Sara Web creates Chattanooga business to help smooth the path to life's end

'Death doula' aims to make the inevitable more bearable

Death is one of the most universal experiences we share, but it also tends to make people feel lost and alone, so Sara Web created a business to step into that gap.

"There are places in our culture where we have systems that support us, but loss and grief and death bring up so many strong negative emotions that some of your support systems can melt away," she says. "People don't know what to do, they don't know what to say."

Web launched Illumination End-of-Life Guidance in the spring. Her clients range from people who are facing the loss of a loved one or who are ill and doing their own end-of-life planning to people experiencing the death of a beloved pet.

"It was something I had become passionate about over the years as I had lost people who were close to me," Web says. "When it happens to you, it feels like you're totally lost, as if you are the first person this has ever happened to, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth."

Her new life as a death doula, as the work is often called, began after Web was laid off from the Tennessee Aquarium along with 21 other professionals whose jobs fell to pandemic pressures. The layoffs were not totally unexpected, but that didn't make them any less painful, Web says.

"Everyone was worried, and we were really one of the last major institutions to do [layoffs,]" she says. "I spent about six months eating cookie dough and moping and wearing pajamas. It was a very real loss."

But when the fog began to lift, she came back to a plan she had been considering for several years to develop a business supporting people through the concrete realities of death and grief.

"Three years before the layoff, I thought really long and hard about quitting at the aquarium and starting to do this," she says. "In a sense, this has kind of pushed me in a direction I had already considered going."

About half of Web's clients are local, while half work with her remotely, and Web is expanding her focus on working with people who care for animals in zoos and aquariums. The complexities and pain of losing an animal they've cared for professionally make the process tough for zookeepers, and there's an unmet need for coordinated support, Web says.

Web worked in zoos and aquariums for 16 years, including the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and the Houston Zoo. She spent six years at the Tennessee Aquarium, working on a wide variety of educational and animal enrichment programming, as well as caring for animals and overseeing the Island Life exhibit. The health and happiness of lemurs, otters, alligators and lots of other creatures were her daily lookout.

Sara Web

* Company: Illumination End-of-Life Guidance, online at illuminationguidance.com* Family: Web and her husband, Richard Baxter, married in April 2020, opting for a small ceremony when COVID-19 upended their plans for a larger wedding. They moved her mother from Kansas to live near them in Red Bank to keep her from being isolated far from family during the pandemic.* Age: 38

"Zookeeping is a calling," Web says. "It's a deeply meaningful thing. You don't get rich, you get dirty and tired, you get achy, you give up holiday and weekends, and to get to those positions takes a long time and a lot of hard work."

But her new work is also a calling, and it's one she spent a lot of time preparing herself for, Web says.

"The first thing I had to do was a lot of research into who's legitimate, who's offering the best coursework," she says. "The International End of Life Doula Association are real pioneers in the approach. The course was about a month-and-a-half, and I was meeting with these huge groups on Zoom. It was really wonderful and exhausting and harrowing."

Her role as a death doula means she can help with a range of logistical and practical hurdles, as well as being a support through grief, but she is also attuned to her limits, Web says.

"If the grief is really complicated, I may refer them to someone with a lot of fancy letters in front of their name," she says. "Part of training is to know when I'm the right person to talk to and when I'm not."

Costs can range from $60 for short-term support to $1,000 or $2,000 for longer, more involved guidance through death and its aftermath.

"I start with things people are a little more comfortable with, helping with the logistical side," Web says. "I'm not a doctor or a lawyer, but I can help you stay organized and that way you're thinking about the things you need to be thinking about so you don't feel so overwhelmed and scared by it."

Presence is the most important element of her work, Web adds.

"People are bouncing around between all of these things, and I can be there for them through the whole journey, from which funeral home to use all the way to holding their hand as they pass," she says.

The work is often difficult, and it's important to acknowledge that, Web says.

"There are moments when you are devastated," she says. "It's not the kind of field where you can ignore self-care. You cannot say 'I'll be fine,' and put your head down and move ahead."

It's also a powerful reminder of the universality of the experience of death, she says.

"I think you have to have a certain amount of your own peace with mortality, and have your own thoughts and feelings ironed out to do this sort of work, but it definitely makes me look at the people close to me around me with a lot of fervent love," she says. "You're aware it's not forever."

And being able to support people in a tangible way through a challenge we all face is rewarding, Web adds.

"I can't stop someone from dying, I can't stop what's going to happen, but I find a huge amount of comfort in knowing that, at the bare minimum, things will be better because I was a part of it. I feel like I can only help."