On meeting a death doula

Death doula Shelby Kirillin chats with client Kim McGaughey. (Photo by Julianne Tripp)

“I want people to understand that death gets beautiful,” Shelby Kirillin says. “Death is amazing.”

I recently began contributing to Richmond magazine’s Sunday Story, a series that highlights people doing extraordinary things in Richmond. That’s how I came to interview Shelby, an intensive-care nurse who has taken on a new role: helping terminally ill clients and families plan good, gentle and meaningful deaths.
All my interviews leave some lasting impression on me, but Shelby’s more than most. I’ll never think about dying in quite the same way.
The Angel of Death is surprisingly upbeat.


“I know death is sad, but what’s wrong with dying?” Shelby Kirillin says, green eyes alight. “It’s OK. We’re all going to do it.”

Kirillin is a death doula — someone who guides the dying, and their families, through the end of life.

“You have written so many amazing chapters,” she tells her clients. “Write your last chapter. Put an exclamation point at the end! Make it end in a crescendo. So many people, I feel like, choose death because it’s just better than the hell that they’re living.”