Doulas provide support for the dying

Who do you want with you when you die? The doula helping with end-of-life

Around the States
End-of-life doula Helen Callanan

End-of-life doula Helen Callanan


Helen helps people transition from life to death. She explains what it means to be a death doula.


FROM the moment we are born there is only one certainty in life - that we will die. 

Many of us won't be able to control our end, it will come swiftly and unexpectedly, but for others death will come at the natural end of a long life or as a result of a life-limiting illness.

But who do we want with us when we die? Where would we like to be? How do we want to be supported? How will our family handle our passing? And are our affairs in order?

Many readers will have heard about birth doulas. The term has come up quite recently in relation to Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex who has reportedly employed one to support her through her pregnancy.

Less well known but becoming an increasingly popular service is that of the professional end-of-life doula or death doula - a non medical support person who can offer options, guidance and education on what is for many, a confronting issue.

The term doula comes from the Greek and means "woman/person of service" and many cultures have a long tradition of a person dying at home supported by family, friends and their community.

In the western world, however, we've moved away from this model to an increasing medicalisation of death, in hospitals and nursing homes.

Helen Callanan of Preparing the Way is an Australian end-of-life doula and also trains others in the skills needed to navigate this very sensitive time in someone's life. 

While the concept of the end of life doula is well established in Europe and the USA it's only just emerging in Australia, said Helen.

"Our role is a strictly non medical one. We work across the entire end of life spectrum. Some of my clients don't even have a diagnosis but they want help to get thing organised for when their time comes."

Helen explained that there were several different aspects to her role and different clients wanted some or all of her services.

A end-of-life doula might help a person get their legal affairs in order, or help them decide on options for their funeral.

"It's amazing the options that are out there for people to chose that they often don't know about," said Helen.

A client might want help with choosing where they would like to die and how they will be supported or they might want the doula to provide advocacy help with the medical/hospital world. 

The dying person or their family might want support as the end draws near and the doula will help maintain an intimate spiritual and peaceful space for everyone involved whether in the home, hospice or residential facility. 

And finally, if the family wishes, a doula can help with the death vigil.

"I see it over and over again the difference it makes for a family to know there's someone there supporting them. To have someone who understands what is going on.

"And sometimes it's not about doing, it just about being there," she said.

Helen presents end-of-life doula training at the Australian Doula College in Edgecliffe NSW.

Her students range from dementia and palliative care nurses, those wanting to become a professional doula or family and friends of someone who is dying and they are wanting to understand how they can better help them.

There are only about 40 end-of-life doulas in Australia registered with the Australian Doula College but there are others working in the community who haven't trained through the college.