A New Life in Death
May 18, 2020 3:00 PM   Subscribe

I want to study and eventually counsel people about all things death related. Please help me fine tune this idea before I have $100k in student loans and nothing to show for it.

I’m in my early 40’s and (thankfully) employed full time.

Prior to covid I was looking for a new job (I've been in this one for over a decade), and also regretting never obtaining a degree. My job is not threatened, but I also know it will be slim pickings for a long while even after (if) we find a vaccine. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about a change in careers and I thought this would be a good chance to head back to school (online, while working) so I’m acquiring an education in the meantime while things are so grim, and working toward something I actually care about once I was finished vs just tossing myself into another office.

My interests are thanatology-- bereavement counseling, etc. I am very interested in helping families work through the dying process, mourning, helping provide “good deaths” for people, creative a better funeral experience, and generally anything death-positive related.

I’ve researched being a Death Doula, but I don’t have the nursing background, and it seems like there is a lot of self-promotion involved in that. Just starting out, I’d rather work for an established clinic, hospice, funeral home, or related organization.

My thought was I’d get a bachelor’s degree as swiftly as possible and ideally hop over to Northwestern’s online counseling Masters program, and then on to the University of Maryland’s Thanatology certificate after I was licensed.

So a few questions: Is it too late for me? Would I be 89 years old by the time I was finished? Is this field overcrowded or does it not even exist? Is there a school I should be looking at beyond the two I've mentioned above?

If you’re in this field, what did your career path look like?

Also, Yes I read this entire mefi post and people’s responses. Please accept that I understand the popular sentiment here that The World is Fucked And There Is No Point, but I do think going into a profession that can help people feel better about death is a worthy cause and while that post was very detrimental to me, I’m just citing it here so I’m not overwhelmed with 500 “what’s the point?” replies.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
There are different occupations that work together to provide hospice care for end of life patients - perhaps thinking about a career you might want related to hospice might give you some the structure it seems like you're looking for. Here is the Bureau of Labor Statistics page on hospice:

posted by warble at 3:12 PM on May 18, 2020

I wouldn't take any expensive courses in funeral service to augment your training if you do this, as there is a very strong trend for smaller or no funerals, and less money being spent on them. The training would be informative but probably not enough to justify going to mortuary school. I suspect doing some orientation sessions would be enough. The funeral service industry appears to be unstoppable contracting and there are signs that the baby boomers will opt out of purchased funeral care. You might do well if you found ways for families to avoid the cost of funerals, as opposed to participating in the industry and encouraging people to invest money in ceremonies.

It is worth noting that people have expressed a definite interest in therapy dogs as support for their death care. In one study 35% of people said they would extremely interested in having a therapy dog at any funeral they were planning. That is another thing you could look into if you like dogs.
posted by Jane the Brown at 3:16 PM on May 18, 2020

A friend of mine just started a death companion course from the School of American Thanatology. Looks like it might be a way to get your feet wet to see if it's something you want to pursue?

My friend also just posted this person's perspective on the course.

I think it's a worthwhile rabbit hole to dive into.
posted by hydra77 at 3:20 PM on May 18, 2020

You're not too old! Counseling is one of those fields in which age is an asset. Go for it! Even if you can only go part-time you will only be in your fifties when you're done. I imagine there will be a growing need for this kind of counseling given our aging population.

If you don't have any college credits at all consider taking some of your basic courses at a community college. Many (most?) states have some coordination between community colleges and state colleges and universities so that particular courses are fully transferable. Going to community college will save you a lot of money.
posted by mareli at 3:23 PM on May 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

Would you be able to volunteer at a hospice in your area? That would give you insight into how the different roles work together to provide end of life care. Then you can decide what education path is right for you. I looked at the volunteering section of my local hospice, and I see that they offer a 'Fundamentals of Palliative Care' course to volunteers who are interested in working directly with hospice residents.

I think this is an incredibly worthy thing to do as a vocation and as a human. I hope you figure out something that you can make happen.
posted by melissa at 3:27 PM on May 18, 2020 [14 favorites]

One way to network for possibilities is also to see if you have Death Cafes in your area.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:37 PM on May 18, 2020

My dad does this. He is an Anglican priest, but when we were kids he wanted a job that provided more flexibility. So he quit working as a parish priest and specialised in bereavement counselling and funerals. Then he went to university and did a thesis about death. Now he does occasional media appearances on death-related topics as well as doing all the other death stuff. A lot of his work is around especially difficult deaths, creative funerals, ways to incorporate relevant cultural traditions, etc.
posted by lollusc at 5:14 PM on May 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

Seconding the suggestion to start doing some hospice volunteer work and also check out volunteer opportunities providing support for the bereaved. That give you a better idea if you really like the work before you invest a decade in getting qualified to do it at professional level.

