Before every Death Doula training, students are invited to write a letter explaining what draws them to the course. I am touched, surprised and intrigued by the responses which help give me a sense of the group. David Phinney, a recent student wrote his letter after completing the Death Doula training. It beautifully articulates the reason he came and what he learned …. 

“This time last year I did not know what a Death Doula was. My mother-in-law Therese died in early 2019. She was as far as I am concerned my mom, I love her more than anyone. She was a tiny, fierce woman who had birthed six children at home and raised them into conscious adults. She really did not want to die. Despite having all the qualities and attributes of someone you would assume would be able to engage with their death she could not. She allowed no space for death, it was not welcome. It was clear that if we were going to support her we were not allowed to make space for it either.

 The big question “Is she going to die?” was only asked to prompt the reassurances of “No, of course not” or “We’re not there yet”.

The last 5 months were particularly brutal, hers was a rare bone cancer diagnosis that metastasized tumors throughout the muscles in her body that were excruciatingly painful. When she went into the hospital for the last time we were with her every minute of the day and got a crash course in what being an advocate in that setting looked like and how much it was needed. Therese’s life’s work was that of a birth doula and midwife assistant. Conversations around the over medicalized nature of birth, the disenfranchisement of women’s choices and the unnecessary fear of allowing our bodies to do what they innately know how to do was the common dinner discourse. Part of that conversation was the only instruction she would ever give on how to be there for her when her time came, she wanted to die at home.

After weeks in a palliative care unit we were finally able to take her home but her grip in our reality was too tenuous to hold the thread of conversation. The opportunity for honesty and a shared understanding of what was happening was gone and with that any chance of being able to grieve with her.

Her resistance, her unwillingness to allow the reality of her dying made it harder for her children to allow it and so the fact of her death in the midst of her dying could not be faced. The ship of hope was sinking with everyone on board. For me Death, in those months, became personified. Her dying to me felt like the most honest thing I had ever experienced, it was unwavering, could not be ignored or bargained with. It was.
We stumbled every step of the way. It was as if no one had ever done this before. We didn’t know our options, how long before we had to call the funeral home, how long we could have her body before it became a “crime”. The truly transformative experience for me came when her best friend and midwife partner came to say her goodbye. She asked if I would help wash, anoint and dress her body. I did not know this was a thing, couldn’t have conceived it. It was such a gift for me to be able to care for her in that way, to touch her with no pain, to reciprocate the tenderness she had had for me in that final act. It was profound for my relationship with her and my relationship to grief in a way that I did not know at the time. In the hurricane that was the whole experience I had found something sacred. It sent me on this journey.

The journey changed my life in the way that only utter catastrophe can. My relationship to death was transformed from one of fear and discomfort to something different. It, Death, became a compass that pointed towards the truth, and a lens through which I could view my own life. I came home one day to my partner playing Ram Dass and listened to him talk about service with the dying as preparation for our own death. I started looking to see how I could incorporate that into my life. A few thread pulls later and I found Sacred Crossings.

I showed up to the first day of the Death Doula workshop nervous, not knowing what to expect. I was truly out of my element. The moment it started though I knew I was in the right place. I tend to lead with a healthy skepticism, a residue of a life of making judgements about what I am and am not, what I believe and don’t believe. Olivia’s welcome and the prayer she led cut right through all of it and I spent the next four days laid bare to the experience of learning not only what it takes to be an advocate for those experiencing a death but also how to prepare the ground in myself to be able to be that presence. This was really tough for me at times, in ways that I didn’t expect. Being asked to look at your own fears around death, your attachments and unresolved relationships in the abstract can make for decent conversation, being asked to get specific, put pen to paper and write it out, to sit with someone vulnerable and really share is a whole other beast.
The course seemed designed to go deep, fast, and really make you confront all the things you would rather put off until a proverbial tomorrow. In that way it felt like Olivia had already begun the process of doulaing us through our deaths. As I write this I realize more and more that it really was parallel tracks, everything we learned about the inner work of how to lay a foundation to be able to be of service translates to the dying and everything we learned about the dying process translates to us, people who will one day die. Through all of it I could see how each exercise directly related to the experience of being able to show up open and present, to be a harbor to those confronting their deaths or the deaths of a loved one.

There were practical skills covered that take so much of the guesswork out of the process during death as it relates to the healthcare system, what people’s wishes are and how to make sure they’re honored. I learned about what the dying process looks like without letting my judgement or fear cloud what is happening, enabling me to be able to be clear in translating what that looks like. I learned what our rights are when it comes to how we die and the rituals around our deaths. Most importantly though, what I left the workshop with was a deeper understanding of myself and what it means to foster the space that gives someone permission to meet their grief and fear, joy and sadness, whatever they have to bring to the table, to allow judgement to fall away and just be present with what is. 

The capacity this work has to alleviate suffering, not only those who are dying but to their families and loved ones is immeasurable. I couldn’t have imagined five years ago standing present in the space I’m in now. It feels no accident that Therese, my first teacher, doula’d this rebirth of mine and that I’ve found myself here, training with Olivia, and learning what it means to be a Death Doula.”

If you were moved by this piece, and would like to join us for a Death Doula training, please visit our courses and trainings page at:

We look forward to meeting you and sharing this sacred journey.

With love,


Blog post and photography by Olivia Bareham.

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