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Can ‘Death Doulas’ Shield You From Bullying Around Funerals?

Professionals can be ‘pro-active bystanders’ as you prepare last rites

DOULA: doo-luh; do͞olə; duːlə
A woman who serves.

This word, which comes down to us from the ancient Greek, now refers to a professional who is trained to support the physical, emotional, and informational needs of a (new) mother—before and throughout the birth, as well as just after, in the postpartum period that follows.

A doula assists in the transition from vulnerable state to a stable state. S/he monitors the situation, providing continuous information, encouragement, and practical advice to her client. Laura Saba trains these professionals, and she is now at the forefront of a movement to provide this kind of support at the time of death—training, coaching, and certifying mourning and death doulas.

These individuals assist the dying before and throughout their transition, and support family and friends before, during, and just after, as they pull together funeral and burial rites. They provide continuous information, encouragement, and practical advice during a period of great vulnerability—throughout the process of negotiating death.

No small part of this training, it seems, involves coaching trainees to become pro-active bystanders. Death doulas learn to work with the client to ascertain key stressors and points of vulnerability, and can preemptively troubleshoot potential bullying situations. (These range from the oft-caricatured financial pressuring by the funerary establishment to dissent between family members over burial and ritual choices to overly “helpful” neighbors and friends).

I had a chance to catch up with Laura Saba, and explore how death and mourning doulas can help negotiate pressure from third parties, conflicts, and even active disrespect that can emerge around loss and/or funerary rites. Here’s some of what we talked about

Me: Can you tell me a little bit about how you prepare mourning and death doulas to work with people when it comes to the funeral?

Laura Saba: While I can’t speak for all death doulas, my method is built around a coaching model that relies on Socratic questioning. Our aim is to help curate best-fit solutions by teasing out our client’s priorities and understanding their circumstances. This process is designed to help them discern what matters most to them, where there may be points of friction, if not conflict--especially with other family members --and how to set their priorities in motion. (This is not unlike birth doulas, who determine the relative importance of a client’s various options then work to support these choices.)

Me: So you train mourning and death doulas to be both advocate and assistant, helping navigate a host of practical and emotional logistics as folks begin to negotiate their loss?

Laura Saba: Navigating the logistics of death can feel beyond overwhelming to even the most rational, educated, well-intended of individuals. A death and mourning doula is an ally by your side, someone whose been there as you (rather quickly) explore practical concerns in conjunction with your emotional needs and limitations. S/he even helps divert Cousin Bob from drinking too much before he gives the eulogy, because he has a tendency to be a bitter drunk, and had a mild axe to grind with the deceased.

Me: Where does bullying—and support against it—come in? Would you say that your aim is to empower the client, to tease out and legitimate her or his needs, and prevent her or him from being trammeled under, de-personalized, shamed, or made to feel incompetent throughout this difficult process?

Laura Saba: Yes—and I feel this is why the coaching model is so tremendously important in terms of bullying. It helps the client identify their priorities, their boundaries, and their practical and emotional needs. We use this information to help support them, asking: What might throw you off course? intimidate you? Where do you feel vulnerable? What might make you feel bullied?

Much of what we do to prevent bullying and manipulation is done through a process of mitigation. When doing our initial consult we use the coaching method to identify what is most important to the client, what they are most concerned about, their emotional boundaries, and their practical needs. Then we support them as they curate an action plan. If they know that their primary goals are very specific, they also know which things they are more comfortable making concessions on, which makes it easier to navigate certain things with, say, those siblings who are disagreeing.

During the coaching session, we also encourage them to identify the "why" behind those aims. This allows them to, for example, express more clearly to a sibling why this is so important to them. And, during this time they may explore things such as "what could be a potential challenge to creating this reality, and how can we avoid that?" They will likely identify that certain siblings may want something different - and explore the why behind it. It is important to identify what might throw them off course, make them feel manipulated, even intimidated. What might make them feel bullied?

