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Alexis Hughes of Ringgold, Ga., became a death doula after the death of a loved one. / Contributed photo by Patchalyn Vick.

Alexis Hughes, 37, had never ruminated on death until a loved one died by suicide in 2014. It took her years to sort through her emotions.

"It was unexpected, but expected," Hughes said of the death of a family member. "When we lost her, it traumatized me. How do you tell people your life is in shambles because you lost someone you loved?"

Hughes, a Ringgold resident and former school teacher, said after the death she fell into a depression that lasted several years.

But the pain eventually gave her empathy for those struggling with death in a modern world that often shrugs off end-of-life issues. The United States might be an advanced nation, Hughes said, but discussions about death and dying here are considered taboo or done behind closed doors.

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Her healing path led to a new career. Hughes has become a death doula, a profession that translates to being an all-purpose assistant for those who are terminally ill or for families who have recently lost loved ones. Among her services are notarizing documents, giving eulogies, closing social media accounts, organizing estate sales, filming "last messages," making scrapbooks — anything a dying person or a family member needs.

"It's a service-oriented profession where our job is to make something scary, less so — and to remove as much trepidation and fear as possible," she said.

Hughes, who is just getting started at her new job, says her husband came up with a comparison that helps people understand her work. He describes her as being "a wedding planner for death."

It's a light-hearted description of a somber task, but that's part of the role of a doula, to normalize the tasks associated with dying so they don't seem so daunting.

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"In the United States our treatment of death is an afterthought," Hughes says. "When we are involved, it's often clinical and cold. Other cultures view death more warmly. There is more community involvement with passing."

Hughes says there is an emerging, informal network of death doulas who hope to do for the dying process what birth doulas have done for the beginning of life. She has a website and has begun doing some pro bono work to perfect her craft.

"There are international fellowships and guilds that are bringing this [career] forward and forming standards and practices," Hughes said.

Her interest in becoming a death doula was inspired by attorney Alua Arthur, founder of Going with Grace, a death doula training and end-of-life planning organization.

Arthur's website says Going with Grace exists to support people as they answer the question, "What must I do to be at peace with myself so that I may live presently and die gracefully?'"

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Hughes has a blend of life experiences and training that would seem to make her a good candidate for this profession. She is a former teacher with a degree in psychology, and she also has IT skills from previous work experience.

A list of her services and fees is available on her website withoutfeardoula.com.

"Most people do not know this practice exists," Hughes said.

Life Stories is published on Mondays. Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com.

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