In Three Clarifying Steps
If you are considering becoming a death doula, here are three steps that will determine absolute success. It’s important to do this work before you have done death doula training, though it may help to clarify some fuzzy spots afterwards.
- List your reasons for wishing to become a death doula.
Reasons for becoming a death doula will vary greatly from person to person. Frequently the inspiration comes from a personal experience related to the death of a friend or family member and/or you want to:
- process something you were unclear or curious about — matters related to end of life
- find a community of like-minded people who wish to explore how to become better caregivers
- form a network of support for each other
- fulfill a desire to help others either by volunteering or as an employee of
- expand your education and incorporate death doula work into your existing work
- form a death doula business of your own
Your reason may be different from all of the above, but knowing what motivates you is important.
- Determine if you wish to be paid for this work.
If monetary compensation is your primary focus (or secondary but a strong contender by which you will measure your value) you have some work to do.
If you wish to work for an organization
Since this work is not considered a licensed profession by any state or federally, there is no guarantee that any organization is actively seeking to hire death doulas. It is not like doing a nursing assistant training and then becoming certified or licensed by your state in which you are guaranteed positions in hospitals, nursing homes, residential care etc. Some consider the work of a death doula to be an “emerging field” yet, when you consider that the birth doula world has remained “unregulated” (meaning no license or certification can be acquired by training and testing in any state or nationally), it could be that death doula work does not ever become a new profession.
Hospice volunteers go through excellent training as well, and yet, they are trained to be volunteers — which means it’s an unpaid role. In the United States, hospice volunteers have been relied upon heavily since it began in the 1960s. (Hospice was around in Europe before it was organized in the US, and EOL care has been around since the since the dawn of time.)
Many (or most) death-doula trainings do not include hands-on physical care (transfers, toileting, emptying catheters) and therefore much of what the death doula does is more similar to that of a hospice volunteer that sits vigil, runs errands, cleans and does odd jobs, helps with legacy work, etc. That said, many trained death doulas have learned more in the realms of assisting with paperwork and taking a more active role in information sharing.
This does not mean that certain establishments will not hire you as a death doula. It means that there are no state or federal guidelines to determine what a “trained” death doula is, therefore, you might not only have to call many establishments to ask if they are hiring death doulas, it also means you might have to explain what a death doula is and does. And, specifically, you will have to explain what your death doula training taught you. They are all very unique!
If you wish to work for yourself
The first thing you should do is do some research in your own area to understand the demographics. Who are the people in your immediate area? What resources do they already have available to them? What is the average income? What are the races and ethnicities? The more specific you get in understanding your community, the better off you will be when you go to the next step.
Find someone in your area who is a death doula who is working for themselves. I don’t mean find other trained death doulas, but actually find the ones in your area that are being paid as a death doula for doing death doula work as an independent business. If they are willing to speak with you, ask them these questions:
- Where did you do your death doula training?
- What other skills do you have that you are using that you were not taught in your training? (e.g., social media and web building skills, active hospice volunteer, a previous nurse assistant)
- Are you currently or were you a part of a community that you are working with (e.g., a church, a retirement community)
- How did you get the word out about your services?
- How much do you charge? Do you offer sliding scale? How many of your services do you offer for free?
- Who do you serve? (estimated income bracket, race, etc.)
- How long have you been doing this work?
- How many clients have you had over this time period?
If you find others seem reluctant to speak to you, don’t be upset. It could be that they perceive you as potential competition, or they just don’t feel comfortable explaining their own position at this time. Some might be thankful for the opportunity to network — it might even turn into an opportunity for collaboration.
If you don’t find anyone in your area who is a paid, independent death doula there could be a few reasons including: No one has yet been trained in your area or no one has successfully started an income producing business in your area. If that’s the case, widen your circle to other cities or towns or states. Ask them the same list of questions above. If you have taken this route, be sure to compare that death doula’s community and their community resources to your own. Are they a match? Can you expect the same outcome? (Of course, personality will always play a role in this as well — but we won’t go there!) Look at your results of your research. What does this mean to you?
- Determine if this work is valuable to you (or your community) if money is not the primary objective
Simply put, if you answer this question with a “YES!”, then go ahead and do death doula training and/or start studying on your own right away! Make sure you choose the correct death doula training and teacher that best suits you — but do what you can to engage in this work— the rewards are worth it. Understand that you may find a great education and plenty of information talking to those in your community who have been doing deathcare for decades but do not necessarily refer to themselves as ‘death doulas.’” (Remember, care for the dying is nothing new and you do not need a certificate to do so.)
Becoming a death doula is one of the beautifully rewarding and life affirming challenges you can take. Every day will be a brighter breath of fresh air. You will find a new love of life, you will learn to appreciate small things, precious things. You will become kinder and gentler with yourself and others.
What you end up doing after training may not look like what you first envisioned. That’s OK. Maybe you don’t do this work day in and day out with actively dying individuals; or maybe you don’t find yourself sitting down with a family and acting as their beacon guiding them through the maze of end of life paperwork. It might be more subtle. It might be that you regularly buy groceries for your elderly neighbor. It might be that you offer a Death Café in your town. It might be that your friends come to you when a loved one is dying because they know that you are a safe and knowledgeable person who can help. It might be that you are better versed and have done some pre-grieving when the death of your own loved one comes. It might be that you weave this work into the work that you already do — at the bakery, at the hospital, as a check-out clerk. You might not change outwardly after doing death doula training, but inwardly a new and more loving world will have opened.
If you follow these steps and do the advance work before enrolling in death doula training, your outcome will be 100% successful.
(I originally offered this piece to NEDA members for their spring newsletter)
NEDA member Anne-Marie Keppel draws from her work as a death doula, nurse assistant, meditation instructor, Reiki Master Teacher, professional event coordinator and teacher of children and teens. She is a published author, Life-Cycle Funeral Celebrant, Feeding Your Demons facilitator, and leads a nine-week course for death doulas in community deathcare. She is a mother of three and lives in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont where she practices magic, community deathcare, trains her Siberian Husky and delights in her family’s love.