Wellness

A Death Doula’s Advice on Embracing the End

A Death Doula’s Advice on Embracing the End

Doulas provide a service of companionship through difficult transitions of life: They’re typically guardians to new mothers, but some focus their care on our journey through death and dying. Death comes with profound tolls—emotional, of course, but also financial and physical—that further drain family members as they move through the grieving process. And while no one is capable of stopping the inevitable, death doulas provide the hope that we can all greet death with a greater degree of security and acceptance.

Los Angeles–based death doula Jill Schock had her life all planned out when her fiancé’s father died unexpectedly. “The clumsy work of the medical team, the lack of support in the hospital, and the high emotions of the family created an atmosphere of chaos, and it ultimately ripped people apart,” she recalls. After separating from her fiancé, she continued to revisit the turmoil of that death and continued to ask herself: Why didn’t anyone help?

In her search for answers, Schock went on to receive a master’s degree in ethics and theology from Vanderbilt University and became a multifaith clinical chaplain (spiritual counselor). For over a decade, she worked at hospitals, including Vanderbilt University Medical Center and various hospices across California, as a professional end-of-life practitioner to provide physical and emotional support to patients facing the end of their lives. Hoping to build greater intimacy with grieving families, she has since started a private practice as a death doula in Los Angeles in 2016.

A Q&A with Jill Schock

Q
What does a death doula do?
A

My work is multifaceted: My clients range from younger, healthy people who are simply looking to do their end-of-life planning early on to people who have terminal cancer and are looking to use medical aid in dying, which is currently legal in California and seven other states. I help with end-of-life planning, patient advocacy, navigating medical aid in dying, patient and family counseling, home funerals, living funerals, and family bereavement support.


Q
When is the right time to call a death doula?
A

Any time. I think the more information you can get about death, dying, and health care choices ahead of time, the better. Most people who need my services call when they find themselves mid crisis. I get a lot of cancer patients who just heard the doctor say, “There’s nothing more we can do.” I work with clients who are looking to use medical aid in dying, and people who need help with their elderly parents. I also see a lot of families who are dealing with Alzheimer’s or dementia. I help people lay out their options, we make a plan, and we go from there. My hope is that as more people find out that professionals who specialize in end-of-life care are available, planning will become more common and more crises can be avoided.


Q
How has your outlook on dying changed as a result of the work you do?
A

I have a very honest perspective about death. I will die; everyone I love will die; my dog will die. That doesn’t mean I’m numb; in fact, it humbles me daily and motivates me to live a life that makes me truly happy. I also always keep in mind how painful grief is, not only for the dying but also for those around them. For those of you who have experienced the deep sadness of grief, you know it can be all-consuming. My work is focused on making things easier for my clients while they are going through this painful time.


Q
How has the Western approach to death changed over the years? How does it need to evolve?
A

Death is still a taboo, but hospice care has helped ease the stigma and fear surrounding death as we continue to see and experience death at home as normal again. The rising popularity of dying at home has brought a significance back to death that American people are hungry for! We want our death to be personal and meaningful, so it’s no surprise that more people are choosing personalized death-care services such as death doulas.


Q
How do we make death part of the conversation we have when we’re alive?
A

Ask yourself, “Who do I love the most?” Think about what it will feel like when you lose them. What if you lost them today—would you be happy with your last interaction? What should you be doing to show the people you love how important they are to you? Now turn these questions to yourself. What if you got a terminal diagnosis this week or got in a car accident on the way to work? Did you take that dream vacation? Did you get the chance to love and be loved in return? Once we start asking ourselves these questions, we begin to think more critically about death and start living our authentic life.


Q
What is a living funeral? And why do you encourage your clients to have one?
A

My practice offers a service called a “living funeral.” Which means my clients actually attend their own funeral. I started offering these after I witnessed one a family had put together themselves. My client was very aware he wasn’t going to have as much energy as his condition declined, but he had a lot of people he wanted to say goodbye to. It was his idea to get all his loved ones together at a local park and have a good old-fashioned BBQ. They had a photographer, a place for people to write messages, and all my client’s favorite food. Later in the evening, they all sat down and one by one told this dying man what he meant to them, and he got the chance to do the same. Not a dry eye in the house. I tear up, even now, thinking about the first time I was able to witness this sacred moment. He died a month later, and his body was donated to science. Because of his idea to have this living funeral, his friends, his family, and my client himself were all at peace. Everyone had solid closure.

I encourage living funerals because they reverse the model of grief Americans are used to. The norm is to wait until after the person dies to say goodbye, put them in an expensive box, and cry as the person is lowered into the ground. But why? Why aren’t we taking advantage of the precious time we have with our loved ones before they die? People who take part in living funerals grieve before the death, they get closure and then accept the death. No regrets, nothing left unsaid, and many people are surprised that they have fun while they do it. Sharing stories, laughing, hugging, eating, drinking—this is not your doom and gloom church service kind of funeral.


Q
Does your work as a death doula conflict with religious beliefs?
A

No, and it shouldn’t. Even though I grew up in a church, my beliefs moved into a different space of spirituality, openness, and constantly seeking the “more” that is out there. My clients come from all kinds of spiritual and religious backgrounds—some of them are atheist—but that never hinders the work that I do. It is fair to mention that burial practices of religious beliefs will come into play during end-of-life planning. Those coming from a Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist background practice different forms of green burial. Catholics require embalming. I am aware of these traditions and work with whatever my client and their family choose.


Q
Is there such a thing as a good death? If so, what does it look like?
A

Everyone wants a good death, and it’s certainly possible. We may not know when or how we are going to die, and so wishing for a good death is not productive. What you can do is be prepared. Talk to your friends and family about what you’d like done if something were to happen to you, what kind of medical support is important to you. What about what you’d like done with your body after you die? Think about the people you love and how you are nurturing your relationships. Make decisions that contribute to your overall happiness in life. Really THINK about your death and let that enhance your life so that you can live it with meaning and purpose. And if you can do that, you can be sure that when your time comes, you can accept it and let go.

That is a good death.


Jill Schock received a master’s degree in ethics and theology from Vanderbilt University and was trained and certified as a clinical chaplain (spiritual counselor). She is a spiritual multifaith minister who specifically tends to those facing the end of life.

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