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Death Doulas Help You Figure Out Your Life Before You Die

Death makes us vulnerable, incoherent, and depressed. Death doulas are here to help.

Death: everybody does it, nobody wants to talk about it. It's usually not until we go through some sort of unexpected loss that the reality of death's inevitability sinks in. For me, that moment happened a few months ago, when I lost a close friend. At 26, I realized that I'd spent very little of my life considering the reality of death—and suddenly, I was confronted with it, without the choice to turn away. And I wanted to learn more.

Turns out, there's an industry built around coming to terms with our mortality. When I heard about the concept of a "death doula," I was transfixed by the idea: They are people who make it their job to inform us about death and guide us through grieving. Laura Saba is one of them. A self-described "mourning doula," Saba was originally trained as a traditional doula. (The word comes from the Greek term for "a woman who serves," and is today used primarily for professionals who support mothers during and after birth.) After training as a birth midwife, Saba now helps people find comfort in death rather than birth. She has even started her own "mourning doula" certification process, doling out qualifications for a group varyingly described as end-of-life doulas, death doulas, mourning doulas, and "death midwives."

VICE spoke with Saba about what it takes to become a death doula, how we can become more comfortable with mortality, and how it feels to "be on call for the universe."


"The Deathbed of Philippes de Commines" via Wikimedia Commons

VICE: What made you realize that you wanted to become a mourning doula?
Laura Saba: I was actually working as a mourning doula before I even realized it. When I was 11, I came home from school and found out that my neighbor had had a stroke while she was getting cookies out of the oven. It was terrible: She fell face first on an open oven door. I experienced a lot of loss through my youth. During 9/11, I knew 41 families that lost somebody. I began working as a birth doula, while volunteering in hospice, because I was seeking a balance. Especially after 9/11, I wanted to be there to help people.

And then the work kind of crossed over: I [assisted] more than 1,200 families with their births, and when you have those numbers there's going to be a few stillbirths. I found that if there was a stillbirth or miscarriage, I was using my own skills and resources from the volunteer work I had done at hospice. I had become a mourning doula without realizing it. There's so much similarity in the doula roles. The way in which we provide support for birth and death is very similar. Of course, the information is different, but the type of support is very much the same.

The mourning doula can educate on almost any burial option, from being buried in space to having your ashes mixed into tattoo ink and being tattooed on somebody.

What is the difference between an end of life doula, a death doula, and a mourning doula?
End of life doulas work with everybody, healthy or sick and a lot of them get called by new parents or newly married people who are looking to get all of their ducks in a row, whether it's if you were in an accident tomorrow what would you address, what kind of paperwork do you need for custody, life support questions, organ donating...

The death doula starts out working for people who are in hospice or were going to die at home, who wanted to have as little intervention as possible around their death. These doulas work with clients in the long term, getting to know them, doing a life review with them, exploring what types of support they might need at their death vigil.

Mourning doulas work with people from the time someone dies, so maybe you worked with someone as a death doula and now you're helping the family [mourn]. The biggest goal is to serve the family in such a way that they can have the space to breathe fully and freely, while having someone there to advocate for them. The mourning doula can educate on almost any burial option, from being buried in space to having your ashes mixed into tattoo ink and being tattooed on somebody. Mourning doulas don't actually plan the funeral for you, but they can walk you through it and help save you thousands of dollars. The mourning doula can protect you from being taken advantage of during a grieving moment. It's very easy to take advantage of someone when they're grieving and up-sell them on special caskets that can protect the body better when that's not actually true at all.

Are death doulas on call 24/7 when someone is dying?
Because a lot of people are scattered all over the states, someone will get a call that their mom or dad is dying in a hospital in New York while the child is in California, and they're envisioning "Mom or Dad is going to die alone, what if I can't get there in time?" We find that an overwhelming number of [death doulas] are called in this last minute way. Most of the time, it will be something random like a heart attack. Or maybe they thought someone had six months but then it happened a lot faster, like three weeks later, and no one was prepared. Nurses are busy tending to their patients, doing things on the floor and whatnot. You'd want somebody to be there [for emotional support].

When did death become such a taboo subject in our society?
Years ago, children used to help their families prepare the body for funerals. In Victorian times, they would do photographs of the whole family with the dead person dressed and sitting, propped up to look like it was a regular family portrait. It's only in more recent times that things like modern embalming started. Modern embalming started during the Civil War solely to bring soldiers back intact so their families could grieve. Before that it was all home funerals. Now, when someone dies, you put them in a coffin and bury them right away. We don't process death at all.

You're being invited into the most intimate part of people's lives. You are on call for the universe, not a time clock.

What has been the most difficult thing about your job?
I had a client, with a wife and four children, and his mistresses wanted to view the body at the funeral. Two of them had children with him, none of whom the wife knew about. They all threatened to come in, [saying that] they had rights too, and the funeral director ended up arranging private viewings. It was out of my hands because the funeral director was taking over and I was really grateful because I didn't even know what would morally be right or wrong there. It was complicated.

What's the best part of being a death doula?
When a family is grieving loss, and they hug you and tell you that you helped them to be with their child and to provide the space and the comfort that they needed in those last hours and that it made all the difference, it just turns you inside out. Even at the funeral, people will say that they were able to say goodbye in a deeply meaningful and authentic way.

The other is when I work with the dying and I do the life review process with them. People will just share their high points and low points, their big memories. And I train my students to do this too, we search for a storyline, for themes, because most people see the events in their lives as scattered events, and if you look, there's often a story, like "You were the underdog and you always persevered!" When you are able to help somebody see the theme in their life and have them feel in their final days that there was a deeper meaning in their life than they ever realized, they can see their death as the final chapter in this story on Earth, and a story that actually makes sense.

You're being invited into the most intimate part of people's lives. You are on call for the universe, not a time clock.

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