You've likely heard of a birth doula. That's a person who provides physical and emotional support to a new mother during pregnancy and childbirth. The same exists for people leaving this world. It's called a death doula and it's growing in popularity.
In American culture, Cindy Kaufman says death has often been seen as taboo. However, for her, it’s intimate and peaceful. She realized caring for somebody in their final moments of life on earth was her calling when her grandmother died.
“I spent the last few days of her life sitting bedside with her," Kaufman said. "I was very comfortable in that space, and I noticed other people were not comfortable in that space.”
Kaufman is now a certified end-of-life doula, also called a death doula. She says she serves as a companion and advocate for someone facing the end of their life. She helps them design a vigil plan for their final hours.
“If they have pets, do they want the pets up in bed with them?" Kaufman said. "Do they want a particular music playing? Is there a favorite scent that we could have in the room so they can smell the lavender that they love? Or is there some things that they would like to have someone read to them, whether it's something spiritual or some poetry or passages from a book? And then we talk about at the moment when they take their last breath. What type of ritual or offering could we do for those who are present?”
Kaufman says end-of-life doulas also play a big role in the lives of caregivers. She assisted Jeff Fountain after his wife Barbara was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
“They fill a gap that the medical people aren't really designed to fill,” Fountain said.
Fountain says Kaufman helped normalize the process of dying so he wasn’t afraid to embrace it. He believes the profession is growing because the attitude toward death is shifting.
“When I was a kid and somebody died, it was the most morose, sad, awful, painful thing," Fountain said. "You know when people would get together for a funeral and everything? And now it's very different. The people are happy for them.”
Happiness is exactly what Mickey Weems wants his loved ones to feel when his time comes. He has stage four terminal prostate cancer and has selected a doula to help guide him through legal, medically assisted suicide. Another term for it is medical aid in dying.
“When it comes to the point where I can no longer take care of myself, I have the turquoise bag," Weems said. "And in the turquoise bag is the substance that will take me to the next world. Whenever I choose, I can take it. And I have a death doula, her name is Joy Rodriguez, who will help me go through the whole thing to make sure I do it right and this is smooth sailing”
Mickey has passed multiple dates the doctor has given him to live.
“He says that I'm surviving by force of will, and he may have a point, but I think it's something else," Weems said. "I'm also surviving because of the love of my friends.”
The love of friends and family is probably what most people would ask for in their final days. That’s what end-of-life doulas aim to accomplish, and the profession is rapidly growing.
The National End of Life Doula Alliance says it has nearly 1,300 death doula members across the country. There were only about 260 in 2019.
“When I did my training in 2017, there were just a handful of training programs," Kaufman said. "This field seems to have kind of taken off and there are many training programs now.”
End-of-life Doula training programs can be found through various organizations like Conscious Dying Institute, University of Vermont, Going with Grace, and the International End-of-Life Doula Association (INELDA). INELDA says it has trained more than 5,400 people since 2015.
While death doulas aren’t currently covered by insurance, Kaufman says many have sliding pay scales so anyone who wants it, can have it.