When A Past Client Dies

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In my 30 years of doulaing, I have faced the death of a past client a half dozen times. Doulaing is intimate work and caring for mothers and partners creates a unique bond between us.  Each of the situations I faced was different but each time I started out feeling sad, uncertain and confused. I took the time to figure out the right course of action, one that I could feel good about long term. My hope is to guide you to the same peace.

This is not a time for immediate action. So if you find out on Facebook, you don’t need to type something right away. Think of anything online as permanent – even ten to sixty minutes of careful thought can modulate what you might write. Instead start with some important questions.

  1. Does this require an immediate response from me or do I have a few days? Unless the death occurs in the first few months after the birth, you have some time to figure out the right thing for you to do.
  2. What do I feel? Spend some time writing in a journal or talking with yourself or a close friend. It is normal to have many different and conflicting feelings such as shock, sadness, anger, ambiguity, dread, relief, fear, and so forth. It may bring on your own fears of death or vulnerability. We may not feel very close or identified with this family and feel badly that our own emotional response isn’t stronger. All of this is normal. The important thing is to figure it out before acting.
  1. What do I want to do? You could do nothing, write a note, send a card, go to the service, do a favor, make a meal, provide photos or a display, send flowers, or make a donation. What you decide to do will depend on the depth of your feelings, how recently your relationship ended, your own responsibilities and budget, and how close they live. Carefully consider what you need and what the family might need. If you’ve sorted through your feelings it will be easier to figure out what is supportive of the family. So often people’s actions at this time have more to do with what they need than what is best for the bereaved family!  It can be avoided by taking time to evaluate your own feelings and possible actions first.
  1. If you need some assistance in writing a condolence note, here are some suggestions. Include your feelings of sadness or sorrow, a quality or two that you admired and a personal anecdote about the person who died. The family members may treasure special memories of prenatal appointments or something that was said or done during the birth. Taking the time to write these details shows that you care. Make sure to mention your relationship as the doula; the person who is opening and cataloguing correspondence for the family may not know who you are. Sometimes the remaining parent may not read notes for months after the death. But it is nice to know who wrote. A note is more personal than a sympathy card and it can be challenging to find a prewritten card that expresses your feelings and matches their point of view. It gets even more problematic if you don’t know the circumstances of the death or their religious faith. Nice stationary or a blank card can work just fine. If they have moved, you can send the note to the funeral home.
  1. Posting on social media: Why? Carefully consider what your motivation is. Is this sensational news that will get attention? Do you need support? Make sure that whatever you write is something you would want to read if you were the bereaved parent. This is a time to put your best doula self forward. I wouldn’t recommend: “One of my old clients just died! Isn’t this the weirdest thing ever?” Instead try, “One of my past clients from a few years ago just passed away. I’m feeling bewildered and sad. Anyone have any suggestions or support?”

Here are some of my experiences and how I chose to respond:

Toby* was killed by random gun violence seven years after the birth of his third child. I wrote his wife and children a letter describing my most vivid and loving memories of our visits and the birth.  Nick* died of a drug overdose after a messy divorce and custody battle (5 years after being their doula). I kept quiet after hearing of his death because I really did not know how his ex-wife was dealing with it all. We hadn’t had any contact after the first birthday. Writing her felt like an intrusion into her personal business.  Karl* was a very loving father who passed away unexpectedly during a short hospitalization 16 months after their fifth child’s birth. I had kept in touch on Facebook. For this family, I made a montage of birth photos into a poster and had it sent (prepaid) to a Walgreen’s in their hometown. It was a treasured display at the memorial service.  When Lenora* died in a car crash four years after her last birth, I went to her service. Her husband recognized me but couldn’t place me – even though we had spent 20 hours together. That’s the nature of grief. But my presence let him know that she had affected my life enough for me to attend. I signed the guest book as their doula.

In my research interviews, one doula told me this story. “I had this great couple, they were a joy to work with. He came to every prenatal appointment full of questions and they wanted to work together at their birth. Very loving couple, so excited for their first baby. He was a family practice doctor, so he was learning not only for himself but for his future patients. I had a blast at their birth it was all so easy. He was in love with his baby girl. About four months later he died in a car crash. Right away, it was a huge fireball, horrible thing, just horrible. I went to the funeral and the mom turned to me and said the most important thing. She said that their baby girl would never know what a great man her father was and how much he wanted her except for my birth story. The story I wrote will be her memory of him. I totally broke down and cried. It was so horrible, such a tragedy.” Since hearing her talk, every birth story I write has that idea in mind.

I don’t think many of us get into this work thinking it will make us face death and develop adult skills. We love babies and empowering women! We want to build strong families through facilitating connection at birth! When we open our hearts, we grow and sometimes it hurts. We learn how to manage our emotions successfully and write condolence cards, too.


 *All of the names have been changed.

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