Death doulas, the new end-of-life specialists, come to Minnesota

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In the dimly lit room, Mark Quinlan struggles to be heard.

His voicebox has been silenced by his thyroid cancer. He tries to whisper, but the hum of his oxygen machine drowns out the sound. The voice of the bone-thin 67-year-old barely carries to the edge of his hospice bed.

But Christy Marek is listening.

Marek, an end-of-life assistant called a death doula, leans forward to catch every word. She asks him about funerals, the afterlife and memories of happier times.

“Do you want last rites?” she asks.

The whisper: “I suppose.”

She has been with him for months, in a hospital, transitional care unit and a hospice. Every step of the way, she has guided him through a dark and scary wilderness.

DEATH REIMAGINED

In many cases, death doulas are redefining how people approach death. They are breaking away from traditional generic funerals, and pioneering approaches to grieving, memory and death.

“Death is being reimagined at this moment,” said Anne Murphy, owner of the death-consultation business A Thousand Hands.

In the past, doulas were women working as midwives to help the process of birth. “Death doula” is a term for people who help with the other end of life. They also call themselves celebrants or soul midwives.

“They all do the same thing — companioning for people dying,” said Jane Whitlock, a St. Paul death doula.

The National Doulagivers Institute reports that its training has quadrupled in two years. President Suzanne O’Brien said she has now trained 402 certified doulas in a six-month course. The cost is $997.

“I just got back from a month of training in Thailand,” O’Brien said in April. “This is needed around the world.”

Doulas-to-be are drawn to a job that that pays up to $100 an hour in Minnesota. The trainers are proliferating, with names like Doulagivers, Lifespan Doulas, Soul Passages and the National End of Life Doula Alliance.

The traveling doula schools are arriving in Minnesota.

One session starting May 31 offers a three-day program by the International End of Life Doula Association for $750. Or you could get training from the Conscious Dying Institute, which is offering three-day classes starting June 22 and September 26, for $,2,995 and $1,895, respectively.

RELATED: Death doulas branch out into services for animals

The inconsistency makes some uncomfortable.

“I look at the programs where you get certified after a weekend. It is not doing the people you work with justice,” Marek said.

“It is frankly a little bit messy.”

Doulas sometimes overlap the services of a hospice — causing some friction.

“Hospices frankly do not know what to do with the end-of-life doula role,” Marek said.

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