What is an End-of-Life Doula?

pictured above: end-of-life blogger,  Jacqui Chaplin (left) with End-of-Life Doula, Helen Callanan (right)

You may have heard of ‘birth doulas’…  Kelly Winder, writing for BellyBelly.com.au – a pregnancy website – says ‘doula‘ – pronounced ‘doo-la’ – is a Greek word meaning ‘woman servant or caregiver’. It refers to someone who offers emotional and physical support to a woman and her partner before, during and after childbirth.

Likewise, an End-of-Life Death Doula is someone who offers emotional and physical support to a person – but one who is dying or family member of a person dying. As a person who works daily with family and friends of a person who has died, or whose death is imminent, I see the full range of responses to death – but only for a very short duration and with a very specific purpose. In a very limited capacity I fit the doula designation as a caregiver for families planning the leave taking of a family member.

But a true End-of-Life Doula offers another level of caregiving and support altogether. One that takes a special kind of person –  and who may not necessarily be a female… In seeking to develop a better understanding of the role of an End-of-Life Doula and how they work with individuals or families I had an in-depth conversation with a Melbourne based End-of-Life Doula, Helen Callanan.

Callanan is a warm and welcoming woman with white blonde hair and a reassuring smile. But one would be foolish to underestimate the depth and breadth of knowledge and logic that is teamed with her caring and compassionate ways. Callanan speaks with a degree of openness, about a topic that is so difficult for so many to come to grips with, which is both honest and forthcoming. No fluff or nonsense. Just practical knowledge and caring support for those facing the end of their own or someone else’s life.

I had a list of questions at hand. Each was answered in detail. And every subsequent question her answers inspired was treated with the same depth and openness.

To give you an understanding of the diverse topics covered in the conversation to understand the role of an End-of-Life Doula we talked about everything and anything; from legal matters related to end-of-life though the importance of ritual through to what to do when “your world is turned on its own arse” to quote Callanan –  when the grim reaper can be seen in the distance.

In its simplest form, Callanan works alongside families and those in identified end stages of life to explore ideas and create plans that allow for dignified, psychologically and physically comfortable end of life experiences.

At the heart of effective end-of-life doula offerings are a combination of broad ranging skills and an open, honest, direct and compassionate approach to life, living, dying and death.

According to Callanan, listening, asking questions and a whole lot more listening, they number among the most fundamental and important skills for a doula. The ability to be accessible and fully present with dying person or their family member is right up there too.

There is a minefield of potential challenges that an end-of-life doula can help individuals and families negotiate. Different religious beliefs, perspectives on the sanctity of life, wanting death to be as pain-free as possible and wanting a loved one to keep trying anything to prolong life their life when they are clearly in pain are just a few of the mines that can be seen by some. With the benefit of experience coupled with a professional detachment from an individual or family members’ personal experience, an end-of-life doula has the ability to observe any given situation from a more objective perspective. It allows the time and space for the practical as well as the more difficult end of life questions and conversations to be held.

An initial conversation with an end-of-life doula might start by exploring what a person knows and wants to know about their circumstances and the role of a death doula. It will explore the important issues for a person and seek to clarify why those things are important as well as perhaps uncovering some issues that may not have yet been considered. And it is about getting clear about options and expectations for end of life is nearing and then ultimately, imminent.

What is important to know about End-of-Life Doula services (as with most professional and caring support services) is that every circumstance is different. Any given End-of-Life Doula will have had a range of experiences which will be different from any other Death Doula. Which means that a great an End-of-Life Doula will be able to acknowledge the existence of a new situation in which they may not know the immediate answer but will go away and research and explore information in order to take care of a person’s specific circumstances. The role is to provide information and options to allow a person or a family member to make their own choices. Allowing others to be empowered to make appropriate and effective decisions is an outcome of a good End-of-Life Doula’s service.

In often fast-changing situations, an End-of-Life Doula is constantly learning and exploring options to better support their clients: to help them to have their say and make self-directed choices in the face of different family and medical opinions, not to mention the institutionalisation of dying and death. It is not uncommon for the support provided by a doula to shift between an individual and their carers or family as circumstances change or as death becomes imminent. When it comes to walking through the practicalities that must be dealt with after a death an End-of-Life Doula can also provide support after a person has died.

Before, during and after, individuals and their family and friends want to know they are doing the best they can for others as well as themselves. This is difficult to do when you are physically ill, emotionally distressed and just don’t know where to begin coming to terms with an end of life situation.

The silver tsunami is coming… what will that mean for you at a time when you required hospital, hospice, aged care or palliative services? And what will that mean for families when their loved one is one of thousands of people seeking the same support services that are needed at end-of-life? In this scenario, I predict that the role of an end-of-life doula will take on a different shape and importance. Being aware of how the services of an end-of-life doula could stand you or a loved one in good stead might just make your end of life experiences significantly easier.

I’ll explore more about the practicalities of an end-of-life doula’s services in upcoming posts.

We have just one life….

Jacqui Chaplin

Independent Funeral Information | Life Story Collector & Writer | End of Life Tributes | Easier End of Life Experiences | Funeral Arrangements and Celebrancy

Just One Life… doing and designing dying and death differently and with dignity and distinction.

For more information on doing dying and death differently or to start thinking about how to handle a death of a loved one before you are overtaken by grief, organise a conversation with Jacqui today.

Call +61 (0)412 741 531 or email jacqui@jacquichaplin.com

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Jacqui Chaplin is a Lifetime & End-of-Life Commemoration Specialist (a funeral celebrant among other things) based in Melbourne, Australia. She loves capturing stories about the nature of life and being human, as well as, celebrating and commemorating well lived lives and lives that have ended. Jacqui has a passion for bringing the conversations that many of us find difficult to think about, let alone speak about, out in the open so we can see how our stories, values and beliefs influence our attitudes.

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