The Gods and Demons of the Deathcare Movement
Let’s begin by clarifying that I am not referring to God in heaven and demons in hell. This is about the state of mind that often rules us here on earth. Some refer to a “god complex” which is not quite where I’m going with this — it’s a little more subtle. And, some refer to “wrestling demons” which is sometimes brought up when one is struggling with addictions. That’s not quite where I am going either… Although we certainly can get addicted to our demons and gods.
Accompany me down the road of gods and demons. It’s an everyday stroll. You walk this road regularly and so do I. On one side we recognize how we identify and it’s filled with a lot of “I ams.” On the other side we recognize how we identify and it is filled with a lot of “I am nots.” On one side: the god of “I am successful, I am competent, I am seen.” On the other side: the demon of “I am not successful, I am not competent, I am not seen.” You’re walking on one path and these gods and demons flank both sides.
We perseverate on these gods and demons all the time, every day and sometimes moment to moment. Posted something awesome and got a lot of likes that made you feel good? That’s the god. Posted something awesome and no one liked it which mad you feel like crap? That’s the demon. But, what I’m going to focus on is the death doula movement. We are going to examine the two faced coin which is “I am a death doula” and on the other side “I am not a successful death doula.”
Let’s step off the road we just walked together and visit a dinner party. (Pretend the pandemic is over) You just completed a death doula training and coincidentally you’re invited to a dinner party on the same night! Very cool. Time to celebrate.
The evening has gone well and a couple of the guests at the party know of your good news. They encourage you to share it and you humbly accept.
“Everyone, please raise your glass and toast to me…” (Whoa, you would never do that, I know, but let’s keep going for the heck of it)
“I have just completed a death doula training and next I’m doing Home Funeral Guide training to help people die in their own homes. I am now working with people who are dying and I can help each of you prepare for your own deaths too — because you know, we are all dying. We are just at different stages of the dying process.” You smile bashfully and pull out a shiny new business card and pass it around the table.
Half of the people at the dinner party praise you in awe. They say they can’t believe you are doing this work- it’s so hard and so good. You’re an angel for doing it. There are so many people who will benefit from your services. That feels really good. You feel really good. You feel seen.
The other half of the dinner party guests that did not praise you take your focus. A couple of them flat out ignored your announcement. You weren’t even certain they raised their glass to “cheers.” You did notice however that one of them turned to their neighbor at the end of the table and whispered something. You brush it off and chuckle a little, surmising they have not confronted their mortality. Too bad for them for not doing the work — they’re only hurting themselves. Well, and their family too who will have to deal with all of the paperwork. In your head you shrug and take a drink, disengaging from the entire scene.
But, next someone else makes an announcement about their promotion at work — an office job — and you see that everyone cheers for them. Now you are feeling unseen.
The dinner party winds down and those that praised your new career at the table hug you goodbye and wish you luck and that feels good. But it’s hard to say a full goodbye to them because you’re distracted by those same two people at the end of the table who were whispering right after your announcement. They have gathered a couple of other people around them and are talking in hushed tones in the corner of the room.
You’re feeling bold, so you wander over to join them. You start feeling a little nervous as one of the guest’s family members just died and they had been caring for them day in and day out for the past year. And, before then, they had cared for both of their grandparents through their dying and death also.
One other person sympathizes with the guest whose family member just died. He has been a Hospice nurse for 30 years.
Then, one of the ones that was whispering at the table shares that they have been a chaplain for 18 years. You try to remind yourself what a chaplain is…
Your stomach flips a little as another guest seems to own their own funeral home and they’ve recently started offering green burial services and home funerals- you didn’t know that.
They all begin talking about the dying process and the lingering grief that lasts and how it’s so hard to “keep going” in a grief illiterate society. You read about this in your death doula course. You smile sadly trying to join the conversation with a facial expression.
The woman who owns the funeral home begins to talk about the mourning that happens over a body in the open casket funerals. She says that she comes from a long line of death midwives. Her family did this work even before funeral homes were made the norm. Her family did this because they had to care for their own dead and they just helped their neighbors also. You shift a little uncomfortably — you’ve never seen a dead body.
You go home that night and pull up your new website. The colors on the site are really soothing to you. And the photos you found online really show the passion and compassion you feel for your death doula work. Someone brought up race at the dinner party tonight. You write a note to look for a photo that shows some diversity to add to your site. At least you have a recommendation... that’s gold. You didn’t charge for that service but they said you should definitely charge for your work in the future.
Six months pass and you’re sitting in front of your computer looking at your site’s analytics. You’re glad that you included some diversity photos and there seems to be some recent traffic on your site. You yawn and notice the time and realize you should get to bed — you have to get up at 5:30am to start work at the coffee shop. But… you’ll just take a moment to look at the death forums you subscribe to. You flag an article on the homeless dying on the street and one about people dying alone in prison to read later. Then you see an article from CNN talking about the success of death doulas and you’re instantly captivated. You see that it has a hundred likes and dozens of shares. You comb through the comments… are any of these comments from actual death doulas you wonder? Most of the comments are from those who are interested in death doula work and they’re so excited about this great movement. A lot of the rest of the comments are from those who have done death doula training and have no clients… A couple comments say business is booming. Their business is booming?! You click on their profile. One says they just started their death doula business three weeks ago. You laugh. Clearly there’s a lot of interest in their work but obviously they are not “booming” with business. You click on the other profile and go to their website. Ah hah. Yes, their business probably is booming — you know the area they are working in — they’re serving the very wealthy.
God, demon. Demon, god. Take your pick.
So, my question is, when and how did doing this work become about you? What part of serving the dying made you think you should be center stage? Ask people who have cared day in and day out for an individual who is dying if they were center stage during the process or if that is how they got to do that work.
As long as you believe you are special for doing this work, you will be stuck in a merry-go-round of gods and demons.
As long as you think you are special for doing death doula training or death doula work, you will always have the potential for thinking that those who have not done death doula training or work are not special. And, where on your scale of “trained and untrained” or “professional and not professional” do you place those who have been doing this work for decades and centuries before you? (For no pay.)
You’re not special for doing death doula work. But, if you apply your training by incorporating it into your every day work (at the bank, in a hospital, washing dishes) and every day conversations you will help to make our planet a more loving and compassionate place. Then you will have helped to make the deathcare movement sacred- instead of special.
I’m not all doom and gloom don’t think I haven’t walked walked this path myself. And of course you are special — just like everyone else.
Rather, I hope this piece offers a different perspective if your training told you this was a new “booming profession” and you were lead to believe you were going to strike it rich after one certificate training … that, how could this go any other way with the silver tsunami on the horizon.
Ask yourself: who am I as a death doula?
Ask yourself: who am I if I do not get paid as a death doula?
Then ask yourself: If I do not get paid for my work as a death doula, but if I continued serving my community as a death doula, what would that look like?
If that last question depresses you, you may want to consider other work.