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Use of End-of-life doulas on the rise. Who are they and what do they do?

Funeral graveyard
Posted at 5:01 PM, Feb 01, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-01 17:57:18-05

(WXYZ) — You may have heard of a birth doula. But what you likely haven’t heard of is an end-of-life doula, a person that helps families prepare both emotionally and logistically for an impending death and the difficult days that follow.

They don’t take the place of medical care or hospice. Instead, they complement it. And their services have been seeing an uptick in demand.

I spoke with one Detroit mom, who suffered an unthinkable tragedy, about how doulas helped her in a time of despair.

“She was just starting to stand up,” said Rachel Thompson.

“Seems like she was a real happy baby, she was the happiest baby ever,” said WXYZ’s Ameera David.

For Rachel Thompson, it’s still hard to believe so much pain could follow so much joy.

“My 6-month-old daughter transitioned, in her sleep,” said Thompson.

It was June of 2020 when baby Amarou died from SIDS leaving Detroit mom, Rachel Thompson in despair.

“I was under investigation to rule out abuse, which I’ve since learned is protocol, but at the time was extremely shocking and traumatizing, to be honest,” said Thompson.

Suddenly facing legalities, postmortem logistics, and immeasurable grief, a friend connected the single mom to a network of doulas who would ultimately come to her rescue.

“Companionship, support, accompaniment, resources, listening,” said Merlilynne Rush.

There are birth doulas and then there’s Merilynne Rush and Christina Wall -the kinds of doulas that focus on the end of life.

Rush and Wall are with The Dying Year, a group that trains people on how to help families in the lead-up to an impending death or, as was the case with Rachel, the immediate days thereafter.

“They helped me contact the hospital,” said Thompson. “They linked me up with a funeral director who does funerals for babies for free.”

They helped Rachel understand her option to have a funeral at home.

“Was that cathartic for you?” asked David.

“I don’t think there’s any way I would have made it something through something like that without that type of support,” said Thompson.

End-of-life doulas tend to any non-medical needs from logistical planning to emotional comfort.

“Is there a stigma around this work?” asked David.

“Yeah, we live in a death-denying culture, a lot of people when you mention what you do, they just turn their heads and walk away,” Rush.

“Even people who understand the whole process, it doesn’t mean they're comfortable in discussions around death,” said doula Christine Wall.

“When you don’t talk about it, you don’t have those opportunities for connection that help us,” she added.

With isolation amidst the pandemic further worsening the ability to connect, end-of-life doulas are seeing an uptick in demand by those wanting the service and by those looking to get trained on how they can empower others.

“It’s about being willing to accompany them on that really difficult journey,” said Rush.

“Do you think in a way it’s about giving someone control in a situation where they would otherwise not have any control?” asked David.

“Yes, I think that’s very much a large piece of it,” said Wall.

For Rachel, it meant the ability to make informed choices when the world around her was crumbling.

“Does it give you peace knowing people like that exist?” asked David.

“Absolutely, I think in this moment of history we are in, we need way more of those people to exist,” said Thompson.

Find a doula in your area through the National End of Life Doula Alliance :