The numbers boggle the mind. More deaths than AIDS in 40 years, the most recent epidemic in recent memory. More deaths than the 1918 influenza pandemic, previously the deadliest disease event in American history. More deaths than the U.S. Civil War, the deadliest conflict in our nation’s history. More deaths. More. More. More.
The COVID-19 pandemic has uprooted every aspect of American life. From how we work, to how we socialize, to how, when, and what we eat. How we have sex. How we spend money. Where we spend money. If we go to the doctor. Throughout this nearly two years of upheaval, our grim companion has been the ever-climbing death toll of those killed by the virus.
Death too has been marred by the pandemic. Families weep goodbyes behind protective screens or over FaceTime. Virtual funerals replace vibrant celebrations of life. People are left to grieve alone, or at the very least isolated from those they may need most.
When I contemplate the toll, the hundreds of thousands lost, and those reverberating effects, it can feel like I’m drowning. That there’s a crushing weight that’s inescapable. I felt that weight at its heaviest when a relative—admittedly a distant relative, but a man whom I’d always seen as a warm, happy presence—died of COVID a few weeks before Christmas.
Every family, every culture, every person grieves and feels loss differently. Some grieve silently and somberly, some grieve with celebration and family. Some just try to move forward to the next minute or second. But just as some believe our souls must be ferried through death, there are many who believe the living must be ferried as well.
Enter: a death doula.
The name is rather self-explanatory. Death doulas (who also call themselves death midwives or end-of-life doulas/midwives) guide a person through the process of death, from contemplating one’s own end, to putting together photo albums with family or friends, or helping to create advance directives, wills, and other important legal documents.
The work of a death doula can begin months or even years before someone dies. Marlisha Marie Martinez, a Skokie-based doula, says she usually has between six months to a matter of weeks with a client and their family before the actual passing.
Martinez previously spent more than two decades as a birthing doula and sees her current work as an extension of that. She also sees herself and her work as distinctly separate from a profit-driven funerary industry.
Martinez spoke at length in a phone interview about how expensive funerals, optional embalming, transportation, and other end-of-life steps are for a family, but says she provides a more holistic and less profit-driven approach. She says she’s famous for throwing death parties, which she says are like birthday parties but for death.
“I get everybody together and we party and play all kinds of music,” she says. “It doesn’t matter. It can be beautiful, tranquil music or it can be trap music.”
But much as doulas can be an emotional support during the birth process, Martinez says people like her have a particularly important role in protecting someone’s end-of-life wishes.
Martinez says she focuses on working with LGBTQ+ clients to ensure their lives and identities are respected in death. Her master’s degree in grief therapy is a particularly strong tool in her belt.
She recalled one client, a transgender woman, among many who have hired her for exactly this reason.
“She hired me to make sure I kick everybody’s butt in her family and demand that she was put in her outfit, her dress, her full makeup,” Martinez says. She says it’s not uncommon, even in 2021, for families to reject lovers of queer decedents, or to dress the deceased in clothes that don’t match their gender identity to placate a transphobic family.
“I fight for the rights of people who really, really need my help,” Martinez says.
As a Black woman, Martinez says she also has to work to dispel misconceptions in her own community about death, particularly that talking about it or preparing for it welcomes death into a home.
“I’m trying to teach people that death is [as much] a beautiful process as a birth,” she says.
And as shepherds to the afterlife, or whatever comes next, death doulas aren’t immune to loss themselves. Martinez herself has a daughter with a terminal illness. And many doulas told the Reader their own experiences with loss, particularly in the age of COVID-19, have bolstered or at least significantly impacted their work.
Kirsten Onsgard, a queer, Chicago-based yoga instructor who recently completed end-of-life doula training, says their experience losing their mom during the pandemic was one of the reasons they decided to became a doula. They say that seeing their mother in intensive care in the hospital pushed them to think of ways to give back to their community.
Onsgard says the training they went through also helped them contemplate and reckon with the idea of their own death, and gave them a lot of comfort in the face of so much unknown.
“As a kid I was terrified of death, and going through [doula training] made me more comfortable with the idea of death,” Onsgard says.
Alejandro Salinas hosts what he calls “death cafes”: discussions where participants are free to seek answers about death and dying. Before the pandemic, Salinas held the cafes at the Inner Sense Healing Arts Collective in Avondale.
Like Onsgard, Salinas lost a parent during the pandemic. He tells the Reader his father died of COVID-19 in May. And like Onsgard, he says his work in the realm of death helped him cope with his own loss.
“I’m really grateful for all those conversations and the tools that I’ve been able to have,” Salinas says. “I think when people aren’t grieving, it’s a lot harder for them to process or accept even the reality that we’re in. I think grief allows us to embrace the depth, the literal gravity, of a situation.”
Salinas’s death cafes are currently on hold, but he is confident they will return.
I asked everyone I interviewed for their advice about coping with what feels like an endless amount of death and sickness around us these days. Everyone said grief itself is not something to shy away from, but to move through and to experience as it comes
“I can’t stress enough the importance of literally just making the time and the space to grieve,” Salinas says.
“Some people are being rushed to grieve. Don’t ever rush to grieve, because you’ll never be healed,” Martinez says. “Take your time.”
Funeral homes on the front lines of the pandemic
Seeking out others to lean on is an indispensable part of tending to our mental wellness.
Loved ones reflect on the loss of partners, parents, siblings, joy givers, caretakers, and secret keepers.