The death care profession is more than just dealing with dead bodies, and we want to educate you about all the different careers in death care available to you.
Presenting our new ongoing series, Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life, where we chat with professionals within the end-of-life and death care sphere to provide first hand experience and insight on working in this field.
For our first installment, we caught up with Jill Schock from Death Doula LA to tell us what a day in the life of a Death Doula is really like!
Jill Schock is the owner of Death Doula LA, and a full-time Death Doula serving about 75 families a year. She is a Los Angeles native with over a decade of experience in end-of-life care. She believes in empowering her clients to step away from the imposed traditions and negative stigma around death, and embrace personal choice and style as the chapter of life comes to an end.
Jill received a Master’s Degree in Ethics and Theology from Vanderbilt University Divinity School and was trained and certified as a Clinical Chaplain, or Spiritual Counselor. She has been featured in Wired, Goop, PureWOW, Mind Body and Soul, and more.
As a full-time Death Doula, a Death Doula mentor, and co-organizer of a Deeper Dive Into Death Retreat, Jill is an exceptional guide to those looking for careers in death care or to embark on the Death Doula path.
Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life of a DEATH DOULA – Q&A with Jill Schock
Tell us about yourself and what brought you to become a Death Doula?
I love answering this question because it is a good reminder that becoming a Doula was a gift I was given in life – it was never something I dreamed about as a child. I had never even heard the term Death Doula until 2014, a whole five years into my professional career as a clinical Chaplain.
A Chaplain is a non-denominational spiritual counsellor. They are typically utilized in prisons, the military, and in healthcare. To become a Chaplain you need a Master’s Degree in Divinity or Theology, mine is in Theology. You also need about a year’s worth of Clinical Pastoral Education. “CPE” is a vigorous self examination process. In my training I was required to work full time in the hospital while also meeting in weekly small groups to go over and get feedback on case verbatims that we wrote. It was very intense, but so valuable. I needed that introspective time to be prepared for this work.
I worked as a Chaplain from 2009-2018, and I was able to step away from this full time job and move solely into Doula work in 2018. Death Doula LA was filed as a business in 2016.
As a child, my dream job was to be a travel writer for National Geographic; I was completely obsessed with the magazine. Sadly, this never came to fruition. I ended up with a degree in public history working in artifact research and collections, which I really enjoyed and probably would have had a long career in.
It was 2008 that death was present in my life for the first time. It was complicated, and painful. After this death I was in so much pain and felt so isolated. I kept asking myself the same question: where was the help?
What inspired you to become a Death Doula?
After my first difficult experience with death, I spent a lot of time thinking about what happened and how things that could have, or should have been done. My head was a labyrinth of existential crisis and intense anxiety. It took me a long time to “heal,” or at least get out of my deep fog.
A part of my healing process was spent obsessing over the question: who was supposed to help us? After a lot of reflection, I decided that I would become the help. I was offered a scholarship to Vanderbilt Divinity School and began my path towards interfaith Chaplaincy.
I started as a freelance Death Doula about seven years into my Chaplaincy career when I realized that I had hit the very low pay grade ceiling of the job. I was working my ass off, running three departments, driving hundreds of miles a week helping the dying and their loved ones. Then of course there was all the charting that had to be done. So, after a long day, I would come home with a heap of charts to do. It was relentless. I cared so much and was getting paid so little. I felt really devalued.
I hit the wall one day, actually coming home from the one vacation I took a year. I was driving back from the beach and I decided it would be easy to just see a few patients on the way home and get a head start on my caseload for the month. I was driving to my first patient when I started to feel weird, really weird. My ears were ringing, I started sweating, my vision was tunnelling. I thought for sure I was about to have a seizure or a stroke. I thought fast to pull over on the side of the freeway, put my car in “park” and prepared to pass out, or for whatever was to come. I literally thought I was dying, and I called for help. Help came, my vitals were way up, but I was told I was just fine, that I had only had a panic attack.
But it was more than a panic attack. It was the moment my body said “No more!” to the system that was crushing me. It took me months to recover from the panic attacks. I took a medical leave and let myself completely do nothing for the first time in I can’t remember how long.
What I hear from the majority of the Doulas I talk to is, “I can’t make a real salary as a full time Doula.” Who told you that? There is no scarcity with the needs of the dying.
In 2014, I attended the American Academy of Religion Conference in San Diego. It was here, with a rested mind and eager spirit, that I first heard the term “Death Doula.” I was a member of the death and dying group and they hosted a session called “Chaplains as Doulas.” This session discussed both birth and Death Doulas and I had one of those moments of clarity where everything just clicked. It was so clear. The thought that rang through my head said, “this is exactly what you do.” I knew I already had all the skills and knowledge to do the job of a Doula thanks to my training and experience as a Chaplain. From that day forth I started using the title Death Doula and the seed of my future career grew from there.
What is the biggest misconception about Death Doulas?
That Doulas can’t make money. What I hear from the majority of the Doulas I talk to is, “I can’t make a real salary as a full time Doula.” Who told you that? There is no scarcity with the needs of the dying. They need all the help they can get. If I got even 1% of the deaths in Los Angeles county where I work, I would be a multi-millionaire, if that puts the numbers in perspective for you.
Here’s where I see the root of the issue. There is a misconception that you must have a Doula certification to become a Death Doula, but it puts you in a box. I don’t believe a certification program will give you all the tools you need to succeed. You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on a certification. I believe in freeing the information.
Becoming a Doula can be accomplished through some simple actions. First, be present in the community. Look at all the various aspects that surround the dying; learn, build relationships, ask how you can be helpful. I can’t say enough about the power of volunteering if you are getting started. The dying are your primary source! You can volunteer at cancer centers, Alzheimer’s associations, hospice, in the emergency room, the list goes on.
