The Rise Of The Death Doula: ‘The End of Someone’s Life is a Beautiful and Sacred Space’

August 8 marks Dying To Know Day, a campaign to help people plan their end-of-life care, whatever shape that journey might come in. End-of-life doula Treza Gallogly talks to Capsule about the personal loss that shaped her path to becoming a death doula and the sacred space that comes with witnessing someone’s final moments.

When it comes to telling people that she works as an end-of-life doula, Treza Gallogly says that she has to pick her moments. At a party, she laughs, she might not want to bring it up immediately. But when she does tell people about her work as a death doula, there is almost always a common response.

“I would say that 99% of people will tell me about an experience they had with a loved one,” she says. “Everybody’s got a story to tell but people are never given permission in our society to tell it, because we don’t talk about death.”

The word ‘doula’ is Greek, meaning ‘person of service’. It’s a word that, if you’ve heard of it, you probably associate with the start of life, rather than the end. The rise of the birth doula as a support person to the birthing parent grew in popularity around the 1970s, as part of the home-birth movement. Death doulas play a similar role, in a way, in terms of being the advocate for the main person and the go-between for the family, the available services and what needs to happen – emotionally, spiritually, logistically.

“Everybody’s got a story to tell but people are never given permission in our society to tell it, because we don’t talk about death.”

But unlike birth, where there are prep classes and endless books, the process of dying is still treated through a veil of mystery and, often, fear. You may not ever give birth, but you are guaranteed to die. The work of doulas like Treza is therefore to bridge the gap between what the person wants, what the family needs and what is available to them.

Treza’s own story came after a career that saw her start out as a nurse – working in paediatrics – before changing direction to work in production television advertisements, setting up a business in Aotearoa to help overseas crews shoot here. But then Covid-19 arrived and put a pause on that. Following that, in 2021, her good friend was diagnosed with cancer for the second time. Staring down a terminal diagnosis without children or a partner, Treza’s friend was frightened of being alone during the process.

“It was my natural instinct to stand alongside her for the last three months of her life, and I spent eight days in hospice with her at the end,” Treza says. “I know it sounds weird to say, but it was absolutely amazing and profound to be around that experience. I felt very privileged to be her advocate, to be with her when she died.”

Ever since then, Treza feels like her friend’s spirit has been guiding her into taking the doula path. And while it is still an emerging role, both in Aotearoa and around the Western world, Treza says it’s actually a return to how communities used to handle death.

“What we’re doing as doulas is not rocket science, and it’s not new,” she says. “For centuries, people minded their sick and their dying at home.”

“It’s a beautiful way to look after people at the end of their life, if you can manage it,” she says. “Death is not a medical event – it’s a personal, family and community event. Sometimes you need medicine to ease pain and ease problems, absolutely, but often we don’t.”

“Death is not a medical event – it’s a personal, family and community event.”

Treza believes one of the reasons that dying is treated like the great unknown is because we literally aren’t around it as much as we used to be – where it used to happen in the home, it now happens off-site for many families. This separation can not only lead to a denial that it’s coming for all of us, one day, it can also lead to discomfort around grief – not allowing those who are grieving their loved ones the space and time they need to process.

“We need to bring those conversations back into the community,” Treza says, citing the rise of ‘death cafes’ around the world, where people gather to talk about their grief. There’s also ‘Dying to Know’ day every August 8, to help encourage people to be self-advocates for educating themselves, and their families, about their end-of-life wishes.

Part of Treza’s role as a doula is to educate people on advanced care planning – what their options are when it comes to what they want their dying to be like. “I’ve had 90-year-olds come up to me and say, ‘I loved your talk; my family won’t let me talk about death and what my options are,’” she says. “When it can be such an empowering process for the person – and such a gift for their family, to know what steps to take afterwards, at a time when they’re in shock and grieving.”

On her website Swan Song, Treza talks about the three areas a death doula can help in and alongside advanced care planning, there’s also diagnosis support and after death care. “Communication and co-ordination” are big parts of it, she says, helping people and their families work with services like hospice.

But the most important part of the job, she says, is “holding space” for the dying person and what they want. “Just being there, being the quiet listener, being their advocate,” she says. “Encouraging them to make their own decisions and what they need to consider.”

And it’s about removing the element of fear. “Being there at the end of someone’s life is a beautiful and sacred space to be in. It’s not scary; it’s about honouring that person as they leave this life.”

Visit here for more information on Dying To Know Day

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