Most people make funeral plans, retirement plans and even vacation plans. But few people plan for the moment of their death. For terminally ill patients and their families, this important step can help to ease anxiety as the end draws near.
Enter the end of life doula program at Valley Hospice, which uses specially trained volunteer doulas to provide emotional, physical and spiritual support to people who are dying and their loved ones.
Similar to an 11th hour program, end of life doulas sit vigil with dying patients, providing a continuous and compassionate presence through the final hours. Based on the concept of a birth doula, the program was created by the Valley Home Care and Hospices Manager of Social Services, Henry Fersko-Weiss, LSW. The goal is to honor the sacred nature of the dying process as natural part of the cycle of life and help patients achieve a "good death".
"Too often when a person is actively dying they and the people taking care of them are mostly, if not entirely, alone," Fersko-Weiss explains. "The doula program meets a need at the most crucial moment. The dying process can take days to unfold, and that can be incredibly difficult without doula support."
Doulas meet with the patient and their families approximately three times beforehand to develop an individualized vigil plan that specifies their wishes for the time of death. "It's different for everyone," Fersko-Weiss explains. "Some people want their hand held while others may want to be left alone. Do they want music, or silence or something read to them? Are their objects they want near, such as a collection or photos? Do they want special bed linens or blankets? These are all things we take into consideration when writing the plan."
The vigil plan also includes specific relaxation techniques to employ for both the dying and their caregivers, including guided visualization and aromatherapy, and rituals to be performed after the patient has passed on. In the planning stages, the doulas also work with the family to help them through the process in order to alleviate guilt or hard feelings afterward.
During the vigil, which can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days, volunteer doulas take shifts helping to ensure the patients wishes are met. Doulas sit with the patient and the family, helping to ease anxieties and fears, and allow the patient to let go. Immediately following the passing, the doula helps caregivers perform rituals designed in advance to help the grieving process.
In the first weeks after the death, the doula meets with family members again to help reprocess the dying experience and provide information about bereavement and grief counseling services.
The program is currently recruiting volunteers who will be trained to work in shifts to help families deal with the around-the-clock demands for care as death approaches. For more information or to enroll in the training program, please contact Maria Salerno, Coordinator, Volunteers and Bereavement Services at 201-291-6246 or Henry Fersko-Weiss, LCSW, Manager, Social Services at 201-291-6243.