapy
    • Dogs and sometimes cats with gentle, soothing temperaments are trained and certified to provide companionship to the dying. This is especially comforting to someone who grew up with or loves animals. We also encourage the dying person’s pets to play a role in providing companionship if appropriate.
  • Music Therapy
    • Have you ever heard a song that evokes beautiful memories and instantly transformed you into that moment years ago? Or perhaps you have a favorite genre for certain moods. Music therapy uses clinical and evidence-based musical intervention and the natural mood-lifting properties of music to help improve the patient’s overall well-being.
  • Sound Therapy
    • Similar to music therapy but this can involve sound bowls that produce frequencies and vibrations that are very soothing and relaxing.
  • Physical Therapy
    • Maximizes functional ability and makes it easier to move safely around surroundings. It focuses on providing comfort for physical issues at the end of life. This involves applying heat, cold, or massage. Physical therapy is also useful in managing pain and increasing overall comfort.
  • Aromatherapy (essential oils)
    • This can be used in a few ways; through a relaxing or pain-relieving massage, via a diffuser, or warmed aromatic cloths to bathe the hands, arms, feet, and legs. It’s effective in dealing with many health issues that cause discomfort, helping to soothe and heal. Different blends of essential oils are used for stress and pain relief, anxiety and depression, skin repair, and as an appetite stimulant.
  • Guided Meditation / Imagery
    • Death doulas are familiar with the benefits of meditation for themselves as self-care. We can lead the dying through a calming guided meditation. We can incorporate the things they love. If the dying person loves flowers, we can walk them through a garden or meadow, perhaps a walk in the woods. 
  • Herbalism
    • This is the study or practice of the medicinal and therapeutic use of plants.  There are particular herbs and flower essences that aid in providing comfort to the dying and their family.
  • Hypnosis
    • The induction of a state of consciousness in which a person is highly responsive to suggestion or direction. It’s used at end of life for both patient and caregiver/family. Repetition techniques can reiterate positive messages that reinforce the feeling of peace. Regression therapy takes them back to happier memories and more emotionally fulfilling times. Guided imagery creates the most transformative visions of a future for people who are near death as they imagine themselves going to that comforting white light. Post-hypnotic suggestions can help bring a little more joy to their everyday lives. 
  • Breathwork
    • Focusing on breathing keeps us present in the moment and allows a patient to feel in control of her body and more capable of coping with pain and anxiety. It creates relaxation for the emotional and spiritual body and has a positive effect on the physical body by strengthening primary and secondary respiratory muscles.
  • Reiki
    • Reiki is a type of alternative healing therapy developed by a Japanese Buddhist in 1922. Practitioners use their hands to massage the body and also have specific mantras and blessings they recite to clear negative energy from the body. The Reiki session is supposed to help clear the mind and soul from mental and emotional toxins as well as provide relaxation

Emotional Support

When someone is dying, it’s very common for their loved ones to feel awkward, sad, and not know what to say or how to support the dying.

I’ve witnessed my terminally ill clients become lonely during their last chapter of life. Family, doctors, and nursing staff can begin to speak as if they are no longer there, and this can leave them feeling very isolated.

The death doula is there for our dying client. We guide them through the entire process and allow them to have someone consistent with them as they stop receiving treatments and begin to exit this world. The death doula’s focused and intuitive presence in the final stage of life encourages a deeper connection for our dying client and family.

The death doula facilitates hard conversations that provide support to both the emotional needs of the dying individual and their family members.

We do a Life Review with our clients and their loved ones. This is extremely beneficial as they can relive beautiful memories, which brings them joy and connects the family together.

Powerful Questions to Ask Someone You Love Before They Die

  • What was your childhood like? 
  • What are some of your favorite memories growing up?
  • How did you meet your spouse or partner?
  • What advice did you receive that made an impact on your life, and who gave you the advice?
  • Is there something you always wanted to say to someone but didn’t?
  • What memories make you most proud? Most thankful?
  • When were you the happiest?
  • Did you have a favorite pet?
  • Is there anyone you’d like to spend quality time with now that you haven’t already?
  • When people think about you, what would you like them to remember?

These questions and others like them allow the dying person to reflect on life beautifully lived and encourage positive thoughts and reflection.

Educational Support and Resources

Death doulas are trained in specific disease death processes. We know what to expect in the days, weeks, and hours leading up to death and can explain the symptoms and signs of the dying process as they occur. I meet my clients where they are emotionally and provide them with as much information as they can handle. I like my clients to be empowered and informed of what may be next as the journey unfolds. We fear what we don’t know, and this information helps alleviate the unknown and, therefore, reduces the fear of the dying and their families. Death can be very overwhelming. Having an idea of “what’s normal” during this time can be a big relief to everyone.

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