Despite the fact that all of us are going to die someday, most people in our current society don’t see much of death over the course of their lives. People we know will die, of course, but not every day, and being present with someone as they leave this world is a rare and powerful experience. 

Of course, if you choose a line of work where you deal with end of life patients on a daily basis, the experience becomes a little bit more routine.

It is inevitable that medical personnel who work with the dying will become used to the process. They’ve seen it all before, they know what to do and nothing surprises them. And we’d like to hope that the more experience they have, the better they will be at their job. But there is a potential cost. These skilled, experienced doctors, nurses, and medical staff can become so used to the routine that they no longer consider the fact that for the patients and the families they deal with, everything that’s happening is new and unfamiliar. It may be confusing or frightening for them, and they may have trouble getting answers to their questions about what is happening and why. They may not even ask these questions, either because they’re afraid to or just because they don’t know how.

As a doula, this is exactly where you should be paying the most attention to what is going on with your client families as the patient goes through their transition. Make sure you’re checking in—do they feel like they understand what the care team is doing, and why? Do they understand how the transition process will go, and what it will look like? Is there anything that feels wrong to them? Maybe there really is a problem and you can figure out how to improve the situation. On the other hand, people who are not used to seeing death often worry that their loved one is in pain or distress when what they are seeing is simply the natural transition process. Either way, the concerns they have can only be addressed if somebody knows what those concerns are.

Even if you are only starting out as a doula and don’t have a great deal of experience yourself, there are so many resources you can use to help your clients. When it comes to the basic tasks that need to be handled when someone dies (documentation, etc.), many funeral societies and other groups have checklists available to download on their websites to help your clients know exactly what to do. And as for going through the experience of being with a loved one when they transition, the books of Barbara Karnes are short and easy to read, and might be the only resource of their kind. (If you know of others, please don’t hesitate to post about them in The Movement!)

But as always, the most helpful resource you can offer is your time and attention. Don’t just hand your client a checklist or a booklet and walk away—sit down with them, help them go through it, make sure they understand. This is one of the most important ways that you, as a doula, can shine a light into the darkness.

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