February 2023
Support for the Transition
A death doula can help make it a healing experience

I wrote last month about Arizona Community Deathcare and the pioneering work they are doing in our community in educating people about the available options for the process of caring for and being present for the terminally ill at home, and how to plan to have a loved one’s body at home for a vigil and home funeral. This really is pioneering work in that few people realize how meaningful experiencing this life transition at home can be for the grieving and healing process, or even what level of agency we have when preparing our loved ones for burial or cremation.

Before modern embalming became the norm, we washed the body, laid it out in a front room and held a proper wake, with food, drink and stories. Now the body disappears swiftly after death, and we don’t get that opportunity to prepare and sit with the body through a more relaxed transition.

Death doula Michelle Souza of AZCD

Michelle Souza is a trained death doula. People reach out through AZCD to engage her services, and she spends regular time with a terminally ill individual and their loved ones, helping them with whatever they need in their transition. Hospice volunteers are of course also available to help in similar ways, but there are certain time constraints and regulations setting these two forms of help apart. A hospice volunteer works for the hospice provider, while the death doula is engaged by the family or loved ones to provide support and help curate the death experience that they want.

Death doulas see a need and try to fill it. They can help with a legacy project, like a scrapbook or recording, or help the client make calls or write letters to loved ones. Michelle sees her work as making wishes come true, often focusing on a bucket list.

Some doulas prefer to focus energy on the things they are more comfortable with, so some will be happy to help organize paperwork where others may not. A doula can help de-clutter the house, create an altar, or help a client make amends. The job is to customize the transition.

Beyond her death-doula work, with Otis Nafpliotis Michelle co-facilitates the Death Cafe, which meets monthly at Peregrine Book Co. This group is one of many around the world (thousands in the US alone) that gather to discuss grief and death together. It is not an actual grief-support group, but provides a safe space to share and listen to stories and experiences of death and dying.

The Death Cafe is an open discussion, with no agenda, goal or theme. Conversation can move in surprising directions, interspersed with humor and candor, always permeated with warmth and acceptance. People can bring up issues like how to get a relative to acknowledge that they won’t live forever, to maybe start thinking about what kind of service or sendoff they want. Other topics might be how to talk about death with children, or how to include them in being present for a dying loved one.

Michelle told the story of a couple who shortly after retiring to Prescott learned that the husband had terminal cancer. They found and began attending the Death Cafe, connected with others there, and by the time he died it was the friends they made at the Death Cafe who helped out so the wife could have the experience she wanted.

Arizona Community Deathcare provides meaningful services in our community by helping people address death and dying on their own terms. The group is holding a six-month symposium called Death Care for a Strong Community, with monthly presentations beginning in January on six topics:

Community Death Care and Home Funerals

Hospice and Palliative Care

What is a Death Doula?

Green Burial Options

Advanced Directives

Grief and Community

Sessions cost $25, and the meetings will be held in the Elks Performing Arts Center. You can register for the symposium or find more information about death-doula work and the Death Cafe at azcommunitydeathcare.org.

Abby Brill is Associate Editor of 5enses.

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