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Just eight months after losing her brother Ben Keough, actress Riley Keough made a touching announcement on Instagram: she had completed her training to become a death doula.
"I just felt like writing such a deep thank you to this community who are teaching and training people in conscious dying and death work. We are taught that it’s a morbid subject to talk about. Or were so afraid of it that we’re unable to talk about it... then, of course, it happens to us, and we are very ill-prepared," wrote the daughter of Lisa Marie Presley and granddaughter of Elvis. "I think it's so important to be educated on conscious dying and death the way we educate ourselves on birth and conscious birthing. We prepare ourselves so rigorously for the entrance and have no preparation for our exit. So I'm so grateful for this community and to be able to contribute what I can."
Riley noted she'd gone through the Art of Death Midwifery Training Course by Sacred Crossings, a Los Angeles–based institute that offers workshops and classes in conscious dying and home funerals — both part of a growing movement to approach death through a more old-fashioned and intimate lens: as a non-commercial, non-medical family and community experience.
"At the event of death and for a few days following, there is a window of opportunity for great healing to occur," notes Sacred Crossings founder Rev. Olivia Bareham (who did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for an interview) on its website. "When a body is whisked away moments after death, this window closes, often permanently, leaving families feeling helpless, unsure and wishing they had a little more time."
It's possible that Riley (who was not available for an interview) felt that way after her brother died by suicide in July, as it's not unusual for those who become a death doula (also called an end-of-life doula or death midwife) to have had a profound loss — compounded by an upsetting medical or funereal experience — and to then want to support others in their experience of death.
"For folks who do this work, often it is in response to experiences with significant loss… who can respond by helping other people," Dawn Walsh, a death doula and co-founder of the Lily House in Provincetown, Mass., tells Yahoo Life, noting that she was in her 20s when her mother died violently. "It is the case with me," she says, adding that she essentially felt like "a spectator" during the rituals that followed. "It's a calling, end-of-life work… It's not something that you just do casually."
What is a death doula, exactly?
A death doula is essentially someone who assists and guides a person through the process of their death.
"It's somebody who is there for emotional support, spiritual support, educational support — a friend to literally walk the path with you and help guide you," says Walsh, also a green-burial advocate, home-funeral guide and leader of community death workshops. "And a big role, which might sound overly simplistic but is profound and powerful, is of simply being there, of bearing witness — of creating an atmosphere of calm and ease that this is going to be OK, and if you have any fears or worries or anxieties, I can help you unpack them and work with through them." The doula is also there to help emotionally support loved ones of the person who is dying, by mediating family dynamics or facilitating conversations. "It's very holistic, every mind-body-spirit," she says, adding that people across the country can find access to a death doula through the National End-of-Life Doula Association (NEDA), of which she is a member.
Adds Alua Arthur, death doula and founder of the L.A.–based Going with Grace, which offers doula training and end-of-life planning services, "A death doula is somebody who does all the non-medical care and support of the dying person and their circle of support." Arthur ended a decade-long career as a Legal Aid lawyer after a trip to Cuba, during which she met a woman on a bus who told her she had uterine cancer. "I asked her, 'What happens if you die from it?' and she said, 'Thank you for asking,' because nobody was asking — the focus was all on her surviving and beating cancer. That made me really sad because death affects everyone. Why don't we engage with it like it is a reality?"
Six months later, Arthur recalls, her brother became terminally ill, and she sat with him and her sister and her niece "as he drew his last breath." From that experience, she says, "I saw the practical need for what [death doulas] actually looked like." Now, through Going with Grace, she works with three different groups of people: the healthy, who want to create comprehensive end-of-life plans; the survivors of those who die, who need help caring for their loved one's body and wrapping up affairs; and people who are approaching death themselves. "I help them create their deathbed, lend emotional support, help them wrap up their affairs — everything from the lighting of room to prayers, aromatherapy, music, whatever their desires are."
Through her training programs, Arthur says she's taken note that many people have wound up there after experiencing personal loss, like Riley, "trying to turn pain into purpose."
Death doulas as activists
The role, says Walsh, is one parallel to that of a birth doula or midwife — with all the social-justice aspects that come with it.
"Just like a birth doula assists with bringing life into the world, a death doula assists in the process of leaving the world," she says. "Death used to also be a family-friend-community experience, at home, but with the rise of the funeral industry — which is very much an industry, dominated by men and money and business and politics — it took death out of the home… and out of the hands of family and community."
Walsh, who currently works with clients in their homes, solely for donations to Lily House, believes it's essential to understand the death doula movement in this larger context, as well as how it's part of a larger movement.
"There's a whole positive-death movement happening, and COVID has brought it even more to the forefront," she says. The first death doula global summit, in fact, took place in November — and this Thursday, the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, which offers end-of-life-care training programs for professionals and laypeople, kicks off the free, virtual, five-day Love & Resilience: The Contemplative Care Summit, with 32 speakers who are experts in palliative care, psychology, meditation and holistic wellbeing.
Those aspects are all part of the job of a death doula, which is about "reclaiming our human right and our legal right to care for each other at the end of life — at home if we want — surrounded by friends, family and community … and allowing us to be active participants and witnesses … rather than it being a financial transaction where we pay strangers to do all of this work for us, at great loss to our own humanity," Walsh believes.
"I definitely see death work as activism," notes Arthur. "For me, it's another form of activism, cloaked in compassion and love, in that there’s no part of society that death does not touch. … My job is to honor the unique lived experience of every individual … and to do that, I have to look at all parts of who they are and how they identify."
This is especially important to her as a Black woman in the field, as the death industry "as a whole suffers from a very white perspective," Arthur says. "We don’t all die the same way, we don't have the same diseases — we're looking at ableism, ageism, racism, transphobia and homophobia, all brought to the forefront by looking at death. People say death is the 'great equalizer,' but that masks all these inequalities," she explains. "Death is a culturally constructed process and therefore informed by the culture that an individual lived in, which is largely white supremacist and patriarchal, etc., etc. … So when we can honor the life for all that it was, not just what I see and identify with, it’s an opportunity to turn it on its head."
Finally, Arthur says she welcomes the spotlight that Riley's Instagram post has brought to death doulas. "You have to feel it — there has to be a big, big, big, big why," she says of entering the field. "When I started in 2012, people looked at me like I'd grown a second head. … But there weren’t grandchildren of late celebrities talking about death and dying." Now, she adds, "Any way it gets into the public consciousness, I’m down for."
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