Interpreting the death doula role:
How one woman is bringing conversations of death into birth
Siobhan Asgharzadeh drove to Louisville as she spoke. She was headed to meet a client, an elderly woman dying from kidney failure. As a death doula, Asgharzadeh offers companionship to clients facing the unknown.
“Every doula is different,” said Asgharzadeh. “It’s someone that is able to meet you in the journey that you are on, in a way that is supportive and possibly transformational.”
Doulas come in all forms, from birth to death. They act as advocates for clients and families as they face life transitions, offering emotional support in ways many hospitals cannot.
Growing up in a small town surrounded by desert in New Mexico, Asgharzadeh did not think she would end up becoming a doula in her future. Not ready to get her master’s after receiving a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Spanish, she decided to attend the New Mexico School of Natural Therapeutics to study massage therapy. She did not expect to pursue it as a career, but she loving it and got a job soon after finishing school. She’s now been a certified massage therapist for 15 years.
Asgharzadeh has learned to expect the unexpected. Her best friend was 33 years old and pregnant when she died from a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in her lungs, in November of 2014. Soon after, Asgharzadeh discovered that she had multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease.
It was a period of hardship which lasted about three years. Asgharzadeh said that while modern culture makes it seem that life is better when it is easier, these difficult periods can be beneficial.
“...Many people don’t see the value in hardship and the beauty in hardship,” said Asgharzadeh. “It’s been a really incredible teacher for me.”
Hardship, Asgharzadeh said, can be like a “dark, wet underworld.” And yet, when it is explored, there is beauty and possibility within it. The issue is that modern culture often avoids hardships, such as death. An example of this, she said, is when medical workers ask mothers formal, medical questions during the process of giving birth.
“It interferes with that natural process of labor,” said Asgharzadeh. “That kind of medical behavior comes from a fear of death.. and a fear of being sued.”
Medical workers are not the only ones who act out of a fear of death. Asgharzadeh began working as a birth doula in 2012 due to being “inspired by the transformational potential that lives in the birthing realm.”
While working as a birth doula, she realized that even birth doulas struggled with death, often not addressing the possibility that a mother or child could die during pregnancy or labor.
“A lot of doulas, birth doulas, don’t understand or don’t have, I would say, healthy relationships with death,” said Asgharzadeh. “We’re missing a huge opportunity there for growing ourselves as humans.”
Asgharzadeh has always been interested in exploring what is often avoided. Given this interest and the death of her best friend, Asgharzadeh decided to begin training as a death doula at the Conscious Dying Institute in Boulder after moving to Colorado almost four year ago. Today, Asgharzadeh works as a “passage guide” in Boulder, offering a variety of services including being a birth and death doula.
Death doulas often use their trainings in different ways. For Asgharzadeh, she not only helps patients and the families of patients as they prepare for the end of their life, but also families coping with the loss of an infant through miscarriage or stillbirth. While these processes are difficult, Asgharzadeh said she can also see beauty in the rituals that tend to the spirit of both the lost child and those impacted by the loss.
Asgharzadeh worked for a family two to three years ago that experienced a miscarriage three months into the pregnancy. Asgharzadeh helped the family honor both the hormonal and spiritual death, and offered services like massages and cooking for the mother. Just recently, she heard the family still honors that child.
“It’s actually a part of who they became as humans,” said Asgharzadeh.
Similar to Asgharzadeh, Bridget McFarthing also used her grief as a motivator to help others. McFarthing was only forty years old when her husband died unexpectedly, experiencing painful grief. Now, she is a certified end of life doula, through the International End of Life Doula Association, in Boulder that is helping others learn to embrace death rather than run from it.
“I wanted people to have a better experience than I had,” said McFarthing. “If you have a death doula, you have an advocate, you have a caregiver, you have someone you can telling anything to…”.
One of McFarthing’s patients was an elderly man whose children had moved him from Louisiana into assisted living in Boulder after his wife died. Suffering from Parkinson’s disease, although the man was not dying, his health was declining and his personality was flattened.
Hospice care contacted McFarthing and told her that her services were requested by him. McFarthing then met with the man once a week for the next three to four months, offering companionship that sparked his interest in life again and made the children feel like they had their father back.
“He realized he had a purpose in life,” said McFarthing. “His spirit rose up.”
However, not all of those who go through death doula training do so in hopes of being a professional death doula. Brigitte Mars, a medical herbalist who teaches at Naropa University, did the training through the Conscious Dying Institute because as she ages, she knew it would be helpful for both herself and those around her.
“It’s inevitable,” said Mars, referring to death. “So we might as well learn what we can to make the transition easier.”
Mars has not feared death ever since surviving a plane crash when she was 22 years old. Now, she hopes to make death a calm process by focusing on creating the environment the patient wants at the time of their death.
“It’s a very challenging time… [but] a death doula helps to bring more peace to the environment,” said Mars.
While death doulas vary in how they apply their practice, each helps remind people that they are not alone. Doing so not only benefits the patients, but the doulas themselves.
“I feel like from every client I learn so much about myself. And also in the ways that they choose to create and carve out their journey, I feel inspired…” said Asgharzadeh. “It’s this dance that we do together.”