A guide to the other side: what it means to be a Death Doula

There are a huge variety of jobs out there, many of which most of us would never even fathom.  Doing what I do, I’ve met a fair amount of people who do some pretty random stuff, and because of what I do, I get to ask them all about it, which is even more exciting when I come across someone doing a job I haven’t yet heard of.

It was a regular day, just a few weeks ago, and I was on my phone scrolling through Twitter, when I came across this tweet:

The feminist in me responded with a sassy but caustic remark and a Simpsons GIF, because, well…seriously, time and place my dudes.  You’d think a cemetery would be a safe PUA free zone.  But the super curious human and writer in me locked in on two words:  death doula.  I’d heard of a doula before, in birth process (I’m in my 30s, LOTS of my friends are having kids and I know way more about birth than I ever wanted to).  Intrigued to see doula uttered in such an opposite context, I did some googling, learning that like a doula helps a life enter the world at birth, so a doula can do to help a life leave the world at death.  Further intrigued, I followed up my sass tweet with this:

 

Two follows and a few DM’s later, and I was thanking the internet for connecting me to Leigh Naturkach.  Leigh is a woman who has held many roles in her life, with the current being Director of Advancement for Women’s College Hospital Foundation. She began her career in media but after nearly a decade of volunteering with women’s causes, Leigh transitioned her career to the non-profit world, focusing on both fundraising and program management. She engages with death doula work, volunteering at Journey Home Hospice, as well as working with families seeking end of life care assistance. Leigh is a graduate of the Institute of Traditional Medicine’s Contemplative End of Life Care program, Centennial College Thanatology program, and is currently registered at Ryerson University for Community Engagement, Development and Leadership certification. Leigh is also current Board member at Dying with Dignity Canada.

After commiserating over the state of toxic masculinity and the silver lining that results from shared experiences because of it, Leigh agreed to an interview about her work.  Take a read below!

What is your official title? Do you have one?

I wear a few titles in life – Director of Advancement, Board Member, Volunteer, and Death Doula (in evolving stages of practice). I love the diversity these roles bring, and how they each enrich the other. My identity is a mix of things. I like it that way.

What does a death doula do?

The word “doula” has a long history but means “female servant” (I know, right? Ugh!). A death doula, like any doula (birth, abortion) is a person who provides non-medical support to another through a life transition – in this case, death. This support is practical, emotional, compassionate, non-judgmental support to individuals, their loved ones and caregivers. This can be anything from household assistance, holding vigil, personal care, legacy work, advocacy, accompaniment, end-of-life planning, education, information, to simply being present with people in their coping, suffering or grief. It’s about prioritizing and walking alongside the person in their journey, with a kind of care that may not otherwise be possible. It’s not always about ‘doing’. We often feel like we need to be ‘doing’. This is about being present, meaning-making, to help create a more peaceful or mindful experience or environment.

It was once described to me ‘as taking back death as a life event, not only a medical one’.

How did you become a death doula?

During a road trip with a fellow activist in the abortion rights movement, I learned about Dying with Dignity Canada (DWDC), an end of life rights and access organization centered around medical aid in dying. Soon after, I began volunteering there, receiving incredible client and advocacy training. I then wanted to better understand the upstream of death, dying, and grief. I’ve been building on that with various approaches ever since. That’s one of the great things about road trips, aside from the best snacks, you can literally or figuratively end up on a complete different path than you started on. Though, as I’ve discovered, these two particular paths around abortion / death are related but that’s a whole other conversation!

Is there schooling or training for becoming a death doula?

I have a certificate in Thanatology (death studies), and am a graduate of the Institute of Traditional Medicine’s Contemplative End of Life Care Program. I am partway through my certification in Community Leadership, Development and Engagement at Ryerson University. I have completed formal training from DWDC, Hospice Toronto, Journey Home Hospice, including a trauma informed approach for marginalized individuals. I continue to do independent learning, and plan to continue with formal training (oh to be a PhD in Death! A literal Dr. Death!).

My professional experience in equity movements and healthcare environments continues to inform my work in the death space. They all overlap in ways.

What would surprise people about your job?

Maybe that it is one of the most life-affirming things that I engage in (and yes, there is laughter too). People sometimes think or assume death and dying work is only depressing. People also think being involved in this work makes grieving easier. It doesn’t make death, dying or grief avoidable or easy, but it helps provide guideposts, tools, hopefully some understanding, and somewhat sharing of burden for what will be or has been.

What achievement are you most proud of?

