GULFPORT, Fla. — Inside a small corner home in Gulfport, Paula Adams runs through her daily tasks with cancer patient Mark Woodward, 71. She is his death doula.
“We fill the gap between palliative care, hospice care and death," said Adams.
What You Need To Know
- Death doulas are people who help a person who is dying, and their family, prepare for what is coming
- Also called end-of-life doulas, they also help family members deal with the aftermath of their loved one's death
- Fore more information, visit the National End-of_life Doula Alliance website
Death doulas, or end-of-life doulas, assist people when they're faced with dying. A death doula is often there when a person dies, helps their client's family after their passing, and, most importantly, helps prepare someone for death.
In Woodward's case, Adams is also a longtime friend.
“I am the caregiver, I am the death doula, I am also the family member," she said. "And I am also the executor of the state and make all legal decisions."
Woodward's health has been declining ever since he was diagnosed with stage three throat cancer two years ago.
“It occurred to me that my number may be up," he said. "It was time to really start looking at some of these things to do.”
While his medical care comes from the VA, his death care comes from Adams — she often refers to herself as Woodward's advocate in death.
“It gives some certainly to an uncertain situation," said Woodward. "It’s a real comfort.”
Death doulas help with small, and large, details surrounding someone's death. For Woodward, Adams has helped him decide on the clothes he wants to wear when he dies, all the way to the location he wants to be when he passes.
“I have a warm spot in my heart for her," he said.
Woodward's family lives out of state, and his two sisters both said they were glad Adams was helping him.
"My intention is to make sure this person dies exactly how they want to die," said Adams. "We also do a lot of laughing. That is kind of my deal — I try to get people to relax enough and enjoy the death."
Adams said she and other death doulas don't want people to feel scared about dying — they want to empower them with comfort and the acceptance of the inevitable.
Lynn Principe has been a death doula for 15 years.
“I have a doula kit," she said, showing the different items she carries in a bag. "And really what I want to do, especially if someone is in a facility, I want it to feel not institutional."
Principe said she knows death can be scary for most people, and it can be hard to accept that it is coming.
“I think one of the things that doulas do is we initiate these difficult conversations, and the coolest thing happens," she said. "The more you talk about it, and the more you talk to your loved ones, ‘This is what I want, this is what matters to me, this is what feels unfinished,’ you actually start living a little differently."
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, experts say the want and need for death doulas increased immensely nationwide. Some states saw certifications tripling and quadrupling.
“I think it reminded us, we never know how much time we have, and how important it is to speak to your loved ones about what matters," said Principe.
Adams is now giving "Death Talks" at senior centers.
"A lot of people refer to me as a death talker, because that is what I do," she said recently to a room of about 15 people.
She spoke for an hour to the group, explaining the profession and to offer her services to anyone interested.
Adams and Principe agree that having a plan going into death can really help. A plan helps people have what they call a "good death."
"A good death to someone might be, let’s try every medical intervention there is, and to them that is a good death and I am going to support that," said Principe. "To someone else it may mean, just stop treatments, let me sit in my backyard. And to them that is going to be a good death.
"And so dying with dignity means that we are still listening."
If you want to learn more about death doula's and how to become certified, though a certification is not needed, visit the National End-of_life Doula Alliance website.