What Is A Death Doula, And Can They Help Children Cope With Death?

Children experience death as much as their parents, but are not equipped with the same coping skills. A death doula helps adults cope, so why not children? Find out here!

by Lori Gurtman | Follow her on Twitter @lorigurtman.

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Recently, my community faced an unspeakable tragedy: the death of a seventeen-year-old boy, and for the sake of his family’s privacy, I’ll refer to him as Charlie. 

It was a freak accident, a case of bad luck or bad timing. 

On a quiet summer afternoon, Charlie and his friend were swinging and laughing on a hammock that, unbeknownst to them, was tied on one side to a dead tree. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the tree fell directly on Charlie, killing him. Somehow, his friend managed to jump off the hammock in the nick of time and then rushed over to Charlie to give him CPR in a desperate attempt to save him. 

The scar on Charlie’s friend is deep and riddled with guilt, even though it wasn’t his fault, and he did what was needed considering the circumstances.

The news of Charlie’s death spread fast. His passing sent shock waves to his friends, teammates from football and lacrosse, classmates, and, worst of all, to his family. He was an athletic, intelligent, bright young man who shined his beautiful, light-filled smile on everyone he knew. Charlie left behind two younger sisters and parents who adored him. 

In the aftermath, the community went numb. The football season had already begun, and the first day of Charlie’s senior year of high school was less than a week away. 

How does life go on as usual when something so devastating occurs? It doesn’t. How do Charlie’s friends and teammates move forward? Slowly. And what about Charlie’s family? How do his sisters go back to school? Eventually, they move forward. It takes time. It takes immense healing. 

The school immediately called in a death doula, who also serves as a grief counselor, to help Charlie’s peers and family cope with their heartache.

So, What is A Death Doula?

Death Doulas are non-medical professionals who assist in all stages of death. Some of their duties include helping the dying with a peaceful transition, planning and preparing for end-of-life ceremonies, and working with loved ones left behind to deal with their excruciating loss.

In Charlie’s case, since his passing was so unexpected, the role of the death doula is to provide comfort, support, and connection to family members and friends dealing with heavy emotions. The fear, the anger, and the sadness are part of the mourning process—and the doula helps the suffering by encouraging them to lean into their pain rather than trying to fight it or resist it. 

How A Death Doula Can Help Children Cope With Death

For most, death is a scary subject, waking us up to our mortality. But, we’re all going to experience it at some point—it’s just a matter of when. 

To lose a child, especially from a freak accident, is devastating. The death doula offers ways to make sense of something that makes no sense at all. They provide tools, support, knowledge, and a spiritual perspective on processing grief.

Upon hearing the news of Charlie’s passing, his teammates and friends congregated in a safe, quiet space. Watching their twisted faces, tear-stained cheeks, and muffled crying made me feel like my heart was getting stomped on. Parents and teachers gathered around, hugging and consoling the boys with our presence, not our words––simply because we didn’t have any.

And then, the death doula showed up. She spoke to the teenagers in a soothing tone and told them to release and express their emotions in whatever way felt natural. She offered to meet with them one-on-one or in group settings, emphasizing the importance of sharing their feelings. These boys were drowning in their sadness and had nothing to say at that moment. 

The death doula will make themselves available to families as well, even when people are frozen in their suffering and not ready to talk. In this case, for the next few weeks and months, the doula remained a present force––a neutral, loving person whose role is to listen, nurture, share kindness, and care for the hurting. 

The Takeaway

Eventually, family and friends will heal—a long journey, perhaps, but their smiles and hope will one day return. Humans are resilient—and it’s times like these when we’re reminded of life’s fragility and that love, connection, and compassion are most important. 

Following the horrific incident, I’ve stopped caring about the usual annoyances: my son not putting his clothes in the hamper or the pile of cups piling up on his nightstand. Today, that doesn’t matter. Today, what matters most is that I’m here for him; I can talk to him and hug him. 

Charlie’s parents and siblings have lost the physical presence of their son and brother. But I believe he’ll always be there for them—in their hearts, thoughts, rainbows, sunshine, and all of nature’s miraculous wonders. Love doesn’t end when our bodies do. Love is eternal and is felt even after we crossover. 

So, does a death doula help? You bet. They will hold the hand of the grieving, lift some of the heavy, debilitating pain, and guide the mourning toward the path of light––that exists in the here and now––on this Earth. 

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