In health care, hospice, and palliative care, a unique role often goes unnoticed but plays a profound and comforting part in the final stages of life - the death doula. While the term may sound unfamiliar to many, death doulas are an essential component of a holistic approach to end-of-life care. Cygnet Health Recruiters had the privilege to sit down with Suzanne O’Brien, renowned for her work in the death doula space. In this blog, we will explore the role of death doulas in health care, hospice, and palliative care, shedding light on their invaluable contributions to the well-being of patients and their families.
Who is Suzanne O’Brien:
Suzanne founded the Doulagivers Institute, a worldwide training program for helping people navigate the end-of-life journey. With training for people giving care to those at the end of their lives and certifications for those who feel called to the career of guiding others through the death process, Doulagivers has been an invaluable resource to thousands upon thousands of individuals.
Suzanne began her career as a registered nurse on a medical-surgical floor. While working there, she began to feel a call to show up for those at the end of their life journey but found this difficult in the environment. She found her way to hospice care, in which the nurse's role is to help the family navigate the end-of-life process and assist in any care the patient might need. After working in hospice for a while, Suzanne transitioned to an oncology department where she learned more about the end-of-life process and pre-hospice care. After a period of working with those with cancer, she decided to return to hospice care. According to Suzanne, much of hospice care revolves around teaching the patient and the family members what death can look like, but “it is incredibly hard to teach someone something if they are afraid – and most of us are afraid of dying.”
“We know how to keep people alive, but we have forgotten how to keep them alive and living,” she said during our interview. And so, feeling this tension between the idea of hospice and medical care and the reality of time and patient management, Suzanne put together a training on the end-of-life process. After struggling to get funding for the program, Suzanne offered the class for free at a local library. As the class filled up and the news got out about this end-of-life training, Suzanne decided to put the training online, and the Doulagivers Institute was born.
“Death is not a medical experience; it is a human one,” and it is the right of every human to be equipped to die with dignity and grace. That is the mission of Suzanne and the Doulagivers Institute.
So, what is a death doula?
A death doula, also known as an end-of-life doula or soul midwife, is a trained professional who provides emotional, spiritual, and physical support to individuals and their families during the dying process. Their primary goal is to ensure a peaceful, dignified, and meaningful transition from life to death.
1. Emotional Support:
Facing the end of life can be an overwhelming and emotional experience. Death doulas offer a compassionate presence, an empathetic ear to listen, a shoulder to lean on, and a source of comfort for the patient and their loved ones. They create a safe space for open conversations about fears, regrets, and final wishes. Suzanne said over and over during our conversation that the most important thing someone can offer to another person is their presence. Simply showing up for individuals journeying through the end of life or helping a loved one navigate this process is the best thing you can do. A death doula is an individual who is called to and trained to offer this presence to those in the grieving/dying process.
2. Spiritual Guidance:
Whether watching a loved one face the end of life or experiencing the season themselves, many individuals turn to their faith and spirituality for solace. Death doulas respect and honor diverse spiritual beliefs, helping patients and families find meaning and peace in their journey, whatever that may mean to them. Again, as Suzanne pointed out, this is a human process we will all go through. Each individual will approach death and grieving in their own way, and it is vital to have space to process the journey as needed. A death doula is trained to create just such a space.
3. Physical Comfort:
Pain and discomfort are common in the final stages of life. Death doulas work closely with the health care team to ensure that the patient's physical needs are met, advocating for pain management and symptom control to enhance the patient's comfort and quality of life when the patient or the family cannot.
Something a death doula can do is help to create “the right environment” or help to create a “sacred space” for someone to pass on. This can look like anything meaningful to the family, like music the loved one enjoyed, soft light such as battery-operated candles, allowing pets to be near, and speaking quietly. The sacred space is up to the family and the one passing, but death doulas are trained to help create this space.
Death Doulas In Health Care
The role of death doulas in health care extends beyond hospice and palliative care settings. In hospitals and other healthcare facilities, they act as liaisons between medical professionals and patients, ensuring that the patient's wishes are respected, and their emotional and spiritual needs are met.
