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Facing death with the support of an end of life doula

new new doula
Cheri Lawson
Death doula Lauren Hunter-Smith holds workshop for Maribeth and Sarah Schmitt on end-of-life care

In our culture there are several rituals that help prepare for a birth, but how do we prepare for death? A person known as a death doula can help.

In 2016 when Maribeth Schmitt’s husband was on life support for six weeks, she was shocked and overwhelmed. Schmitt’s husband was very close to death. As she sat by her husband’s bedside, she wasn’t sure what he needed, and she definitely wasn’t sure what she needed.

“I just sat there and held his hand and tried to make him comfortable but as far as what I needed, I did have a girlfriend who would show up with food occasionally, who supported me through it all, but I didn’t even know what to ask her, you know, about can you do this for me, can you do that. I didn’t have it together enough,” explained Schmitt.

Who does have it together when a loved one is dying? Mort Schmitt was eventually taken off life support and died. There were so many details and difficult decisions and Schmitt and her only daughter, Sarah needed help. That’s where Lauren Hunter-Smith comes in. She’s an end of life doula. A doula is usually associated with a birth. But an end of life doula helps families emotionally and spiritually prepare for death. Hunter-Smith says watching her friends power through Mort’s illness and death inspired her to pursue death work professionally. The Lexington native received certification as a death doula in 2021. Hunter-Smith said most people take time to plan for their future, but few of us plan for our end.

“I think we don’t because, in part, we don’t realize that we can. A huge hurdle for me and maybe the biggest hurdle as a death doula is just education. It’s letting people know that they have these choices. These are options. There are ways to go about death, more cathartic for our living and for ourselves,” said Hunter-Smith.

The 39 year old said death doulas are as ancient as death itself. She said there’s a call for this role as more people are choosing to die at home. Americans have an aversion to talking about death, she said.

“It’s something that I think, we’re not even supposed to talk about. We’re not supposed to age. There’s all these products to prevent aging. We’re always preventing it. We’re never embracing it. And I just think we’ve all been in these experiences where because we didn’t embrace death, we didn’t get what we needed out of someone’s end,” said Hunter-Smith.

doula fix
Cheri Lawson
Bluegrass Death Doula Lauren Hunter-Smith holds an end-of-life workshop for Maribeth and Sarah Schmitt at her Lexington office.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the Schmitts took a class from Hunter- Smith. She started the class by handing the women a booklet to write in. She explained that the document was technically a living will and end of life plan.

The women are not ill, but they’re interested in being prepared and curious about options like green burial and legacy projects, all things a doula like Hunter-Smith can help with. Sarah Schmitt said some of the information Hunter-Smith shared in the workshop was surprising to her.

“I had no idea that in the 21st century you could still, with a provisional death certificate, have a body taken to your house. That you could have a home funeral if you want to. And I think that, that’s freeing. I also think there’s something nice about knowing that you have a lot of different choices,” said Schmitt.

Cheri Lawson
Maribeth Schmitt and her daughter Sarah ask questions of death doula Lauren Hunter-Smith during the end -of-life workshop

In the class Hunter-Smith spent time discussing legacy projects which could be as simple as a letter or as involved as a video. She said it allows a person to take an active role in how they are remembered.

She’s also studying green burial. Green Burials are considered natural. The remains of the deceased are placed into the ground with no embalming, no metal caskets or no concrete vault. If someone in Kentucky wants a green burial Hunter-Smith takes them to Heritage Acres Memorial Sanctuary in Ohio. Bill Gupton is president and founder. He said there are a growing number of people in our society that are interested in reclaiming death practices from long ago when home funerals were common. Gupton said a death midwife or doula has close involvement with the family that offers the family opportunities for processing and healing and spirituality that you don’t get in a conventional setting.

Donelle Dreese photographer with Heritage Acres Memorial Sanctuary
Natural Burial Site at Heritage Acres Memorial Sanctuary

When Cathy Kelley’s husband was suffering from ALS in 2019 her sister-in-law suggested a death doula to help the family through the difficult process. The Chicago resident said their doula, Molly, was invaluable. She offered emotional support and helpful information. She also helped Cathy generate ideas for a vigil that was meaningful to the Kelley family.

“We had some great beach vacations together. We took holy water and we put it in shells that we had actually brought back from the ocean. And we all just went around in a circle around his bed and each person would dip their finger into the holy water and maybe put it on Mark’s hands and say, ’thank you to your hands and all the times you threw baseball with me,’” said Kelley.

Even though Cathy Kelley has a full-time job she said she was inspired to take the death doula training after her husband died, so she can give back to the world.

Bluegrass Death Doula Lauren Hunter-Smith says there are numerous services a death doula can provide but planning is important. She said it’s wise to seek a doula long before you need one.

”I’ve seen what happens when people have support at their end of life. And how different it does look. And how different it looks when you leave a funeral and you finally have this moment where you’re like ‘I got to say goodbye, I got to do those things.’ It’s an entirely different moment. And it’s better,” explained Hunter-Smith.

-Editor's Note- This story has been updated. Originally it stated green burials are not permitted in Kentucky. The story has been updated to reflect that green burials are permitted in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

Cheri is a broadcast producer, anchor, reporter, announcer and talk show host with over 25 years of experience. For three years, she was the local host of Morning Edition on WMUB-FM at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Cheri produced and hosted local talk shows and news stories for the station for nine years. Prior to that, she produced and co-hosted a local talk show on WVXU, Cincinnati for nearly 15 years. Cheri has won numerous awards from the Public Radio News Directors Association, the Ohio and Kentucky Associated Press, and both the Cincinnati and Ohio chapters of the Society for Professional Journalists.
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