‘Born to die’: A conversation with a North Carolina death doula

North Carolina death doula

Shawna Barlette stands in the doorway of her home office in Raleigh, North Carolina, on October 4, 2023. | Photo by Denver Dan

By Denver Dan

June 10, 2024

Death doulas, also called end-of-life doulas, are people who help the dying and their families navigate the end-of-life processes. Here’s a story about one.

[This story originally published at UNC Media Hub, a space for student journalists to practice stories with state, regional, and national appeal.]

Shawna Barlette’s journey through life reads like a novel, filled with unexpected twists and turns, profound loss and the relentless pursuit of purpose.

Her role as a death doula has highlighted the importance of open conversations about mortality, bringing her valuable perspectives to the forefront in an era where discussions on end-of-life care are gaining prominence, especially as an entire generation of baby boomers nears the end of their lives.

Barlette is herself no stranger to grief.

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Her interactions with the dying have taught her to leave nothing unsaid. “Death has been my companion from the young age of 28,” when she lost her first husband to a sudden heart attack, said Barlette, 69, of Raleigh.

By the age of 50, she had lost all of her grandparents, parents and stepparents, uncle and many close friends. By 63, she lost her second husband and sister. Her only living relatives are her 77-year-old brother, 50-year-old daughter and three grandchildren.

“I learned to sit with people in dark places,” Barlette said.

Her early experiences with death and her sister’s suicidality prepared her to become a death doula, and she has committed her life to guiding others through their final moments.

“All of these things shaped the work that I do,” she said.

Death doulas, also called end-of-life doulas, are people who help the dying and their families navigate the end-of-life processes. They help bridge the gap between the spiritual and medical aspects of dying, while assisting with logistics and, sometimes, legal paperwork. Their main goals are to educate, support and provide resources to clients and their loved ones.

Unlike hospice, death doulas are privately funded and are not reimbursed by health insurance. Therefore, they do not have time constraints for their services.

Hospice is normally covered by insurance, including Medicare, and is only available for those with less than six months to live. Death doulas can help anyone, even if they’re healthy and preparing for the end.

“The point of having a death doula is to not go through the journey alone,” said Molly Perrou, whose mother is one of Barlette’s clients.

“I feel like when Shawna’s there, they talk about everything,” Perrou said. “My mom’s mentioning stuff, like memories that are reminding me, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember that now,’ so it’s kind of nice for me too.”

Death doulas will generally serve the dying and their families to any lawful extent.

“If you say, ‘Hey, can you get in bed and hold me?’ I’m going to do that. ‘Can you spoon with me today?’ I sure can, if it helps you,” Barlette said.

Part of Barlette’s work is normalizing grief and death. She said death is “just as normal as having breakfast,” even though it’s devastating for family members.

Barlette hasn’t always done this work. She has been a human resources director, accountant and even a race-car driver. But her personal life experiences prepared her for and led her to death care.

She was married and had a daughter at age 18. The marriage fell apart because of Barlette’s infidelity. Her ex-husband kidnapped her daughter, setting off a tumultuous legal battle. Barlette was 28 when he died of a sudden heart attack. When Barlette got the phone call, it was as if she already knew.

Days earlier she dreamed that she exhumed her ex-husband before he had died. Standing over him, yelling at his body, “‘I wish I could have told you. I wish you would have listened. I wish you could have understood what happened here.’”

“There was all this unsaid, undone, unfinished regrets that I was left with,” Barlette said.

She said this first experience with death was terrifying, but it taught her something.

“I’m going to make sure that I say what I need to say before that person dies,” Barlette said.

She uses this approach with her clients, encouraging them to leave nothing unsaid. Barlette was 48 when her own mother was her first unofficial death doula client.

In a quiet room, she sat down with her dying mother, eager to understand her desires and honor her final wishes. “What do you want?” she asked, ensuring her mother’s needs were met in those final moments.

“I felt so incredibly empowered. There’s photographs of us at the funeral, and I’m the one sitting there just like, ‘This is so awesome, she got what she wanted,’” Barlette said.

Today, Barlette sits down with her clients and helps many of them just by listening and letting people know that their lives matter.

Mackenzie Laughridge, a former colleague and close friend, said Barlette helped her through a traumatic miscarriage with grace. “She was the first person that told me to feel all the feels, and embrace it,” Laughridge said. “I don’t know if I would have made it through that difficult time without her.”

'Born to die': A conversation with a North Carolina death doula
Barlette points out a photo from her Ironman triathlon in her home in Raleigh, North Carolina, on October 4, 2023. | Photo by Denver Dan

When Barlette was 61, she found out her second husband was dying of alcoholic liver failure.

He kept his alcoholism a secret for most of their marriage. But he couldn’t hide it once he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, triggering the worst two years of her life, Barlette said.

It was horribly painful to be his primary caretaker, she added. Her husband’s hospice nurse acknowledged Barlette’s caregiving skills.

“When the nurse gave me his badge and said, ‘Oh, you’re doing a better job than I am,’ I thought, ‘Wow, that’s quite a compliment,’ because I really felt like this is where I should be: doing death care, being with people when they’re in dark places and dying,” Barlette said.

Barlette’s experiences with pain and helping others through it have informed her way of life, teaching her to not take anything for granted. She has traveled the world, scaled mountains and competed in an Ironman triathlon.

“If we understand that we are mortal, that should serve to drive you to live your life, do what you want to do. It can be gone tomorrow. Do it now,” Barlette said. “It’s never too late. I was 50 years old when I did the Ironman. Do what makes yourself come alive.”

While acknowledging her mother’s mortality, Angie Isaac, Barlette’s daughter, said, “I feel like her work and the open conversations we’ve had about it will help me navigate that when the time comes. I do definitely think her work has helped bolster me to feel better going towards that event.”

Conversations concerning death may be avoided leading up to the dying process, but Barlette urges us to have them now. “Just start the conversation,” Barlette said.

“We’re born to die. I think that we don’t see mortality sometimes until it’s too late, until we don’t have a chance to do anything about it,” Barlette said.

Author

  • Denver Dan

    Denver Dan is a documentary filmmaker and multimedia journalist pursuing his M.A. in Journalism and Media at UNC Chapel Hill. He is the recipient of the William Francis Clingman Jr. Ethics Award for his work in trauma-informed journalism and enhancing existing SPJ codes.

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