Young workers finding their place in end-of-life care: 'I realized death can be positive'

Jenna Smith, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Lifestyles

CHICAGO -- At age 19, Mary Phelps stood at her grandmother’s bedside. In mere minutes, she would watch the woman with whom she had shared a home and a life take her final breaths.

She held her grandmother’s legs, lightly massaging them as the seconds ticked by. “I just remembered her becoming so young in the face and relaxed,” Phelps said. “That’s when it came to me. Death can be calm and peaceful.”

Phelps’ perspective toward death and dying would forever be changed.

“It was just a really beautiful moment,” Phelps said of her grandmother’s passing. “So to see that, I realized death can be positive.”

Now, six years after that transformative moment, Phelps is one of Chicago’s youngest death doulas at age 25.

The role of a death doula is to educate clients on what to expect at the end of life. The little-known field is centered around easing an individual’s dying process, such as by informing the person of their burial options, serving as a point-of-contact between the person and their loved ones, and assisting in caregiving. And Chicago’s young and diverse end-of-life care workers are striving to provide comfort and representation during an inevitable period of life.


Young doulas say they aim to change the perception that death is laden with gloom.

Phelps, for example, opened the door to her North Center office sporting a messy bun atop her head and a welcoming smile. She pressed her hands together in a namaste symbol and offered a small bow.

With an elephant tattoo on her arm and beads in her hand (a gift for completing her doula training), she sat down, folded her legs in a rolling office chair and began to share her story. When the beads broke between her fingers as she spoke, she smiled and said, “must be the energy clearing.”

Phelps describes herself as “death positive.” While the expression may raise eyebrows, she uses it as a way of calling attention to the impact of her work.


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