Families often call on a midwife or doula to guide them through the process of bringing a new life into the world. Now, increasingly, they are reaching out to a similar guide to help them navigate the process of dying. End of life doulas provide emotional and logistical support for people with a terminal illness and their families.
Valoria Walker lives in Columbia, Maryland and has been working in the end-of-life care field since 2015. She is in training with the International End of Life Doula Association. Doula training requires classes along with hands on work and takes about a year to complete. INELDA has trained about 900 end-of-life doulas in the United States since 2015.
MemoryWell spoke with her to learn more about this small but growing field. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
MemoryWell: How did you decide to become an end-of-life doula?
Walker: In 2011 when my mother died, we had conversations like, “Mom, where do you want to be buried?” We made funeral plans but never had conversations about the phases right before death. When my mom’s health rapidly declined, we placed her on hospice, which “provides comfort and care.” But one question we didn’t ask was, “what does comfort look like?”
My mother was given medications that we didn’t know about and that put her to sleep before she died, not knowing if that’s what she would have wanted. I knew then that I didn’t want another family to go through what I went through with my mom
MemoryWell: What gaps do doulas fill in current end-of-life care?
Walker: Hospice nurses are busy with managing medications, make sure patients are eating, are cleaned, and they also have to document everything. There isn’t time to sit and hold someone’s hand or to ask them about their day.
Doulas can take the time to just sit with someone or help talk about the with difficult conversations, such as, like “What burden do I place on my family or my spouse?” Doula work can also happen before a medical crisis. It’s important to have conversations like this before a medical crisis because often people need time to process and accept if “there’s nothing left to do.”
MemoryWell: What are some other ways you are able to help families?
Walker: A doula can change a person’s whole demeanor. People have told me, “You’re the only one who can get her to talk. When you come, the whole atmosphere changes.”
One lady I worked with lived in an assisted living home. At one point she said to me, “I want to tell you what I want to wear when I die.” We walked through her outfit down to the hat and gloves. Afterward, I told her son about that conversation, and he said, “Thank you so much, If I hadn’t known this I would have dressed her in something else, but it wouldn’t have been what she wanted. Now she will be buried according to her wishes.”
MemoryWell: Do you think doula work is stigmatized?
Walker: I do think doula work is stigmatized because people see mystery and they are scared of what?they don’t understand. If we can make the environment peaceful instead of chaotic, we can start to take away the stress from the situation. The more we have these conversations around end-of-life and death, the more we take away the fear of the unknown.
This story has been updated.