Do You Need a Life Doula?
End-of-life doulas, like Charity Joyce Marohombsar, help transform our perspectives when it comes to life—and death
Not to be morbid (or a downer), but I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately. It’s impossible not to — after all, the past three years of the pandemic have been replete with it. Worldwide, there have been over six million fatalities from Covid-19. In the Philippines, that number is closer to 60,000. But death is hardly a new thing. In fact, it is one of life’s most constant constants.
Even before this life-altering pandemic, there have been, since time immemorial, other plagues that have claimed lives. There have been wars resulting in casualties; there are wars resulting in casualties. There are individuals dying in their sleep, or from illness, or heartbreak, or accidents. And, most of all, there are individuals left here on earth, grieving those deaths.
“Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life,” the late Joan Didion wrote in The Year of Magical Thinking, one of the world's most stunning and incisive ruminations on experiencing and processing deep, enduring grief.
Grief, in its basest sense, is the response to loss—particularly to death (but not always). Like death, it is a natural process that all of us will have to go through, but it is also one of the most misunderstood and most feared experiences in life. Luckily, there is a growing number of people—many of them called life doulas, death doulas, or end-of-life doulas—who have found it their calling to give emotional, mental, and spiritual support to the dying, as well as their loved ones.
In the same way we take up the services of a labor doula in birth, an end-of-life doula or death doula is there to help guide individuals, their families, and loved ones, through life’s final transition. Often, they are hired by patients or families who have just received a terminal diagnosis; they are non-medical professionals, which differentiates them from hospice workers. They transform our perspectives when it comes to life and death, helping us see both in a different light.
What is a life doula?
In a recent Raising Frequencies class from the Atma Prema Wellbeing Group, I met cancer survivor and life doula Charity Joyce Marohombsar, who spoke about navigating grief, sharing her experiences as someone who survived Stage 4 breast cancer, and has made it her life’s work to help other cancer warriors (patients on active treatment), survivors (patients done with treatment), love-givers (the cancer warrior’s primary caregiver), and supporters (the cancer warrior’s friends or relatives).
As a life doula, she helps her patients get back their “zest for life,” helping them curate their spaces to become “more conducive to healing, recovery and an overall sense of wellness.” Formerly a top executive at one of the biggest conglomerates in the Philippines, Charity likes to talk about herself now in line with “the three Cs”: choices she had to make, supported with a lot of changes, leading to chances that she is now taking.
“The fourth, of course, is my name,” she smiles during a Zoom call one Wednesday afternoon—the day of the week that is dedicated to her own healing and resting. “Because I am cognizant that I am a cancer survivor, I really am careful with the way I spend my day,” Charity tells me. She begins her mornings filling her cup: whether that’s doing meditation, having quiet time, or reading, the first four hours of her day are always devoted to herself.
It takes a lot of emotional and mental bandwidth to do the kind of work that Charity does; the most challenging thing about her advocacy intersects very plainly with the most fulfilling aspect of it. So she has to come prepared for each session; she has to be able to hold space for her clients — and in order to do that, she has to put herself first and draw boundaries where necessary, and where she is able to.
“The most fulfilling part is seeing cancer patients going through their journey with a brighter perspective because that’s the goal,” Charity says. “The goal is not to look at cancer as your whole life, but as a chapter of your life and that you keep living life to the fullest whatever it is that you do.”
In her calling as a life doula, she is able to explore the biggest misconceptions when it comes to life, death, disease, and healing. There are things she’s had to learn, unlearn, and re-learn. One of the misconceptions she brings up is that cancer is a death sentence. “It’s not anymore,” Charity says, but that doesn’t mean that it’s an easy feat. The other misconception, she adds, is that we think we have control over time.
“We really don’t,” she says plainly. “The lesson I always tell [my clients] is, don’t put off anything for a special occasion, because every day for us—especially for cancer patients and even the survivors—every day is a gift.”
Who would benefit from a life doula?
Charity’s focus in her practice is serving cancer patients and their loved ones, guiding them both in healing and/or in death. She acts as a life coach, while still also carrying out the duties of a “patient advocate,” as she calls it: preparing the family, the person, help them put things in order, and ultimately, “really fulfill the wishes of the patient. Whatever the patient wants, I communicate to the family,” Charity says.
She makes it a point to serve not only cancer patients and their families, but also cancer survivors—patients who are done with treatment, and may have been declared in remission. “I serve cancer survivors,” Charity says, “because the biggest misconception of everyone is that when you’re done with treatment, you’re okay. That’s not true. The most dangerous time in the phase of a cancer survivor’s life is what we call the ‘survivorship years.’ It’s between treatment and up to the ten years that you’ve been declared in remission.”
“This is where the support wanes,” she explains. “This is when you don’t have the same people calling you or giving you support. You’re alone. So probably a lot of the survivors would backslide, taking on too much work, taking on stressful work, not taking care of themselves, not watching what they eat.”
“Of course the biggest time I spent with the cancer warriors, those who are on active treatment,” Charity says. “Even that is divided into two: those that are on early stages, and those that are already on palliative care. That, I think, is the hardest segment of what I serve—the ones on palliative care.”
Charity brings up the lack of real hospice care in the Philippines; where, in other countries, life doulas like her get to work side-by-side with hospices, here, she works directly with her patients. Her dream much later on, she tells me, “is to be able to put up a wellness sanctuary where patients can spend time in between treatments and that they’re really given a lot of care.”
Becoming a life doula is a calling. It’s difficult, at times harrowing, but at the end of the day, it is fulfilling. “I stay committed because it’s not easy,” Charity says. “There are days when you have to hold space for yourself first. 2021 was that year for me, where I had to trim down the number of clients I was seeing because I was going through so much grief. I couldn’t hold space for other people.”
At the end of it all, grief, mourning, and death—these are some of life’s most lasting truths. They are inevitable—as inevitable as life itself is—and as humans on earth, it may just do us well to prepare for them the way we do other major parts of our lives; to embrace them and accept them the way we do an impending birth, a promotion at work, a wedding, or a child going off to college.
“Grief and joy and love—it’s all part of the same spectrum,” says Maryanne O’Hara, author of Little Matches: A Memoir of Finding Light in the Dark. “I’m grieving because I loved someone so much.”
And haven’t we all been there?
Charity, through her cancer support community Better Days, has just recently wrapped up Soulcation—a four-hour virtual retreat last April 9. Better Days is Charity’s brainchild, her response to those who cannot afford one-on-one coaching sessions. For more information, visit lifedoula.ph or follow Charity on Instagram.
Lead photo by Aditya Saxena on Unsplash