Bereavement doulas – help make it a gentler goodbye

14413683 - a premature baby holds his mother

There can be very few things as devastating as losing a baby as soon as, or even before, they come into the world. Bereavement doulas guide parents through the process of losing a baby before, during or after childbirth, in an attempt to make the experience a little less painful.

Johanna assisting at a home water birth

We are there when the parents meet and then say goodbye to their baby all at the same time,” says Ballito-based student bereavement doula Vanessa de Beer. “This is the only time they will ever spend with their baby and we try help make it as peaceful and special as possible.”

Vanessa and fellow student bereavement doula Johanna Karlsson are currently the only two Mama Nurture doulas offering this service on the North Coast. Both women say training to be a bereavement doula was not so much of a decision as it was a ‘calling’. They are both currently completing their training through the Mama Nurture Organisation in Pretoria.

Vanessa, a mother of two, has been a sports massage therapist for over 20 years. She became a WOMBS (medical-aid approved) doula five years ago, after having a very positive experience with a midwifery homebirth and a doula with her first daughter.

“As doulas, we work alongside the midwife and doctor. They take care of the medical well-being of the mother and baby and we provide practical, emotional and physical support for parents before, during and after childbirth. The word ‘doula’ actually means ‘a woman’s servant’,” she says.

Vanessa has been a doula for five years.

“A bereavement doula helps specifically when parents have been given a life-limiting diagnosis (their baby is only going to live for a few hours or days, or if the baby is stillborn.”

Fellow North Coast student bereavement doula, Johanna Karlsson, is a registered nurse and midwife. She works as a doula in Ballito and Durban. “I have been passionate about pregnancy, birth and babies for as long as I can remember. It’s why I became a nurse in the first place,” says Johanna, who has been a doula for two years.

Asked why she chose to train to become a bereavement doula, Johanna says she wanted to be equipped to handle a situation correctly should a mother lose a baby during childbirth. “I don’t think we should only be able to help during the ‘happy’ births. These families need our help so much.”

Vanessa decided to become a bereavement doula after helping a mother at Stanger Hospital who lost her twins which were born at seven months. “I dressed her babies for the funeral and took foot and handprints for her to keep. I was glad I could help make it a bit easier,” she says.

After seeing a story about ‘death doulas’ on an episode of Carte Blanche, Vanessa felt compelled to find out more.

Bereavement doulas, she explains, help parents with a birth plan if they have an early diagnosis and know their baby is not going to survive. “We make sure that nothing is rushed (unless there is a medical emergency), and help the parents by giving them options, like whether they would like us to bath and dress their baby, whether they want to view and hold their baby and if they want to have memories and keepsakes. These include taking locks of hair, making moulds of the baby’s hands and feet and having a photographer there to take pictures. We work with professional photographers who volunteer their time to do these shoots. Often the biggest regret parents have is not having photographs of their baby.”

As bereavement doulas Vanessa and Johanna are hoping to work hand-in-hand with the hospitals to support families, and help with practical arrangements like providing them with a list of carefully-selected and trusted professional service providers.

They will also support parents whose babies are in the NICU and arrange ‘nurture bags’ for the parents with candles, bath salts and a journal for the mother to take home afterwards. They are starting a pregnancy and infant loss support group in Ballito in September, and will co-facilitate together with the other Mama Nurture doulas in the Durban area a  ‘Walk of Remembrance’ in October.

“Mothers who lose babies early on during pregnancy are often expected to ‘get over it’ way too soon, and move on without having truly grieved the loss of their baby. We need society to acknowledge their loss and allow them to grieve,” says Johanna.

Details: For more information about their services, the support group or if you would like to donate towards the ‘nurture bags’ or help knit items for babies in the NICU, contact either Vanessa: [email protected], 084 581 8080 or Johanna: [email protected], 082 369 1039 or visit:

Text: Leah Shone | Photographs: CC Rossler,