Striving to help families live presently and die peacefully.
By Anna Gelbman Edmonds
Death is an unpleasant topic. So, it’s understandable when people look surprised or flinch a little when Heather Leigh introduces herself as a death doula. It’s likely that images of ghosts and the grim reaper enter their minds. But she’s not a ghoul.
A doula is someone trained to provide continuous emotional and informational support. Most of us are familiar with birthing doulas, who assist women through the birth experience. Well, Leigh handles things on the other end of the life spectrum.
A death doula serves dying individuals on a number of levels. These can be terminally ill patients or the elderly. Foremost is creating a safe environment for a healthy conversation about death and dying to take place. This includes discussions on subject such as setting up a power of attorney, making sure a will is in place, deciding on burial or cremation, funeral and/or memorial arrangements, clarifying wishes regarding organ donation and do-not-resuscitate (DNR) orders, and even what to inscribe on the gravestone or where to retain ashes.
“Talking about death and dying takes time. A conversation should begin when the dying individual is healthy enough and of sound mind to consider and reflect on the issues. Too often, these conversations occur too late, and decisions are made in haste, often at great expense and amid emotional upheaval among family members,” said Leigh.
In many cases, Leigh works in tandem with hospice service, helping individuals understand the importance of completing important legal documents and guiding them through the process of dying. Leigh helps communicate the end-of-life plan with the family and create a sacred space where the decisions about the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual process can be carried out.
“Over the years, I have witnessed senseless suffering and watched families implode when there is no plan in place and the dying individual’s wishes are not known. We are all going to die eventually. A healthy conversation on the topic of death could mean the difference between the living carrying regret for the rest of their life or creating a meaningful end-of-life process that celebrates a life well lived,” said Leigh.
Leigh has worked in the death care community since 1986, serving as a cemeterian, grief counselor, educator, and doula. To learn more about her services, visit healingwithheather.com.