Published on June 15, 2018
Death doulas are specially trained volunteers who provide support and comfort in the final days and hours of a person’s life. They help patients and their loved ones simply by being present in a vigil at the bedside when the dying person has started to transition. They listen, hold hands as needed, and envelop the family with a calm and loving presence.
Heidi O’Neal is a death doula volunteering with Alive. We asked her to share what this work means to her.
What does being a death doula mean to you?
This work is deeply personal, a means of connecting at our core to another, almost immediately. I talk with the patient and family about what is happening and what they can expect.
I encourage them to speak, if not with their voices, then with their hearts, any words left unspoken, words of encouragement, thankfulness, forgiveness, contribution. If there is no family present, I fill the gap.
What led you to become a death doula?
My kids were growing older and filling my time with lunch dates and tennis was no longer inspiring. I was struggling to define my purpose, and that meant finding a passion outside of caring for my family.
All I knew was that I wanted an opportunity to directly impact people in need. I wanted to do heart-driven work, one person at a time.
My breakthrough came with this advice from my transition coach: pay attention to anything that strikes an emotional chord. I tapped into a broad passion for helping older people who are transitioning.
What do you love most about it?
I love sitting and talking with families, hearing life stories and lessons from friends, families, and from the person whose life is coming to a close. I like hugging a family member or the person who is dying when there are no words, explanations, or answers.
I like hearing different perspectives on what might lie beyond and bearing witness to fears and anxiety. I love calming a person who is in pain or fearful, with a touch, music, guided meditation, conversation, or my presence.
What would you tell someone to consider before getting started as a death doula?
Be open to discomfort. Death can be painful, messy, and uncomfortable. Relax into the knowledge there are often no answers to the tough questions that arise.
Just being with someone is almost always enough. Be open. Be available. Have an open heart and an open mind. Allow events to unfold. These are all qualities that reassure and build bonds.
Become as comfortable as you can with your own death. The more accepting we are of our own impermanence, the less our own emotions interfere with someone else’s journey.
This is incredibly meaningful work, but it can also be lonely. Not many people understand the work of a death doula or know how to talk with us about it. It’s confusing for most to comprehend how this work can fuel and drain all at the same time.
When two doulas sit down together, the immediate connection we have—it’s a thing of beauty. I would advise anyone interested in this field to have a mentor or become part of a tribe. Sometimes it’s nice just to have a sounding board or a shoulder to cry on.
What is the most common question you receive about this work?
It’s difficult for most people to talk about death until it is upon them. Most people cannot fathom that I do this work and enjoy it.
How do you feel when someone you’ve been sitting with passes?
When someone I’ve been sitting with dies, I feel an intense sadness and a joy—a sadness that stems from the bond we’ve built, the connection we’ve shared, saying goodbye—and a joy that comes from their inevitable release from pain.
To cope with my sadness, I usually journal about each person I sit with. Every experience is meaningful. That’s the beauty of the work. I remember each one.