What is a death doula and how does having one help your grieving process?

What a death doula is and how they might help in your grieving process. Picture: Pixabay.

What a death doula is and how they might help in your grieving process. Picture: Pixabay.

Published Jan 30, 2021


Just like birth doulas use their emotional support to bring life into this world, death doulas assist in the dying process.

Varsha Sukhu runs a holistic healing practice in Fourways, Johannesburg called The Elephant Muse.

She began her journey into holistic healing eight years ago when her dad died in 2016.

“I was the last family member he saw before he took his last breath and that remained with me on such a deep, profound level.

“I began dealing with my grief in a very standardised way – counselling and anxiety medication. However, I didn’t quite feel like I was truly healing or moving forward.”

Sukhu’s focus is specifically related to grief, and concepts relating to death and souls.

“Although I’ve only recently begun the journey of being a death doula, I’ve been working as a holistic grief coach for over two years with bereaved individuals and their families.”

How does one become a death doula?

There is no formal qualification or specific organisation or body that oversees the practices of death doulas.

However, there are many workshops, programmes and courses that one can attend to get some guidance.

Usually, you will find death doulas began their journey as grief counsellors, members of a church or temple, social workers, healers or life coaches, says Sukhu.

However, one thing they will all have in common is their desire to provide peace and comfort to the dying and their loved ones.

The work of a death doula is something one feels called to, she says, deep in one’s soul, and many death doulas have been assisting people who are grieving or terminally ill long before they even recognised the gifts they have to offer.

How do death doulas assist families – and the dead?

Traditionally death doulas would offer comfort, support and were present during the death of an individual in communities.

But as time has passed and the nature of deaths have become so many and varied, the services offered by death doulas have grown and diversified.

People are being diagnosed with terminal illnesses and given a limited time to live.

Some have had sudden encounters that may have resulted in a coma. As death has changed over the years, the nature of death doulas has as well.

Many death doulas offer services they have had previous training or experience in, or have studied.

For example, some death doulas may offer to support an elderly client by offering companionship as a carer.

Others may include religious or spiritual support in the form of running prayer groups for the family and the dead person during their moment of passing.

Some (like Sukhu) may offer a combination of coaching, spiritual guidance, meditation, energy healing sessions to prepare the soul for its next phase and even private grief services for the family.

How has the assistance of a death doula changed during Covid-19?

Nowadays, what is probably most traumatic is the short timeline from illness to death, says Sukhu.

During this pandemic, families want and need support. But, because social distancing has to be maintained, families often feel alone and isolated, especially if they are in quarantine.

While death doulas may not be able to physically be present with the patient, they can hold an online prayer group.

This can be religious or spiritual in nature, but it is about helping the family to grieve and the soul to move forward. They can also assist with grief coaching and counselling.

The online sessions those grieving to release some pent-up emotions and talk about their head space.

Sometimes they just want to engage with someone who cares and not feel alone.

How do you find the right death doula for you/your family?

Go with your instinct, says Sukhu. A death doula should be someone you can truly be open and vulnerable with and who resonates with your own belief and value system.

They don’t have to be of the same faith, but you should feel as though they truly understand and support you.

Also have a look at the list of services they offer and ensure that they are what you would like.

You can also contact various death doulas with questions or simply have a conversation and see which would best suit you and your family.

Think of it like choosing a school for your child – you will look at what the school offers, their vision, principles, type of education, location, etc.

Every parent has their own criteria; in the same way, every client will have their own criteria for a death doula.

How do you find a death doula?

Death doulas can be found simply by searching specific keywords on the internet. Some death doulas are on social media so you can search for topics, pages or hashtags using the relevant keywords..

You can also ask your local minister or priest, speak to elder care facilities (they may have direct access to some doulas), ask a holistic healer for a reference; or you can ask the question in any relevant Facebook groups that you belong to.

Why should people consider the aid of a death doula?

Sukhu believes that death doulas can provide a sense of comfort, kindness and peace that often go beyond counselling and coaching.

They have witnessed death, heard many grief stories and have tons of compassion for those on their deathbeds, those coming to terms with a terminal illness and bereaved family members.

Because of their diverse backgrounds and range of services, death doulas provide a very personalised service.

Death touches everyone at some stage in life, but death doulas choose to work within this field because it means something to them.

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