Death Doula Training Isn’t the “End” of It

Once you complete any death doula training you need, and you hang out your shingle to offer your services to the public, you begin to realize that what you call yourself matters.

You may have noticed the array of names for how providers in your field refer to themselves. They may be “death doulas,” “end of life doulas,” “death midwives,” or “end of life coaches.” If they focus on the journey of the family after the death of the patient, they may go by “bereavement midwives” or “grief doulas” (or any of the possible variations thereof!).

Consider the feeling, or connotation, each of these terms conveys. Each of the professional terms emerges from a different history. The term “doula” actually comes from a Greek root, meaning a woman who serves. Naturally, doulas are now both female and male, and we generally associate the term with those who help expectant mothers through labor and childbirth. Some male doulas are wittily called “dude-las.”

It matters what you call yourself, not only for how you think about your profession, but for bringing the right people your way, the people who want what you offer.

"Death Doula" vs. "Death Midwife"

In the world of labor and birth, midwives are the ones who provide medical care, while doulas offer the expectant mother emotional, spiritual, and physical care. The role of professional birth doula was born when most births moved out of the home environment and into the world of hospitals, and as family members thus became both less involved and less knowledgeable about helping with births.

Similarly, as the act of dying moved out of the home, having someone who knew how to accompany and to provide comfort and support to them and their families became central to the dying experience.

The choice between the terms “death doula” and “death midwife” conveys the subtlety of the difference between offering support and offering complete expertise across the transition. Some people who have a terminal condition may conceptualize what they need as support during a challenging time, while others consider their need to be having someone there who will accompany them on the complete journey of transition to whatever the other side holds. The term you choose should communicate well how you conceive of the services you offer.

By the same token, as you present your services to the public, you must decide whether it is “death” or “end of life” that your services center on. One advantage of a term such as “death doula,” as compared with “end of life doula,” is that it offers a clear mirror with the term “birth doula,” and, in a relatively young profession, helps educate those who may never have met—much less engaged the services of—a doula for their final period of life as to what you offer.

On the other hand, a variety of reasons may cause someone to prefer the term “end of life” to “death.” Perhaps it seems more positive, or more focused, like hospice philosophy in general, to enhancing the quality of someone’s final months, weeks, or days. Or perhaps using “end of life” enables the potential client to come to terms with the finality of their condition in a gentler fashion.   

Use the language your audience uses (not necessarily the term your death doula training used!)

We live in a culture that can be cagey about talking about death. Clearly, you’ve overcome enough of your own hesitation in order to enter this meaningful field. Of course, those you serve are facing their first death! Unlike you, they may not have given this stage of life much thought up to now, and are almost certainly approaching it with a complex mix of emotions, especially given that death feels pretty personal.
A reputable survey found that more people are electing to die at home than at any time since the early 1900s. And, by 2016, the number of those making the choice to die at home exceeded those dying in hospitals. The aging of our population is outstripping the younger people available to care for them, making becoming a death doula (or offering death doula training) a ripe field.
Pay attention to the words that your first clients are comfortable with and be willing to change your terminology to fit what your existing clients are telling you. You can adapt to a way of describing what you do that is informed by what you learn from your clients, even as their terminology changes with the times.

Incorporate your specialty as a tagline

If you offer special services such as massage or art therapy if there is an aspect of your work that you’d like to be expanding, you can emphasize that as a tagline on your website and business card, distinguishing yourself among the expanding field of those who work with the dying and their families.

Our own specialty at THE HUMAN JOURNEY® is training end-of-life doulas (or whatever name you end up choosing for yourself!) and others who work with families at points of transition to guide them in our structured process that promotes long-lasting belonging, the meaning-making that can ease anticipatory grief and bereavement, and communication about the values that matter. We’d love to share it with you.