Doulas, who usually help with childbirth, are now assisting with death


A story by Bruce Horovitz of Kaiser Health News tells of the new service doulas are providing.


As Ellen Gutenstein lay in her bed at home, dying from lung cancer that had metastasized in her brain, a heart-wrenching Mother’s Day card arrived from her granddaughter. Neither Ellen’s daughter — nor her husband — felt they could read it to her without breaking down.

Fortunately, a volunteer from the local hospice’s doula program was on hand to help the then-77-year-old resident of Ridgewood, N.J., comfortably die at home. She picked up the letter and read it with compassion.

“I’m not sure I could have done that,” said Lisa Silvershein, the daughter who helped arrange a more comfortable end-of-life experience for her mom in 2014. “The doula not only made my mom’s life easier — she made our lives easier, too.”

Doulas, an ancient Greek term that loosely means a woman helping another woman, have long comforted women during birthing. But the definition has broadened, and doula programs — a combination of male and female volunteers and paid certified staff — are increasingly helping elderly patients fulfill wishes to die at home rather than in hospitals or nursing homes.

End-of-life doula specialists are now in at least a half-dozen states, including New York, Colorado and Texas, said Henry Fersko-Weiss, executive director of the International End of Life Doula Association, which he co-founded in 2015.

A social worker with hospice experience, he first came across the idea 15 years ago, when a birth doula told him that she was also offering comfort to the dying.

“I thought to myself: Oh my God, this is exactly what we should be doing at end of life,” said Fersko-Weiss, who has since authored a book, Caring for the Dying: The Doula Approach to a Meaningful Death.

In 2003, he set up what he says was the nation’s first end-of-life doula company to train people to care for the dying. Fersko-Weiss helped create the doula program at Valley Home Care in Paramus, N.J., which assisted the Gutenstein family.

The doula association trains and certifies professional end-of-life doulas. Certification requires 22 hours of classes that cost about $600 for those who hope to make a career of it. Volunteer doulas complete 18 hours of training, with costs typically paid by a sponsoring hospital or hospice.


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