There can be huge value in having an experienced and supportive person there with you if you or someone you love is facing the end of their life or considering voluntary assisted dying. We sat down with Melbourne based death doula Nicole Grundy about her work and how she supports voluntary assisted dying in Victoria.
“Think of me as your human Google on dying and death. You can ask me any question you like, even the gritty ones,” writes Nicole on Facebook a few days before we meet. My curiosity is piqued.
Beautifully dressed in bright colours, with an infectious laugh, Nicole may not be what you expect from someone whose daily work involves death. In fact, she exudes joy.
Nicole has been working as a death doula for four years in Victoria, where voluntary assisted dying has been available since June 2019.
“The bravest of the brave are the people who are facing dying,” she tells me. “To be around them is an inspiration. They’re leading the way.”
So what exactly is a death doula?
There are lots of different words that can be used to describe the role of a death doula: an end-of-life consultant, a death walker, a death midwife, a death guide.
“The word doula means ‘to serve’”, Nicole says. “And a death doula does just that for people at the end of their lives. We enter the space with no judgement. We know the people we serve are experts in their own lives. And we might sit with you, listen to you, and hold space for you to explore death and all the feelings and needs that come with it.
“Doulas are a vessel of information. We don’t take the place of the family, or anything medical. We are a non-medical accompaniment to health care or hospice care. And we are the one constant - even after the person has died.”
When might someone want the support of a death doula?
There are many reasons you might visit a death doula, Nicole tells me. Perhaps nobody else wants to talk frankly about the end of life with you, or you’re worried about upsetting loved ones. Or maybe you have some anxieties and would appreciate support in planning ahead and working out what you want.
“Think of us as a resource,” says Nicole. “If you don’t know what to ask, you may work out what you want to know through gentle, compassionate conversations.”
“I’ve had some lovely exchanges with the beautiful now-deceased where they’ve told me: ‘I want a funeral like this. I want John to speak. Let’s choose the jacket I’m going to wear.’”
How do people respond to your job?
“When I first started talking about death doulas to people, their eyes would be like dinner plates. But there’s been a shift - perhaps prompted by the pandemic - to being more open in our attitude to death and wanting to talk about it,” Nicole says.
“When the majority of us followed a religion, we may have found comfort and counsel in those traditions. Nowadays, Australia is a largely secular country so many of my clients are looking elsewhere for ceremony and symbolism. It’s part of my job to help that person find what’s right for them and gives them meaning - faith-based, spiritual or otherwise.”
Have you had much experience with VAD yet?
“My own father accessed Victoria’s voluntary assisted dying law on 8 April 2021,” says Nicole.
“And that experience has prompted me to set up an After VAD Support Group with Dying with Dignity Victoria. I know better than most that it can be an isolating time, and especially so with VAD because it’s new and not so many people have that experience. You can feel on your own.
“While still in its infancy, it provides a warm pair of ears and a place to feel safe talking about VAD with others who have experienced it too. It’s not grief counselling, but more a peer support group. We’ve had many people come to speak to us, so we know it’s needed and appreciated.”
How can I find a death doula?
You can find out more about Nicole Grundy’s work here: https://www.facebook.com/EOLDoulaNicoleGrundy/
You can connect with death doulas in your state here: https://www.endoflifedouladirectory.com.au/