I would reframe that to instead ask – what things am I grateful for? There is incredible pressure in many societies to do, produce, brand, build, develop markers of success to be valuable to economics and progress, let alone for our own survival. Achievement is important but this work has allowed me to disengage from that and provided me with a spirituality and sense of being in the world I never had.

I have learned to better honor and be educated by other cultures, leaders in this movement, and contribute to what so many before me have created. Many are doing this work every day for others without recognition or compensation.

It has been a privilege for me to be invited or allowed into people’s lives at a very intimate time. It has taught me the importance of presence, ritual, active listening. It has also given me the tools to cope with my own losses, and how to (hopefully) show up better for others in ways I wasn’t capable before. It’s not about me, or tied to deliverables or goals. It has rewired my brain, and that’s what I appreciate about it.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to face?

Outside of death itself, the continual consideration of inevitable mortality, existential angst (ha!), some challenges I’ve had:

Carrying people’s stories, lives, worries, and losses alongside the recognition we can’t fix things. It is a precious, and sometimes heavy, thing to hold. In working with marginalized individuals in particular, like I do at Journey Home Hospice, the experience has different and particular concerns. There are strict but important rules for formal roles in caring for people, which I respect, but holding those boundaries can be challenging.

The learning curve and what I feel I need to learn can feel overwhelming. The “do I go back to school or don’t I?” continual question. Imposter syndrome is too real.

It took a long time to learn how to hold silence, discomfort, inability to communicate. To learn to end a sentence without need to fill the quiet. To turn attention and conversation back to the person.

When I’m feeling doubt, I go back to my “why I started” to keep me focused and in my values. I think about the clients, families, and their stories – what I need to do for them, then the rest doesn’t matter.

 

How do people benefit from this work?

Professionals, like doctors and nurses, obviously have their very important and necessary roles to play in death and dying. However, the professionalization and outsourcing of death and caring has influenced, and sometimes compromised, our experiences with this aspect of life. This is where the spectrum of professionals, expertise and community care comes in to fill in the gaps that help people in their journeys. Different approaches can work in collaboration with one another to meet a person’s needs.

I often hear from people that the active, non-judgmental listening we provide is incredibly helpful. It’s really a simple thing. Having a third party to share their burden, hear their stories, worries, to talk about issues, especially those they can’t with loved ones, help in terms of coping. I think we can all benefit from that in any situation in life. What people need at end of life is not that different from what we need throughout life – to be valued, seen, and understood.

 

If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?

I worked in radio, TV and documentary which I love. Part of my heart is still there. However, one aspirational version of me is a professional tennis player or UFC fighter. I love yelling so much! Another aspirational me would own a bookstore that felt like the set of The Mindy Project, Cheers, or Cougar Town. Another aspirational me hangs out with whale sharks full-time.

 

What advice do you have for someone who feels like an unconventional job or career is their calling?

I think understanding your values first is important in the process. Not succeeding at an external marker is better than failing yourself. That can help guide the path, even when it’s uneven or missteps are made, as inevitably they will be. They are necessary to keep us from complacency, keep us humble and moving forward. I learned that when my friends thought me a natural to try improv comedy 20 years ago (I *still* shudder at the memory thanks).

Being open to what fulfilling your passion can look like helps to see the range of potential. I made the conscious decision not to monetize my work in this area (for now). This isn’t to say this labour should not be compensated, it should be. Traditionally feminized labour has often been undervalued and undercompensated. For me, I already earn a wonderful living doing something I am grateful for and love. This is one of the ways I can provide community care, and help money be saved or redistributed.

 

Sometimes I find myself getting down about the state of the world, and what feels like the very intense ramping up of mass human selfishness.  Then I meet like Leigh, and hear about the important, beautiful, selfless work that she and people like her do.  It restores my faith in humanity, and makes me feel that much more capable of taking on the world.  If you’re interested in engaging the services of a death doula or just learning more about what they do, Leigh has share some resources with me that I’ll link to below.

In Canada

Community Deathcare Canada

National End of Life Doula Alliance

In the United States

Conscious Dying Institute

International End of Life Doula Association

Nadia Elkharadly

Nadia Elkharadly

Nadia Elkharadly is the Co-Founder and Managing Editor of Addicted Magazine. Her myriad of addictions include music, fashion, travel, technology, boxing and trying to make the world a better place. Nadia is also a feminist, an animal lover, and a neverending dreamer. Keep up with her on social media through @thenadiae.
Nadia Elkharadly