A Death Doula’s Advice for Support During End-of-Life Care|

Death doulas or end-of-life doulas, if you’re not familiar, are trained professionals who help people who are dying and their loved ones. These doulas provide emotional and practical support such as sitting vigil, helping plan funeral and memorial services, communicating with the medical support team, and assisting families with processing grief. Ensuring the person nearing the end of their life is comfortable is another big element of the job. While every death and situation is different, there are many practices and rituals that death doulas do—and teach and encourage the person’s loved ones to do—to bring comfort to the dying. 

Below, Ashley Johnson, the founder of Loyal Hands, a team of millennial death doulas, shares five rituals, including the top way most people prefer to be comforted at the end of their life. Interestingly, many of these practices are universally comforting, even for those who are not actively dying, and can be incorporated now to help cultivate comfort in your everyday life. 

Create a comforting ambiance

Setting the mood and creating a comfortable ambiance is important. Many people prefer to die at home, Johnson says, but wherever they may be, there are things you can do to make the environment as comfortable, familiar, and soothing as possible for them. To do this, she suggests asking the person what their ideal last day would consist of. Some ideas she recommends include playing their favorite music, having soft lighting, filling the room with soothing scents, and having their pets around. 

Rub their feet or hands

Rubbing a person’s hands and feet can also provide comfort. “The last senses to go are usually touch, followed by hearing,” Johnson says. “Gently rubbing hands and feet will help the family and the dying process the labor of death. The comfort of massage helps relax tense moments. That sense of touch reminds the dying that they are loved and not alone.” 

Sit vigil

Sitting vigil with someone nearing the end of their life also provides great comfort. Johnson says this involves sitting bedside with them, actively listening, and ensuring they are as comfortable as possible during their final hours. Sitting vigil also includes relaying any sign of pain to the hospice team. 

Perform deathbed rituals

Deathbed rituals are a way to honor the dying person and their loved ones, Johnson says. Rituals can be done before, during, or after death and can be religious, cultural, or simply personal things the person finds comforting. For instance, Johnson recalls one client requesting that his family wash his body with warm water and lavender. 

Shift their perspective on death

Death doulas also support the dying and their loved ones to adopt a death-positive mindset. They do this by having conversations about death, dying, and grief and encouraging them to view death as a normal part of life that everyone experiences. That can help reduce fears and anxiety around death. 

Share and preserve memories

Another way death doulas help grieving families is by encouraging them to share memories and stories about their loved one. “This can help provide the family with a sense of purpose and also help significantly with coping and healing,” she says. You can get as creative as you’d like with this. Some ideas Johnson shares include capturing voice memos and videos, creating a family cookbook, planting trees in their honor, stitching a memory blanket together, donating to a charity they support, and keeping trinkets and mementos around that remind you of them. 

Help get their affairs in order

According to Johnson, the top thing that makes people nearing the end of their life feel the most comforted is ensuring that their affairs are in order before they pass. Not only will this cause less stress to their loved ones, it also helps them achieve a sense of completion and peace before they pass. 

“While legal documents are important, complete end-of-life care also includes helping the dying person spiritually, mentally, and emotionally in alignment as well,” Johnson says. “People ideally would like to transition with a sense of completion, a sense of satisfying their purpose here [in] this realm.” Examples of things that can provide that sense of fulfillment include extending forgiveness or requesting forgiveness from others, releasing things beyond their control, and addressing any fears or concerns around death.