To work as a therapist, you will want to get licensed by the state so you can practice independently. This will involve another two years or so of working as associate under supervision but once you get your license you will have the freedom to set up on your own or be hired by an agency. You will also be able to branch into other kinds of counseling if, twenty years down the road, your interests change.

Another option is to become a hospice chaplain (I found a program in California that will ordain you an a nondeominational minister so you can qualify) I think there might be more job openings for a therapist than a chaplain but you have plenty of time to research that.

I went back to school for similar reasons in my late forties and it was a good choice for me. After all, someday you will be 50 or 60 no matter what - it is just a question if whether you want be old and doing work you love or just old.
posted by metahawk at 5:24 PM on May 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

Because I'm a social worker, my probably biased thought is get the cheapest MSW you can then look for jobs in hospice. From there you can either keep doing more of that or get your license (which, ok, is a huge bureaucratic nightmare most places) and be a therapist. Even without the license, this takes a couple of years because you need your BA and then two years (or three maybe if you do part time while working) for the degree, but it's also possible you could get a BSW and see if there are hospice jobs that just want the bachelor's. I don't see any reason there shouldn't be (counseling is not magic) but I never looked into it so I can't fill out this part of the answer.

Usual thing I always say on this topic: I stress CHEAPEST. An expensive social work degree is simply not worth pursuing. Many jobs don't pay great and you don't want debt.

Certain other job paths could also get you toward working with dying people and their families, I think, one of which would be hospital social work which pays relatively well. One, in theory, would be Adult Protective Services but those are local government jobs strangled by bureaucracy and low on clinical content.

Hope this is some help.
posted by less of course at 6:34 PM on May 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

I work at a children’s hospital with a palliative care team that includes social workers. I believe the particular social worker who is dedicated to the palliative care service has an MSW and was a hospital social worker before she got involved with the team. From what I’ve seen, palliative care often involves as much life as death- it’s involved in many cases that aren’t really hospice situations (e.g., complicated new diagnoses and chronic illnesses).
posted by MadamM at 7:45 PM on May 18, 2020

As a birth doula, I can say that I have no nursing background whatsoever, and there’s no licensure or education required. I don’t know if death doulas are different, but I took a short training and then started attending births. There isn’t the same infrastructure around death doulas, as it’s less common, but maybe take another look at that?
posted by Illuminated Clocks at 8:39 PM on May 18, 2020

You might find some useful resources and information here:Order of the Good Death
posted by effluvia at 8:48 PM on May 18, 2020

Two different, related options to work with bereaved people are counselling, specialising in bereavement counselling, or becoming a funeral/memorial celebrant. Someone doesn't usually do both in my experience.

Where I live, becoming a celebrant would be cheaper and quicker and to find work you'd need to be registered or accredited with one of the umbrella organisations and make connections with funeral directors who might recommend you. To start with, you might be able to work part-time or around existing obligations. Counselling in my area would mean 2-3 years of education at graduate level, probably without a bachelor's degree if you can show some genuine interest and volunteer experience.

If you want to work with people who are dying, then the hospice movement is probably the best way in. But anything that uses a lot of volunteer effort may be less likely to offer sustainable paid employment.
posted by plonkee at 4:53 AM on May 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm not quite sure how much personal experience you've had with death already. maybe practical is a better word than personal. I don't mean non-professional; I mean actually seeing it and being around it, as opposed to studying it and studying its effects on the still-living. If your only experience to date has been with elderly people or close family, I think the first step ought to be to get some more experience with helping dying strangers in any respectable volunteer capacity that exists.

there's nothing in your question to indicate that you couldn't handle it, but there are various ways of coping and some of them are not great. I do not work in any adjacent field but I had the misfortune of having to beg a monstrous hospice nurse for help she simply was not willing to give (others of her colleagues were willing; I was not asking for unreasonable or illegal things. just normal pain drugs for a screaming dying woman was all.)

You have to be detached enough to function, for enough years to make a real career out of it, which for most people means learning to act like you feel more empathy than you do (because feeling it fully is what burns people out). this is difficult. some people just turn off the empathy and forget the acting part and the paying attention part. others don't turn it off at all, don't even turn it down, and of those, maybe one in fifty is a living saint. I knew one of those, too. the rest just fall apart.

anyway maybe you know this, but I know it too and knowing is different from doing. Find out exactly how close you can comfortably be to death and dead bodies as an everyday thing, and use that to gauge what aspect of the helping professions you would be best suited to.
posted by queenofbithynia at 2:16 PM on May 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

Volunteering at a hospice is free and you will learn so much from the nurses, patients, families and other volunteers.
posted by zdravo at 5:55 PM on May 20, 2020

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