Death doulas

An emerging trend, doulas guide people through their end-of-life journey.
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End-of-life doulas have become popular in recent years to guide the dying process. Illustration by James Heimer

Doulas don’t just usher people into life. They ease patients through the end-of-life journey.

Jackie Hallberg, who launched Muskegon-based Ending Wishes LLC in July, said when her dad passed away six years ago, she saw the need for help for families and their dying loved ones.

For years, doulas have assisted during the birthing process. End-of-life doulas have become popular in recent years to guide the dying process.

“The process was so frustrating,” Hallberg said of her dad’s final days. “It was commercialized. It was medical. After he passed, just trying to cancel his cell phone was difficult.”

The process came as a shock, because Hallberg and her family thought they were well-prepared. A licensed social worker by trade, Hallberg strategized ways to help other families not suffer the same frustration. She stumbled upon an article featuring end-of-life doulas and enrolled in training classes.

“We provide nonmedical support,” she said, adding that insurance doesn’t cover doula services. “We are an advocate and support to that person going through the last stage of life.”

Unlike hospice, which typically sends caregivers in once or twice a week, doulas often are available for longer and more frequent stays with the dying person and his or her family.
They can help however the family and patient want them to. They can sit with the patient while the primary caregiver naps or gets out of the house. They can facilitate virtual visits and phone calls with loved ones who live far away. They can help guide a personalized and peaceful death experience.

“It’s not just picking a funeral home,” Hallberg said. “Do they want to pass away at home? In a hospital? How can we make the environment as comfortable and warm as possible? Who do they want in the room for their death? Do they want music playing? Do they want lights on? Lights off? Do they want pictures of family surrounding them?”

“It’s never too early to start. It brings so much peace of mind. Death is never going to be a happy thing, but it can be a smoother and less stressful process.”
Jackie Hallberg

Hallberg said she sometimes helps patients write down their life stories.

“How do they want their life remembered by loved ones or future grandchildren who have never met them?” she said. “Do they want their organs donated? Pre-planning makes everything more comfortable.”

The ultimate goal is to provide calm and reassurance.

“The ‘death’ word is a scary word,” she said. “We all come into this world and we all leave this world. We don’t celebrate death in American culture. We try to make it as special as possible for the person going through the end of life.”

Hallberg said she can do both in-person and virtual visits.

“It’s never too early to start,” she said. “It brings so much peace of mind. Death is never going to be a happy thing, but it can be a smoother and less stressful process.”

Patty Brennan, an end-of-life doula and doula trainer based in Ann Arbor, got her start as a labor coach almost 40 years ago, a profession that evolved into birth doulas in the early 1990s. By the early 2000s, when end-of-life doulas first came into being, Brennan focused on helping those leaving this world.

“All doulas are not the same and don’t provide the same services,” she said. “Some would be willing to do an overnight or work on shifts. Other doulas may help plan, making sure people make informed choices.

“We like to look at quality of life versus quantity of life,” she said. “Those are the kinds of conversations doulas can help facilitate. Some patients and families don’t know what questions to ask.”

Brennan said hospice is a wonderful program, but many people are surprised to learn that hospice personnel aren’t available to be with a dying person 24/7. She said doulas help fill the gaps that otherwise would fall squarely on family members.

“End-of-life doulas can come in and help people in a real practical way,” she said. “They can help keep the person comfortable, make sure they’re not left alone, provide respite care for overworked family members and give them time for self-care, to go for a walk or get a nice sleep without being interrupted.”

Brennan said she’s honored to help people through such difficult times, helping guide decisions and a sense of peace.

“It’s an incredibly emotional, fragile time,” she said. “It’s very overwhelming. We’re focused on the quality of that rather than just the quantity of that end-of-life experience. We’re there to provide support.”

This story can be found in the March 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox each month, subscribe here

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