So, if they identify that there may be issues around money—maybe their sibling wants burial but they want cremation because, in large part, it costs less—we explore the dilemma. Through coaching questions, the client may identify that they earn less, and have two kids in college, and may be made to feel inadequate, even shamed because these are very real considerations for them. So perhaps the way to let both parties get what they want is to validate the client’s priorities, and advocate that the difference between the cost of cremation and internment be covered by their sibling. However, it isn't always as easy as that. The sibling may have strict religious beliefs, or swear "mom told her she wanted to be buried." When we coach, we explore anticipated conflicts, and encourage the client to discern how they will handle them. Because emotions are running high, and many folks are vulnerable, discussions around differences can feel like bullying. We try to anticipate and preempt the conflict, the bad blood, the disrespect and emotional pain that might result from stress and tension boiling over (and at that point victimizing our client). About 80% of family drama is mitigated through this. However, some things just can't be handled this way, and in those instances, we encourage families to call in the appropriate professionals.

Me: Tell me more about how you interrupt bullying tactics.

Laura Saba: Sometimes we use some basic conflict resolution skills to help them realize that they are simply seeing things from a different perspective, rather than being truly at odds. I learned a little mediation exercise with an orange that I like to pass on during trainings. Say you have two people arguing over who gets the orange, each imploring that they should have it. However, with a little probing you discover one wants to eat the orange, and the other needs the zest of the skin for a recipe. They can both get what they need.

Another example is the use of 'code words.' I train my doulas to partner with the client in creating a ‘code word’ they can use if they feel the need to step away from a situation, or are feeling overwhelmed. This lets the doula know to come up with a way to create space for the individual, in a way that is graceful. Even the most well-intended of neighbors might overstep boundaries, especially if the death has any particularly grim overtones, or the deceased had a controversial lifestyle.

Me: What kind of scenarios do you tend to find yourself serving as a gatekeeper to prevent bullying or intimidation?

Laura Saba: Oh, so many. It could be something as simple as turning away well-intentioned neighbors or taking phone calls. It may mean informing an overly-insistent (again, well-intentioned) person that while you know that your client may well have benefitted from the advice they want to give, that they’ve expressed that they don’t have the wherewithal to consider other options right now, they’ve made their decisions and they are final - but please, by all means, do show up at tomorrow’s viewing. Things of that nature. Sometimes it’s about affirming their wishes to the funeral home, while at other times it may be setting firm boundaries for someone who is inappropriately trying to commandeer the situation.

Maybe a florist is bullying them. We have already helped the client discerned what they want and we have talked about budget. We often encourage clients to begin with a phone call, because it is simpler to extricate yourself from a situation when on the phone. Bullying isn't always about money, though. Sometimes the florist may want to get rid of roses that are verging on dying, and push the client to choose roses instead of lilies. The client may feel pressured, but ultimately feel flowers are negotiable, and say something like, "Well I want lilies, and you clearly are steering me toward roses— what kind of good deal can you offer me?" If the client has asked us to intercede, we may pipe in and say, "Clearly you want ‘X’ to go with the roses—do you have a special offer you can extend? If so, we'd love to hear it." However, we feel it important that the client claim their power wherever possible—again, the doula has already done the work prior, and we tend to be there more as emotional support, the strong support by your side if someone crosses the line. However, it usually proves very important for a client to use their own voice in these things.

Sometimes, however, they say, "I just can't do this—can you handle it?" and then we step up to do so. For instance, there’s the family whose child was driving drunk and died along with others - there could be threats, harassing phone calls. There are the suicides, there are the murders, and senseless losses that may bring out the gawkers. Then there are the service men and women whose funerals, like my brother’s was, are under threat of protest. Especially in situations such as these scenarios arise that can feel disruptive—even like bullying—and honestly, a family in the midst of saying their final goodbyes just shouldn’t have to deal with. My doulas are prepared to intervene, or run interference, if need be. But again, I train my doulas to support clients—to know when to prepare them to inform the police, funeral director, and so forth.

Me: So they really do work to create a 'safe space' for grieving, keeping those who might pressure, take advantage, even belittle their client at bay. Do you have any parting words for negotiating funeral rites for a loved one, to help them avoid being bullied?

Laura Saba: Ha! Well of course I will tell them to work with a death or mourning doula! That said, they should keep in mind that funerals are about the living - what do they need at this time? What do they need to know they did for their loved one, what do they need to feel supported, safe, and secure, and what do they need during this phase of their healing process? Many people envision us as being much like the protectress the birth doula is during childbirth, and they want that protection as they navigate saying goodbye to a loved one. Doulas help mourners discover their needs, and affirm them—and the choices that follow from them. They are supportive—what you would call ‘pro-active bystanders’—ready to run interference when the opinions of others threaten to overwhelm (or, as you might put it ‘degrade and victimize’) the mourner.

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