Um, Why Are People Getting 'Death Doulas' and Talking About 'Death Wellness?'
Let's talk about death. It sounds sort of morbid, right? At the very least, it's a topic that's unpleasant, and one that many of us avoid entirely until we're forced to deal with it (BTW, here's why we take celebrity deaths so hard). The latest healthy-living trend is trying to change that.
It's called the "death positive movement" or "death wellness," and simply put, it begins with acknowledging that death is a normal part of life.
"Engaging with death demonstrates a natural curiosity about something all of us will face in our lifetimes," says Sarah Chavez, executive director of an organization called The Order of the Good Death and co-founder of Death & the Maiden, a platform for women to discuss death.
The people leading this movement aren't obsessed with the dark side; in fact, it's quite the opposite.
"We talk a lot about death," says Chavez, "but in a weird way, it's not so much about death per se, but about improving the quality of our lives."
The Global Wellness Institute included an entire report titled "Dying Well" in its 2019 Global Wellness Trends series, released earlier this year. It, too, claims that thinking about death is a way to reframe the way we think about life. (Related: The Car Accident That Changed the Way I Think About January)
Beth McGroarty, director of research for GWI and author of the report, points to a few things fueling the death wellness movement. Among them: a rise of new rituals around death as more people identify as "spiritual" rather than "religious;" the medicalization and loneliness of death in hospitals and nursing homes; and Baby Boomers facing their mortality and refusing a bad end-of-life experience.
McGroarty says this isn't just another trend that will come and go. "The media can dismissively state that 'death is hot right now,' but we're seeing signs of a desperately needed awakening about how the silence around death hurts our lives and our world—and how we can work to restore some humanness, sacredness and our own values to the death experience," she wrote in the report.
Whether you've considered it or not, the sobering reality is that everyone dies—and everyone will experience the death of loved ones and the grief that follows. "It's really our reluctance not to face or talk openly about death that's helped create a $20 billion funeral industry that doesn't really serve most people's needs," says Chavez.
One reason we don't discuss death may be surprising. "A lot of us have superstitions or beliefs that seem a little silly on the surface," says Chavez. "It's amazing to me how many people really do believe that you don't talk about or mention death because it will somehow bring death on you."
Along with the death positive movement, there's been a rise in death doulas. These are people who guide you through end-of-life planning (among other things)—meaning they help you create an actual document, on paper, that lays out how you want to deal with certain aspects of your own death. This includes things such as life support, end-of-life decision-making, whether or not you want a funeral, how you want to be cared for, and where your money and sentimental possessions will go. Believe it or not, this isn't just for your parents and grandparents.
"Whenever you come into an awareness that one day your life is going to end, that's a good time to contact a death doula," says Alua Arthur, a lawyer-turned-death doula and founder of Going with Grace. "Since none of us know when we're going to die, it's too late to wait until you're sick."
Since Arthur started her services six years ago—following the end of her role as caretaker for her brother-in-law, who passed away—she says she's "absolutely" seen an increase in how many people are reaching out to her both for services and for training (she also runs a program teaching others how to become death doulas). Though her company is based in Los Angeles, she does many consultations online. The majority of her clients are young, healthy people, she says. "People are hearing about the [death doula] concept and recognizing its value."
Even if you're not yet comfortable with the thought of discussing your own mortality, bringing death more out into the open—whether it's talking about it related to your pets, your parents, your grandparents—is a way of coming to grips with your own mortality, says Chavez. (Related: This Cycling Instructor Pedaled Through Tragedy After Losing Her Mom to ALS)
So how is this all related to wellness, anyway? There are actually some key parallels. Many of us strive to make the right choices about caring for our bodies in life, "but a lot of us don't realize we need to protect our death choices as well," says Chavez. The death wellness movement really is all about encouraging people to make choices ahead of time—such as choosing to have a green burial, or donating your body to science—so that your death actually reinforces what was important to you in life.
"We take so much time planning for the birth of a baby, or a wedding, or a vacation, but there's very little planning or acknowledgment around death," says Chavez. "To reach the goals you have, or want a certain quality of life throughout the dying process, [you] need to prepare and have conversations around that."