Meet Akaljeet Khalsa, a Carbondale-based death doula
Akaljeet Khalsa, a Carbondale based end-of-life doula, knows first hand the painful experience of watching a loved one dying. In 2019, her mother was diagnosed with stage three cancer, catalyzing the overwhelming emotions humans struggle to navigate when someone we love is near the end of their life.
Khalsa realized she didn’t know what death looked like, what conversations she was supposed to have with her mother, or what her mother’s final wishes were. She began wondering: How do I even begin to approach this? How do I sit at her bedside if she’s dying? How do I be a support?
Her mother, who is now 71, made a recovery and now spends her time “climbing mountains in Boulder,” Khalsa said. Still, the boundless questions surrounding death led her to become an end-of-life doula.
The International End-of-Life Doula defines a death doula as someone who “guides a person who is transitioning to death and their loved ones through the dying process.” The title “death doula” and “end-of-life doula” can be used interchangeably.
In 2020, when news of the COVID-19 pandemic started unraveling, Khalsa began taking end-of-life doula courses through Conscious Dying Institute in Boulder.
“I think COVID really brought out something that was very obvious that needed to be brought forth, is that so many people were dying alone,” she said.
Khalsa was one of many people who started to undergo death doula training in the wake of the pandemic. According to Time, some death doula training groups saw enrollment “more than triple” during the early months of 2020.
“Death came in such a massive wave,” said Khalsa. “So many of us were so unprepared to lose loved ones or to witness the horrors that were happening around death, because people weren’t able to be together.”
“I think it took the country and the world by storm. It really made a lot of people look at and ask the larger question of, ‘Is this how we want death to look like in this country?’ Or do we want to be able to show up with knowledge and compassion,” she said.
Before becoming a death doula, Khalsa spent over 25 years practicing massage therapy. She still operates a massage therapy private practice out of her home in Carbondale.
“So as a bodyworker, and I like to also say that I’m a healer, too, so much a part of my work is about people in transition, often in their bodies, or even just spiritually and emotionally where they are in life,” said Khalsa.
“I show up for people in a lot of different ways when I do massage and healing work,” she said. “So this just seemed like another level of what I was doing. I see death as a healing transition, or what can be a healing transition.”
What does a death doula do?
Death doulas provide comfort, emotional and spiritual care to a dying person and their family. A large part of what they do is educating families on what they’re witnessing with their loved one and giving them guidance, Khalsa said.
Death doulas differ from hospice workers in that they do not offer medical care, and instead take on more emotional and spiritual labor.
“They (hospice workers) don’t have the luxury to really just sit and be with somebody and hold their hands and be with the family to help dissolve some of the fears around what’s happening to their loved one, as they’re witnessing their dying process,” said Khalsa.
While death doulas surged amid the pandemic, their work became increasingly important as Western societies have shifted from communal to more individualistic cultures, she said.
“As death doulas, we’re really trying to bring back that knowledge and that awareness that death is communal,” said Khalsa.
Embracing a range of religious ideologies is also an important component of being a doula. Many doulas are trained to “hold space, whatever spiritual belief system somebody has,” said Khalsa.
“Whatever their prayers are, whatever their reference to the Divine or God is, that’s the language we try to support and use,” she said.
Khalsa works with people one on one, and with couples, to create “a very personal and in-depth end-of-life care plan,” she said.
A different approach to thinking about death
Another component of Khalsa’s work is trying to change the conversation, or lack thereof, around mortality.
“I think it’s really powerful for people to really hear and understand — how you die is a gift to those you love,” said Khalsa.
In addition to serving as a death doula, she also co-hosts “death cafes,” an informal gathering of individuals who desire to talk about anything relating to death, once a quarter at the Basalt Library.
To reach out to Akaljeet Khalsa, email Akaljeet970@gmail.com. For more information, Khalsa‘s website: http://www.akaljeet.com/
To reach Kristen Mohammadi, call 304-650-2404 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.