By Rochelle Rietow
There are many similarities between birth and death.
Just like birth… death is a deeply personal, emotionally and physically intense journey for the loved one and the family and friends involved.
Henry Fersko-Weiss got to thinking about these similarities, and wondered. What if we supported the dying and their families, the same way we support the birth process? That journey of discovery is what prompted Henry to leave his job at a hospice center in 2015 and begin developing the very first End-of-Life (EOL) Doula program in the US.
It was very clear at the annual NFDA convention this year that Henry’s work offers plenty of great opportunities to think about the ways that you can grow your business by changing the way you approach end-of-life decisions with your families.
Before we dive into Henry’s work and what we can learn from it, let’s first cover the basics. Like, what is a doula?
The traditional doula vs. a death doula
A doula, according to Wikipedia, is “a woman who gives support, help, and advice to another woman during pregnancy and during and after the birth.” Traditionally, doulas are there for the mother to provide emotional and physical support during an otherwise deeply personal and often traumatic period of a mother’s life.
And recently, the services of a doula are becoming increasingly popular in the realm of death, to provide the same type of support at the end of someone’s life. For the same reasons you would hire a doula when giving birth, an EOL Doula is there to provide a type of grief counseling for both the dying and their families before and after their death.
An end-of-life Doula is different from a grief counselor or funeral director because they’re typically there before the death to help the bereaved and the dying cope with any feelings they may have.
And in our opinion, and EOL Doula fills in gaps in the funeral service industry that could offer up a new way of working with families. To better understand this, let’s dive more into the doula process, and how you can integrate some of these principles at your funeral home:
The 3-Phase EOL Doula Model
The three-phase doula model sums up the purpose of the EOL Doula from beginning to end, as well as how you can incorporate the principles of EOL Doulas at your funeral firm:
1. Summing Up & Planning
Death is a deeply personal and often unsettling experience. Often the dying will not want to discuss their fears or feelings with family and friends, which is why the EOL Doula can become a particularly helpful figure in the dying process. They may focus on making the dying atmosphere as comfortable as possible in addition to providing emotional support.
During the summing up & planning phase, the EOL Doula will work with the dying person to think back on their life and remember various cherished memories. This phase is all about finding meaning in life so that the dying person can accept their fate and make peace with the fact that their life is coming to an end. A process like this often includes reprocessing cherished memories to form meaning in life, as well as addressing worries or issues by helping the dying cope with feelings of fear or unpreparedness.
Applying this at your funeral firm:
During the pre-arrangement process, it can be a really powerful experience to ask the family and the loved one to bring some of their most treasured mementos with memories attached to them to start the arrangement conversation. Together, you share the memories to get to understand better how the loved one wants to be remembered, and what a meaningful life celebration would look like for them.
2. Conducting Vigil
Conducting vigil refers to ways in which a dying person’s loved ones can make peace with a death during the weeks after it happens. During this phase the EOL Doula will also help the dying plan for their after death care. The doula will help the family of the dying contact any services they’re going to need after death. They’ll work with the family to help plan the funeral, arrange any necessary extended grief counseling and tie up any loose ends for the family in order to make things easier and less stressful.
They’ll also arrange any type of vigil or service that will be done to honor the loved one. Whether it’s simply washing the dead as a way for the bereaved to feel connected to the body, or setting up a scholarship or donation fund in their honor, this role varies widely.
Applying this at your funeral firm: Instead of focusing on disposition in your arrangement meetings, you could instead hold space for your families to have a special little vigil with a candle to show them the healing opportunity of taking the time to honor the loved one in a special way, with the help of your services. This can also be scaled on a community level. You could host quarterly vigils for your community to come together on, even by potentially partnering with local EOL Doulas in your area.
3. Reprocessing & Early Grief
This re-processing and early grief phase generally begins around 3-6 weeks after a person’s death. The EOL Doula will aid the family by reprocessing the experience and preparing for early grief stages. This stage usually involves having the bereaved retell the dying story in order to process what they’re going through. The bereaved can also communicate anything that was said or not said during the dying phase in order to come to terms with their feelings. Finally, the Doula will arrange a sort of closing ritual to help the bereaved find closure in the death of their loved one. The reprocessing phase is how the doula wraps up their services.
Applying this at your funeral firm: Offer up a small and meaningful closing ritual service of sorts with your families a month after the death to extend your level of service and help them on their journey of grief. You can do this with an EOL Doula on staff, a celebrant, grief counselor or one of your fellow funeral directors.