This work is not about the Doula, it’s about the dying.
The point is, take the simple action of going directly to the people that you want to serve – the dying – and ask them what they need. Let the dying and their loved ones guide you, not the people behind the certifications.
Finally, find a mentor or a coach – someone who can support and guide you through your own personal journey. Your Doula practice will be as unique as you are, so again, don’t put yourself in someone else’s box.
Being a Doula, in my opinion, is more a mode of being than anything. I believe that Doulas form organically, and so they come from so many different backgrounds, skill sets and life experiences. I think it’s common for people to choose certification to hold themselves to a certain level of standards and find a valuable community. I also believe that there are others who come to this space that can do it all on their own.
A Doula won’t always be physically present with their clients when they die and to be invited into that sacred space is a gift, not an expectation.
This work is not about the Doula, it’s about the dying. Everything a Doula does is to set their clients up for the smoothest end-of-life journey possible. Doulas create a space for their clients to be prepared and present with what is meaningful to them as they die. Doulas aren’t necessarily present in this intimate space.
I hear a lot of less experienced Doulas talk about their expectations to be at the bedside of all their clients, holding their hand while they die. And yes, if you are lucky enough to be invited into that space you will have this beautiful experience. The reality is that this space is not for the Doula, it is for the dying and their intimately close loved ones. A Doula won’t always be physically present with their clients when they die and to be invited into that sacred space is a gift, not an expectation.
Run us through a typical day as a Death Doula.
I stay organized by running my business week by week. I’ve done the math on the amount of hours I need to spend on different aspects of my business. I utilize a kanban board to stay organized. I have ADD, so time management and organization are crucial for me.
I set up my kanban board every Sunday and start my productive week. I am not an early riser so I typically start my day by getting up around 8:30, have some coffee, pace around my gardens and get mentally ready for the day. I set my first appointments starting at 10am and go until about 6pm (some days go much later).
Every day is a bit different. I have time booked with clients, mentees, projects, referral contacts, marketing, various collaborations. All of this is done on Zoom for the time being. There are also times that I will be on-call for a family.
Client census ebbs and flows, often seasonally. It’s been my experience that there are three times of year where death seems to be higher in numbers. This is just my observation, but it tends to be summer (so right now). I’ve taken on five new clients in the last week: a mix of advanced healthcare directives, last minute funeral arrangements, how to have a home funeral during Covid, how to get out of a skilled nursing facility and go on home hospice during Covid.
The other rush comes before and after the winter holidays. My client census started becoming consistent last holiday death season, and then Covid hit. Business with the dying has been constant ever since. I’m grateful I’m able to be useful during these crazy times.
What was one of the hardest days you encountered as a Death Doula?
I’ve seen and encountered a lot of things – it’s a challenge to choose a “hardest day.” I think what I’d like to say is that my job is not hard on me. I consciously chose this path and I do something I deeply love. I think the hardest days are the ones where I realize I haven’t been taking as good of care of myself as I thought, and I’m tired and anxious at the same time. It is hard to understand myself as a caretaker by nature and what that means for me in the way of self-care. The hardest days are the ones where I feel the strain of self neglect.
What was one of the most memorable days you’ve had as a Death Doula?
My first living funeral, or really it was a goodbye party – that feels like a better way to describe it. A simple barbecue in the park and a poker game. An old man dying of lung cancer and his wife living a simple life in a trailer park that was accessed by walking through the parking lot of a muffler shop. Every Wednesday they met with friends and played poker. It was what they looked forward to. And so when the man was dying he called one final poker game, invited all his friends and said goodbye in their own way. They went home that night with huge smiles on their faces and there was a sense of completion.
He died just three days later.
How can someone interested in becoming a Death Doula start the process?
Start with you. Take a deep look at yourself. How did you get here? What’s your goal? How do you want to get there? Who do you respect in this field to get advice from? Is there anything about this work that makes you uncomfortable, and why?
Spend time with your own mortality. Emily Cross has an amazing offering called a Living Funeral Ceremony and I highly recommend it for people getting into this field. I don’t only recommend it for your own practice, but it’s also something that you can offer and lead yourself if you would like to become a practitioner. Right now during Covid, everything is done virtually and so it’s very affordable and accessible.
What type of education or training do you need to become a Death Doula?
I believe an effective Doula is a hybrid of a patient advocate and a funeral director. So depending on your background, you might already have the education or training to do this work. I’ve seen people come from a number of backgrounds – design, fashion, woodworking, hospitality, full time mom, nurses, you name it! I believe there are many ways to approach this field and be a successful professional.
What advice would you give to someone starting out as a Death Doula, or interested in becoming a Death Doula?
Ultimately, you need to be highly self motivated and you need a solid business plan. I have invested in an excellent business coach who is 100% responsible for me learning what I have about growing a small business into a not so small business. I am so tired of hearing people say you can’t make money as a full time Doula. I am proof that you absolutely can.
It will take time, years even, and it’s going to take all you’ve got. Invest in a business coach or a mentor, learn how small businesses start and grow, learn about marketing, branding, seek the advice of other professionals, learn how to sell your services to healthcare entities as well as individual clients, and constantly build professional relationships.
The work never ends, but that’s what it takes to be successful, and it’s absolutely ok to be successful. I’m proud of what I built, and it is the best feeling to get paid appropriately for the unique work that I do.
Do you currently work in the end-of-life industry? Would you like to be featured in a future Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life article? Please contact us with your job title and tell us about your experience in the industry!