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The Vigil and the Role of the Doula

The term vigil has been used in many contexts throughout history and in the present day. Derived from the Latin vigilia, vigil means “wakefulness.” In the context of the end of life, the vigil period refers to the dying person’s last days and hours when loved ones and/or support people are present around-the-clock, companioning, offering comfort, and keeping watch. This time can be challenging and it can also bring great gifts. One way to ease some of the potential stress and anxiety about the vigil and end of life in general is by planning ahead.

Some people begin planning the vigil period long before they are directly involved with end of life care while others wait until they are closer to this stage. It all depends on the comfort level of the client. If the individual is unable to participate in the vigil planning, loved ones can still plan for this stage of the end of life process. The doula’s role during this phase is to support the individual and their loved ones in creating the plan, offering suggestions, and guidance along the way while providing emotional, spiritual, and practical support. Once the vigil plan is crafted, the individual may set it aside to reflect on the plan then return to it to make revisions as needed with the support of the doula. The doula can keep a record of the individual’s wishes and help refine the plan as the time draws closer.

The doula can also do much of the organizational, practical work related to the vigil including securing requested items, helping to set up the space, arranging for meals, communicating with friends and family, and maintaining the space during the vigil itself so that loved ones can focus on the individual. The doula’s presence can enable loved ones to take a break to care for themselves, which is essential during this time that can be quite exhausting.

The vigil is highly personal and intimate. It’s a time of vulnerability for the person who is dying and for their loved ones. It can be a space of great creativity and empowerment for everyone involved. Some elements of vigil planning include:

  • Setting the tone -- Where will the vigil take place? Will the space be quiet or full of people and sounds? Who will be present? Are there people who shouldn’t be present? Might there be poetry, religious, or other readings and/or any rituals? What about music?

  • Creating the atmosphere and determining the items that will be included in the space. Will there be flowers? Candles? What kind of lighting?

Another way in which the doula can support the vigil period is by keeping loved ones informed about the dying process. While there is no way to predict when a person is going to transition, there are certain signs that indicate that death is drawing closer. The doula can provide guidance and support at this time.

The vigil period can be a time of sadness, stress, and uncertainty, and it can also be a time of profound connection and meaning. The doula’s support throughout the process can alleviate some of the potential stressors, enabling loved ones to be present for the individual and each other during the transition.

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