Are Death Doula Training Programs Substantial Enough?
July 24, 2022
A few weeks ago I was asked by an aspiring death doula for recommendations about the best training programs. The poor woman had no idea what she was in for by opening the door to one of my favorite rants.
I encounter self-proclaimed death doulas on a regular basis, and when I ask about their training, I’m almost always disappointed in what I hear. Most have no experience at the bedside of a dying person other than with a close family member, and their training involves nothing more than an online workshop… with no actual clinical experience.
Practitioners lament that this discipline is not taken seriously by hospitals and hospices, and it isn’t hard to see why; most graduates of most death doula programs don’t have the kind of bona fide credentials required for working in a clinical setting.
So when I’m asked for my opinion about how to make a career out of it, this is what I suggest:
What’s Really Needed to Become a Death Doula
1. At least six months experience as a hospice volunteer should be a pre-requisite for entry into a doula training program. But most programs have no pre-requisites at all; they just want to enroll as many people as possible. To be truly skilled in this area, you need to experience death care with patients that are not your own loved ones. Attending the death of your own family member does not qualify you to attend the death of a stranger.
2. Most doula programs don’t require any hands-on experiential training or clinical supervision, which is not only unfortunate, it’s unethical to “certify” someone in a clincal discipline with no actual experience in that discipline. These programs should require a minimum of 30 hours supervised training/internship in a clinical setting — supported by academically-sound study materials — before any sort of certification is granted. As an example, one online, self-study program I encountered offers death doula “certification” for $189, using no resources than their own self-published book.
3. Previous education or experience is critical. In my opinion, doula trainees should have some education (or experience) in a related field, such as nursing, psychology, gerontology, social work, etc. Specific training in family dynamics, spiritual care, grief theory, counseling techniques, multi-cultural competency and compassionate communication should be mandatory. As should exposure to current research in thanatology and bereavement.
Finding the Right Programs
Without meeting the criteria mentioned above, you really don’t have any practical skills at all, which is why “death doula” is not a certifiable profession in the health care field. However, if the program you choose offers an academically-sound curriculum, you’re off to a great start. The woman who asked for my recommendation was interested in a course at a college in Vermont, and she sent me the syllabus to look at. The required reading didn’t include any academic material at all… the two books required for the course were not even at undergraduate level (and one of them was written by the instructor).
If your goal is be hired by a hospice, hospital or nursing home, please consider a bona-fide academic program like the one offered by Marian University in Thanatology. These course are offered at many colleges these days, and if your goal is to have a professional career in this field, it’s worth it to spend the time and the money getting a substantial education.
If you don’t want to go the full academic route, I also recommend this program facilitated by the great Richard Groves (a two-year apprenticeship). In addition, to add extra credibility to your credentials, consider seeking certification in thanatology from the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC). Finally, if you’re just looking for some foundational knowledge in death care that doesn’t provide actual academic or professional credentials, these are two good programs:
For more on this issue, please read this insightful article by Delta Waters, RN.
© 2022 by Terri Daniel