The end of life doula movement is relatively new, however the concept of having someone non-medical dedicated to looking after the dying and preparing their families for death is not. We spoke to Hermione Elliot, founder of Living Well Dying Well, about what this work involves.
Before illness and death started to become medicalised in the mid-20th century, it was not uncommon for there to be someone who was not a medical practitioner provide companionship to the dying person and their family, as well as taking on more practical tasks.
“Our job is to keep life as normal as possible” explains Hermione, a former nurse, midwife and counsellor. “It’s not about looking at death and dying as a medical thing, because it’s a human event. Our role is to support the family and the dying person, to draw on the social network around that family to fill in the gaps, maybe cook a meal, walk the dog, get the newspapers, or do some shopping. It’s to some extent a family expert role in a way, and very much a companionship, community-based role.”
Hermione founded Living Well Dying Well in 2009, centred around the idea that death should carry as much preparation and reverence as birth. “Death is a profound experience, and it’s not very nice for families if things start to get dramatic and challenging” she says. “A lot of our role is helping people to prepare – that might be with advanced planning, getting all sorts of paperwork in order, providing factual information to families, coaching people and telling them what to expect. We’re really trying to inform and support them to be confident with the process.”
Living Well Dying Well offer three-part training courses for end of life doulas, although the initial foundation course can be done on its own. “The only entry requirements are that you’re over 18 and haven’t had a very recent bereavement. If somebody has been bereaved recently, we would spend some time talking to them to find out how they are with that, because the course has a lot of factual information but we also ask people to engage very personally with the subject of death and dying, looking at their own death as part of that.”
The five-day course covers a lot of ground. “Grief, the emotional and psychological responses family carers might experience, what a person who’s facing death might experience, the signs of dying, how to care for someone and make them comfortable towards the end of life, caring for a body at death, spiritual perspectives and Advance Planning” Hermione says. “Learners do a bit of their own research into spiritual and cultural practices, and they do quite a lot of personal reflection.”
“The foundation course is life education in many respects” she continues. “I think everybody should do it. It’s so rich, and people really don’t know what they don’t know. Most people come away amazed – they’re more informed and feel more empowered. It can also be a wonderful moment for people when they realise they can do this, and they have the capacity.”
The whole course has a length of 20 days, taken over 18 months or two years. Learners must complete a portfolio assignment as part of their training; if by the end they don’t seem quite ready to start work they’ll be asked to do some further volunteering alongside their mentor.
An end of life doula can be with a family for any period of time, from a few days to a year or even longer, depending on how much support is needed. “The thing to consider is, what might you want. If you had a family member who was dying, how would you want it to be for them?”
While some end of life doulas have a background in fields like caring and complementary therapies, many do not. “People do it for various reasons and feel that they have something they want to offer. There’s often a personal motivation – it could be they’ve experienced the death of a family member that was awful and they don’t want anyone else to go through that, or they might have had a really wonderful experience and want others to have this too.”
“I have a huge belief in us as citizens, and I know that we have a lot to offer to support each other in our communities.”
For more information visit Living Well Dying Well