The process of losing a loved one can be a long road wrought with grief, anger and confusion.

Most would prefer to avoid these experiences, but Darcy Brandel finds that by entering that space, she can help families navigate their loss.

Brandel, a lecturer in creative writing in the Residential College and with U-M’s Semester in Detroit program, has worked as an end-of-life doula, also referred to as a “death doula,” for more than three years.

Similar to birth doulas who assist expecting mothers with pregnancy and birth, Brandel works with families to facilitate the passing of a loved one.

Darcy Brandel, a lecturer in creative writing in the Residential College and with U-M’s Semester in Detroit program, serves as a “death doula” to help families facilitate the passing of a loved one. (Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

“I think a lot of people have this sense, like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s so depressing,’ when in fact, I’m just sort of blown away by the honor of being invited into people’s spaces at this moment. It feels deeply sacred to be in this space,” Brandel said. 

Brandel became interested in working as a death doula after her life went through a bit of a transition. She previously was head of the English department at a university that shut down, thrusting her into a future of uncertainty. After she found a new home at U-M, she said she felt drawn to serving as a death doula to help others grapple with periods of change.

“I just kind of felt a calling to it. It was kind of slow and quiet at first, but then it just got more powerful,” Brandel said.

In February 2020, Brandel finished her training with the Lifespan Doulas of Ann Arbor. Due to restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, she had to wait a few months before volunteering as a death doula at hospice centers.

“I think my perspectives about death and impermanence — that this is natural and something that we all are going to experience — is so different from the way I think our death-phobic culture sees death,” Brandel said.

When she works with families, Brandel helps them navigate all aspects of the death process — from canceling credit cards to sitting by the bedsides of those about to die to provide comfort and support. In connecting with people in their most raw and vulnerable moments, Brandel has seen how profound relationships can shape a full life.

“It felt really right and felt like a kind of service that, in many ways, would bring together a lot of the things that had been connected to my teaching with social justice work, and it added this other dimension that hadn’t been in my academic work,” Brandel said.

Above all, Brandel said her time as a death doula has shown her that human beings at their core, despite the differences that create divides throughout life, are built to love.

During a home visit, Brandel noticed a family had paraphernalia supporting Donald Trump, which she said made her uncomfortable. But after a while, the family’s hospitality and devotion to their loved one put her at ease.

“I think there are so few spaces in the world, particularly at this political moment, where we can connect across the potential divides,” Brandel said.

“I think above all, doula-ing reminds me of — and I don’t mean to sound cheesy — but it reminds me of the human connection we can all have.”

Brandel operates as Mud Lotus Doulas, and hopes to continue to grow her business and spread awareness of the support death doulas can provide.

“It’s incredibly difficult and people are grieving and there’s loss occurring, but at the same time, it’s this incredibly powerful and joyful way of acknowledging the profoundness of life and the gifts that people give us,” she said.

"Lecturer helps families navigate losing loved ones" Originally published April 3, 2021 in The University Record. By Katie Kelton