What is a Bereavement Doula?

That isn’t even a common question. I have been a birth doula for over 11 years and when I started, most people had no clue what a doula was, nor could they repeat the word. It was usually repeated back as “adoula.” When I began my bereavement doula journey, the occupation became even more confusing followed by the question, “Is there really a need?”

First, there is ABSOLUTELY, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a need for this occupation. The biggest concern I have right now, is how do I, and others in my occupation, get the word out to families that this is something they need. They don’t know they need it until it’s too late and then we hear, “I wished we had known about you at the time.” Even so, would they have called? Most likely they would not have called because this is not something expecting parents plan for and they are quickly overwhelmed with all the choices they are suddenly presented with.

Second, what is a bereavement doula?

Bereavement DoulaA bereavement doula doesn’t have one single definition. She is, who she is and supports in many different ways. She is unique. But in a nutshell, a bereavement doula provides physical, emotional, and informational support to families experiencing pregnancy loss. Yes, this is a similar definition to a birth doula who provides physical, emotional, and informational support to families during pregnancy, birth, and immediate postpartum.

So what does that support look like?

This is where the support becomes very individualized. It depends on the gestation of the baby at the time of death and the needs of the family. For miscarriage, the support may simply be attending the doctors appointment to confirm the miscarriage, presence with her in the emergency room while she bleeds and births her baby, emotional support via text, phone, email, or instant messaging while she labors and births her baby at home, preparing her to greet her baby, bonding options for her tiny baby, explaining options and final disposition for her baby’s body, and walking with her through the grief journey after she has birthed her baby.

For stillbirth, the support may include much the same as above but may be more in-depth for ensuring memories and mementos are created with a more fully formed baby.

Recently, a hospital social worker stated that it was her job to support the family. There is no doubt that the hospital social worker has an important role in supporting families through loss and through the NICU experience but there are some major differences in the support that a bereavement doula provides.

A bereavement doula will:

  • Provide individualized support
  • Be present during appointments
  • Attend the clients birth
  • Be there beyond any “shift”
  • Be available after hours
  • Will create a sacred space (music, lights, ceremony, smell, memories)
  • Hold space for the family
  • Won’t treat this as “just another shift” or “just another loss”
  • Hold hands and walk the family through their journey
  • Provide follow-up support for weeks and months to come
  • Give individualized resources and support groups

Some of these a social worker or bereavement coordinator can provide but there isn’t a single hospital program that can give a patient one-on-one continuous support by the same care provider for the entire length of the labor and birth.  This, right here is the biggest difference between a bereavement doula and any other perinatal loss specialist. Bereavement doulas are there, no matter how long it takes. We don’t work on shifts. It’s hard work. We aren’t bound by the same laws and policies as a hospital employee is.

Some hospitals follow-up with their patients following loss. Some hospice programs offer regular phone calls to ensure the family is doing well and these are wonderful additions to the perinatal loss program but how many hospitals and hospice programs have the same care provider following up in-person, on the phone, via email or via text? 

These are some major differences and these are all aspects of support that a bereavement doula provides. It is continuous, one-on-one, support for the family through pregnancy, birth, and beyond. I didn’t touch on other services that bereavement doulas can provide such as funeral planning but that is also available too. We have so much to offer families and we have a huge network of resources and tools to help the family cope and move forward.

– Breaking the silence of First Trimester Miscarriage