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Matters of Life and Death

Local doulas ease transitions and boost wellbeing

Ten years ago, life and death converged in a way that changed Virginia Bunting’s perspective of how intricately the two are woven together. A birth and lactation coach for 13 years, one of the last births Bunting assisted with ended in a stillbirth – a moment she recognized as both “beautiful and painful at the same time.” Soon afterward, when her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Bunting found herself experiencing a series of what she calls “little deaths” — the loss of her parent in pieces, until his passing four years ago. “I got the call on a Friday from his caregiver, and he died on Monday,” she remembers. “Over that weekend, I felt rushed to get ready for something beautiful and sacred.” 

Bunting, who was already interested in the human healing process, says she’d heard about end of life doulas and felt called to explore the vocation in the wake of these events. She became certified as a doula in 2020 — a time when “death and grief were at the surface of everything” — and today, her mission is to shepherd dying people, as well as their loved ones, through the process. According to Bunting, this process helps them understand the poignancy of life and the necessity to live it fully. 

Allison Miller, a birth and postpartum doula working in Birmingham, feels a similar call to support new parents during and after the birthing process. Miller holds a master’s in public health and says that an internship in Nicaragua where she was privy to “shocking” birthing standards inspired her to take a closer look at our maternal landscape in the United States. “The more I read about maternity care in this country, the more I realized it’s a universal problem,” she says. “I decided I wanted to impact community health on an independent level by offering birth support.”

Though Miller trained for her profession 13 years ago, she admits she got a “slow start” due to getting married and pregnant — then losing her own baby and needing time to process. Today, Miller leads a team of doulas for BHAMBORN and continues to bring dignity to the labor room and help new parents feel empowered. (And the “labor room” can be anywhere, of course — not only hospitals but homes, campers, cars, even hotels!)

The term “doula” is defined by media outlets as a professional who offers emotional, physical and informational support. For Bunting and Miller — and for anyone called to these special roles — the transitions of birth and death require more than medical care. While doctors, nurses and clinical caregivers are certainly invaluable, having an empathetic listener who can advocate for the individual’s or family’s wishes and goals reminds us that birth and death are not medical events; they are, in the words of Bunting, natural events. 

"There is value in the doula not being a family member and not being emotionally invested,” she notes. “People will share what’s on their hearts with me — and it can take a weight off of them and prepare them for the transition. If you are drawn to this work, you are openhearted and have the desire to be of service.”

“For the mother, the birth is a sacred event — for the medical provider, they see many mothers in a year,” Miller points out. “Half of my doula clients are those experiencing hospital births because those parents need an advocate — they need someone on their side and not working for the medical provider. If my client is not feeling heard, it is my job to make sure they are. And the other half of my clients are home births.” 

The support new parents and grieving families might request of their doula understandably varies. Some parents might need guidance in creating a birth plan or voicing their wishes during delivery, or they might want physical support, such as a comforting massage. Miller shares how every set of parents is unique in their wishes — and while some might only need her to “park the car,” others ask “her whole body to be in the space.”

“It just varies so much,” she says. “I always tell them, it’s whatever they need, whether they are looking for educational resources or need to process past experiences.”

Bunting agrees her clients are in need of different things, from listening to the passing loved one’s stories about their heyday to helping family and friends process the loss. 

“My role can be educating loved ones on how to support the dying person,” she says. “Having someone share what is normal and what to expect — this is one way to support and make everyone more comfortable. And sometimes, my role is to witness [the passing person’s] pain, hear them talk about regrets, forgiveness, things they wish they’d done differently. We can't fix these at the end of life, but I can be an openhearted loving human and help in the process of grappling —  instead of it all being a secret, we can honor it.”

For both doulas, support extends to beyond the actual moment of the birth or death and continues to evolve. Parents share the joy of being alive with their newborns in the postpartum period, and bereaved families experience their own lives with honor for loved ones. 

“I will meet with the families again postpartum,” says Miller. “We cover how they can give themselves a nourishing postpartum experience, whether it’s with meals or emotional support.”

“Death is our greatest teacher about life,” Bunting adds. “I want people to view death as spiritual and face their own mortality so their existence is transformed — so they’re savoring every moment and really looking at the flowers, their next meal, their whole life.” 
 

  • Virginia Bunting
  • Allison Miller

“Over that weekend, I felt rushed to get ready for something beautiful and sacred.”