- Maintain good professional and personal boundaries. Sometimes we feel like chameleons, but even as we blend in, we remain separate and strong. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. It’s not appropriate to become friends with clients, no matter how long or mutually rewarding your professional relationship has been. It is too difficult and muddy to transition from this role. Unless you are acting as end-of-life doula for family or close friends, you will say good-bye to them after your services are no longer needed and that is as it should be. While in the home, you may be asked to do things that are not within the scope of practice of the doula, or you may be asked to stay longer or do more than you can do. Ultimately, bending your own rules will not help you or them. Someone once said to me that those who are always doing too much to “do good” for others really just do it because they have a need to feel good themselves. I think there’s some truth to this. Examine your motives—are you in this profession because you need to boost your sense of self-worth? Will that really work or be sustainable? Will that really help them? How might that cloud your judgment about what’s appropriate? For more on professional boundaries, see The Doula Business Guide by Patty Brennan.
- Learn the difference between “supporting” and “doing.” I think it’s safe to say that many times it’s easier, in the short run, to jump in and do something for someone rather than to support the person to do it for themselves or another. In the long run, this is not truly helpful and it’s misguided as it makes your efforts more about you than them. Support involves providing guidance, education and resources, as well as creating a safe space for personal exploration and outcomes that are truly unique to the individual, that they can own and from which they can benefit. It requires stepping back and being patient and maybe even sitting on your hands or holding your tongue. This is their experience. You may think you know the right thing to do, but that takes away control from the person you are intending to help. Some preliminary research has been done on what makes for a “good funeral” (by Josefine Speyer, at the Natural Death Centre in England) and it is when the family has choices and control and is involved in the process—rather than when things are done for them or they are told what to do—that works best. True support can really change the course of the grief journey for the loved ones of the dying.
- Furthermore, it’s important to give nonjudgmental support. Help your clients explore what is meaningful to them meaning in open-ended ways. Listen deeply and draw them out, rather than guide them where you think they should go. Learn to be shocked and hide it. Ask gently probing questions to clarify. Offer to help do research or find options. If you think there is one right way to do something, this is not the profession for you. Reconciliation, family dynamics, roles and organization look very different to those outside of context. As the doula, you have probably only recently entered into this family unit and you are only a temporary visitor. Unless you see something blatantly abusive or unsafe, reserve your judgment and provide unconditional support. If you can’t, refer them to someone else. We all have buttons, and sometimes it is not possible to work with certain families. This is part of having good boundaries and knowing your limits. We can’t all be the best match for all families.
The work of being with the dying and their family is intense and can be very draining. It is essential to take good care of yourself to be sustainable. Here are some suggestions….
(1) Pay attention to your spiritual or inner life to stay grounded and personally fulfilled. This means figuring out how you fit into the bigger picture. Whether you are part of a larger congregation of like believers or a lone wolf, adopt practices that fill your soul and give you hope, and do them. The word “practice” is important here.