1. Improved Patient Experience:
Death doulas contribute to a more holistic approach to health care, enhancing the overall patient experience. Patients often report feeling more in control, less anxious, and better understood when a death doula is involved in their care.
2. Support for Families:
Healthcare providers often have limited time with patients and their families. Death doulas bridge this gap by offering families continuous support, guidance, and companionship, helping them navigate the complex emotions and decisions that arise.
Death Doulas In Hospice and Palliative Care
While death doulas can play a crucial role in inpatient settings, they are essential in hospice and palliative care, where most care occurs in the home, and the family is responsible for a majority of at-home care. With the number of individuals over the age of 65 expected to rise significantly, the burden of care will fall heavily on family members. Because most of us are not trained medical professionals, we don’t know the first thing about end-of-life care. “This is where a death doula/Doulagiver is essential,” says Suzanne.
1. Enhanced End-of-Life Care:
Death doulas work hand-in-hand with hospice and palliative care teams, providing an extra layer of support that complements medical care. This comprehensive approach ensures that patients receive the physical, emotional, and spiritual care they need.
2. Reduced Family Burden:
Families often carry a heavy emotional burden when caring for a terminally ill loved one. Death doulas ease this burden by offering guidance, respite, and a calming presence, allowing families to focus on making the most of their remaining time together.
Death Doulas: A Unique Function
After many conversations with individuals working closely with the end-of-life process, one theme has emerged repeatedly: We need to talk about death. The resounding solution to the global fear of death and the dying process is to talk about it. The more we are willing and able to discuss what happens when we die, the more prepared we will enter the last stages of life, and the more dignity we will be allowed when our time to exit this earth comes.
According to Suzanne, one crucial function of the Doulagivers Institute is training. To Suzanne, the more people with access to the materials her company offers, the more people will be able to die with dignity, which is, as we have said, a human right. We asked, and Suzanne said, “In a perfect world, every person who worked in healthcare would be trained in the end-of-life process, not just those called to be a death doula.” The sooner someone can recognize the end-of-life signs, the better the transition will go. And, in Suzanne’s perfect world, doctors would begin with the end in mind. When you go for a yearly check-up, a doctor could say, “One day, we will switch from curative care to symptom management quality of life care. How do you want to go about this process when your transition begins?” That way, when hard news needs to be delivered, a doctor is already prepared for how the patient wants to engage with the end-of-life.
The goal is to allow everyone access to a dignified, graceful, and sacred death. Knowing more about the end-of-life process and beginning the transition as soon as possible is crucial in helping create dignity in a difficult transition.
But all of that requires training, something which a death doula is uniquely positioned to offer.
If you are actively caring for someone going through the end-of-life process, going through the journey yourself, or are curious about what a job in end-of-life care could look like, the Doulagivers Institute offers many resources. You can access many resources for free and take more in-depth courses–whichever suits your needs.
The role of death doulas in health care, hospice, and palliative care is a testament to the evolving landscape of compassionate end-of-life support. These dedicated professionals empower individuals to face the end of life with dignity, comfort, and a sense of purpose while providing invaluable support to their families. As we continue to embrace a more holistic approach to health care, the contribution of death doulas should not be underestimated. Their presence is a beacon of compassion in one of life's most challenging journeys, providing solace, understanding, and a peaceful transition for all involved.
At Cygnet Health Recruiters, we are dedicated to helping individuals find the right role for them. We are committed to getting to know you and your journey to find a company that fits your values within the healthcare system. As Suzanne and many others have pointed out, it is a calling to work in end-of-life care, whether that is as a registered nurse in an ICU, emergency room, oncology department, and so on, or as a hospice and palliative care nurse. But maybe that is not the right fit for you, and you are looking for a different way to engage with patients at the end of their lives. Check out the resources offered by the Doulagivers Institute. Maybe you are called to be a death doula!
If you are unsure, but are looking to enter the healthcare field or are looking for a new role within healthcare, reach out to Cygnet today! We are dedicated to finding you a job that will provide you with purpose and passion and provide an opportunity for you to show up for those who need your skills.