Why We Need Black Death Doulas

Grief is a sequel to love. Here’s how I make it more bearable for my community.
Illustration by Bex Glendining for Huffpost

Over time, I’ve learned that grief is the sequel to love.

I was 12 years old the first time I held space for someone nearing the end of their life. It was my cousin Delancey, who was so close to his death, he could feel the earth beneath him crumbling, he told me as we sat at my grandmother’s house drinking coffee, laughing, and flipping the television channels back and forth between “In the Heat of the Night” and “The Young and The Restless.”

Since then, I’ve served many others in their grief, clearing as much fear, negativity, and uncertainty as possible while bringing compassion, peace, and hope. So even though I’ve held the title “death doula” for six years, I’ve been doing the work in some capacity for nearly three decades. But, then, I was a cousin, a friend, and a nephew who seemed — to the dying — to care a little more than others. I don’t know if I truly cared more, but I recognized early that I had an intuitive and effective approach to death and grief. And I knew how much my presence in those spaces helped people process what was happening.

My role changes slightly when it centers a member of my community because I believe that grieving is second nature for many of us. Black Americans have been managing loss since we arrived in this country, and each generation faces its version of racism that eventually becomes a trauma. And so when we lose someone, the emotions that arise are unique to our intergenerational trauma, passed down from our ancestors.

For some Black Americans, grief is a constant. When we find ourselves grieving our loved ones, it brings to mind the brokenness of many systems, including a lack of resources in our communities, health disparities, housing inequality, and overall racial injustice, most of which often contribute to the loss.

When we turn on the news, we see the kids who look like they could be ours, or mothers, fathers, and grandmothers who could have raised us and how they’re treated at the hands of law enforcement — or at the hands of a medical system that deems Black people less susceptible to pain or simply less valuable. Racism and discrimination play as much a role in our deaths as they do in our lives. And the ones who survive have to carry that knowledge with them.

On a recent flight from South Africa to Morocco, I sat next to a man who asked what made Black grief so different from the grief he, a white man, will experience when a loved one dies. I told him Black grief is different because it tends to be more communal. It’s also altogether too frequent and, many times, too soon. And though grief is as natural as necessary, Black people are never given enough time to grieve one person or thing entirely before it’s time to grieve another.

And in these spaces where I’m sitting with and comforting the dying and helping those left behind through their mourning, I know my purpose. I try to show up with gentleness, kindness, and empathy. I come to say the names of those who’ve died, share their stories, dance, listen to song lyrics, feed, invite them to beautiful places, and say, “I’m sitting outside if you need me. I’m not going anywhere.”

This is where I begin the healing, serving as a bridge, doing everything in my power to get those who are dying or grieving a loss from where they’re at in the present moment to a space where they’re telling me where they want to be when our time together is over. I ask the people I’ve worked with their needs and wants. When faced with death, they tend to be honest with their replies, and in return, I let them know if and how their needs can be met.

Some of my clients are referred to me by those I’ve worked with; they often come to me already knowing how I navigate grieving spaces. Others, who find me through my site or social media, come with welcomed and encouraged questions. Though already unique to each person, I tell them my services become tailored as we go, and I become an even more compassionate advocate for honoring their wishes. Because this is my professional career, compensation for my services is a sliding scale depending on the client’s needs but usually starts at $25 per hour. I don’t want money to be a debilitating stressor for the communities I work in when they should be focused on healing.

As a Black death doula who comes from a long line of folks who’ve done this work without titles, I am here not only to introduce people to this healing practice that works toward easing the fears and uncertainties around death but also to fight for end-of-life care that is both tender and dignified.

I also aim to normalize conversations around death in the Black community. Having challenging conversations on this topic with each other allows us to process complex emotions that some may have been actively avoiding their entire lives. Sharing our fears, concerns, and wishes regarding our deaths can help prepare others for what to expect when we are gone. Research has shown that talking and thinking about the inevitability of death can help us lead healthier lives.

What’s strange about Black “dying” and “death” is the stark contrast between the two. For Black folks, death can be a celebration, a homegoing ceremony filled with joy at the end of a struggle.

But Black dying is taboo, as is everything that leads to that final moment. We often shoo away children when they ask questions about what’ll happen when death arrives, we do little work to prepare ourselves and those we’ll leave behind. Instead, we stutter through conversations about death as if talking clearly about it will bring it sooner. And so, much of my work is educating individuals about wills, advanced directives, their rights as patients and the rights of the family assisting in providing care.

Through it all, I often think of my grandmother Irene who did this work until she was the last of her friends to die, and my cousin Delancey who allowed 12-year-old me to sit with him in his last days. And I am grateful.

Dying doesn’t have to be the thing we whisper about, but the thing we approach prepared. I will continue to show up in this work because many of these people I meet have pushed through overwhelming losses, mainly for self-preservation — and they are tired. I am there to honor them as survivors who’ve reached the end of their journeys, and I know I have the strength to fight for the good death they deserve, even if they can’t.


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