Death Support: How Volunteering as a Death Doula Made Me a Better Lawyer

By Rachel Schromen

Three years ago, I was at my father's side as he lost his battle with Alzheimer's on his 70th birthday. My father’s death was a pivotal moment for me as I not only said goodbye to my dad, but I also learned intimately about the experience of death and, frankly, how unprepared I was for it. 

Prior to my father’s passing, I practiced law as an estate planning and elder law attorney, meaning I had conversations about death and dying far more than the majority of people do. This interest started at the age of 14 when I volunteered in nursing homes. It continued as an adult, when I, along with my therapy dog Mabel , was an active volunteer with hospice patients. My education, career, and community involvement were largely in the end-of-life space, yet I had little to no knowledge of what the physical process of dying entailed.  

Without this knowledge I found myself caught off guard and disturbed by what is a natural and unescapable reality on multiple occasions. I walked away feeling like this lack of knowledge diminished my ability to be fully present and supportive of my father in his final hours. Following his death, I also struggled with the grieving process, a process I realized is largely not discussed or shared openly. I did not know how to grieve, how to ask for support, or where to turn — sentiments I hear all too frequently from clients who come to my office after the death of a loved one. 

This experience started me on a journey of discovery about the end-of-life and dying process. I read books like Stiff by Mary Roach, It’s OK You’re Not OK by Megan Devine, and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty. I began participating in local organization such as Twin Cities Death Café and the Minnesota Death Collaborative. I spoke to end-of-life doulas, hospice nurses, and funeral directors.  

While to some this fascination may seem morbid, to me it was a healthy part of coming to terms with the loss of my father. In our culture, talking about death is often taboo, but it’s an inevitable certainty for all of us. Not only will we all die, but we will also find ourselves supporting and grieving loved ones at the end of their life. I wanted to be able to talk and think about death in a productive way while also holding space for my friends, family, and clients in a more effective way.

This journey of discovery resulted in my becoming an end-of-life doula through the International End of Life Doula Association (INELDA) and eventually investing hours as a volunteer with Our Lady of Peace Hospice. In this experience I have acted as a companion and advocate for individuals and their families in the immediate end-of-life space. Sometimes this means having a conversation with someone early on about their fears and grief following a terminal diagnosis. Other times I am sitting vigil with families at the bedside of their loved one who is actively dying. In those moments I answer questions, provide comforting words, and hold space for their grief.  I have been pushed out of my comfort zone of limiting these conversations to the legalities of end-of-life preparedness, and in doing so I challenged myself to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. 

My experience as a volunteer end-of-life doula has influenced the conversations I have with clients as they make their own end-of-life preparations. My ability to hold space for the emotions that accompany these topics has deepened, and my skills in offering advocacy and support have grown in a meaningful way. While my work with clients is solely legal in nature, I am better able to holistically support clients in accessing additional resources. When I, perhaps naively, once thought estate planning and elder law conversation were how people prepared for death, I now view it as simply a part of a much larger journey and conversation. I not only welcome but also encourage a much more comprehensive approach to these topics with clients, which has, in turn, made my legal career much more fulfilling. 

I miss my dad every single day, and I have immense gratitude that his death ultimately brought me on this journey that has brought more humanity and compassion to my life — by changing my own understanding and perspective about death, enhancing my ability to support others in their own end of life journey, and also deepening the capacity in which I practice law. 

Rachel T. Schromen is an estate planning and elder law attorney, and owner of Schromen Law, in St. Paul.  She has been named a Super Lawyer Rising Star in 2020 and 2021, and in 2021 was named Best Estate Law Firm in Minnesota by readers of the Star Tribune.