Growing my passion

Almost a year ago I sat by watching as one of friends cared for those with dementia.  She didn’t know them personally, but rather was a volunteer through a local hospice.  She offered art classes to them and would go to the library to check out picture books about the parts of the country they were from, in hopes of brining their ever wondering mind back to cherished memories.  I knew right away that she, too, was put on this earth to serve others in the end of life process.

When INELDA offered a training in DC last May, I encouraged Nicky to pursue it.  Her heart is amazing and her graceful strength is awe-inspiring.  After she completed the training, I, again, watched from afar to see where her path was leading her.  Fast forward to this fall and she made the decision to be a death doula.  I couldn’t think of a better fit for Peaceful Passings!

It is with the upmost pride and excitement that I announce that Peaceful Passings is now a company of two doulas!  And thanks to the talented Nicky Hanson, we have a website as well!!!  Please check out

It’s when we surrender, drop the reins and enjoy the ride that we truly know our purpose!

The Peace of Wild Things

A blessing way is a ritual and tradition based in Native American culture that has made it’s way into ours.  If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s in lieu of what is our common day baby shower, however, it is to honor the journey of the mother.  You don’t bring gifts and play games.  It’s a ritual.  You nourish the mother-to-be, along with those special invited guests, by sitting around a table and serving a meal family style.  The mother’s feet are washed with cornmeal (a tradition in the Native American culture to honor the person by using, what would be precious food for the tribe, to instead be used to wash the feet).  One by one the women say how they met the mother-to-be and talk about their friendship and love for each other.  The guests can then “present” to the guest of honor readings, poems, and mantras that are special to them, many times these would be about womanhood or motherhood.

Six years ago I hosted a blessing way at my house for one of my dearest friends.  As we all sat around remarking on how moving and special this evening was, I commented how amazing this could be during the dying process.  It would be spiritually powerful.  (Luckily, my friends all know and love me and understand my thoughts and feelings about dying.)

I other evening I was given the opportunity to do just that.  A client of mine has a tight knit sisterhood of woman who have been together for over thirty years, through marriages, babies and divorces.  They were having a hard time dealing with her impending death and felt like they needed to come together to support each other.  I was honored to be invited into this circle.  After introductions and pleasantries had been exchanged, it felt that the woman needed a starting point.  How do you start this dialogue?  I was able to begin the blessing way.

I asked everyone to tell me their story of how they met “Kate” and the love they share for her.  And there it started.  I sat back and watched as friend after friend told how amazing she is and their history together.  I saw them support one another, offer ideas on how to say goodbye and giving each other permission to cry and start grieving.  We talked about honoring their journey and the importance of being present.  We chanted Om Tryambakam (a healing mantra) together and recorded it so we could play it for her as she was dying (a wish she had made in her vigil plan).

I would love to share a poem that was recited that evening.  An amazingly beautiful one written by Wendell Berry and one that I would love to memorize.

“The Peace of Wild Things”

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

Who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.  I come into the presence of still water.

and I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light.  For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.


Over a year ago I had spoken to another death midwife about this idea of a blessing way for the dying.  She was toying with changing the name.  I think blessing way is the perfect name for that night.  Death is special, a weird and sad right of passage but one that, nevertheless, needs to be honored and witnessed by love.

RVA Death Cafe

Last week was my fourth time facilitating a death cafe and it never gets old.  I love how it’s always different, and therefore, the conversations remain rich and insightful.  I continue to set my sights higher.  I’m struggling with getting diversity- in color, age and religion.  One of the attendees suggested to hold it in a variety of different locations because, as we all know, if it’s not within a few miles from our house, it’s too far away!  I loved the energy and vibe of Stir Crazy, so I’d like to have another one there, but also scout out other venues-inner city???  Once school starts, and life returns to it’s regular tempo, I’m going to be venturing out.  Maybe breakout of the mold and hold it in a predominantly African American church, a synagogue, or a retirement community.

I read an article about how the elderly want to continue feeling needed and part of the whole.  I want them!  We want them!  They possess an infinite wisdom about end of life that my generation and younger would love to hear.  But I’m running into resistance, people saying, “If you post Death Cafes around where they live, that will really upset them”, “that wouldn’t be good P.R. for our facility”….  I can’t imagine that people in their 70+ don’t want to talk about the issues facing them, but our overprotective generation is afraid that if we remind them that they are inching closer to the end, that it will piss them off????  So instead, like most things around death, we pretend they aren’t happening and stick our heads in the sand.  So, if there are any older people out there interested in coming to a death cafe, maybe even hosting one, please contact me because the people that are “looking out for your well being” don’t want us to hang out.  (That’s a bummer, I think I’m pretty fun to hang with!)

I also wanted to pass along a blog that a gentleman wrote that has come to two of my cafes.  It’s a great insight into what Death Cafes are really like from the perspective of someone outside of the “death”industry.  Thank you Stuart, aka Jo, for willing to throw caution to the wind and see what death cafes are all about!


My new name

I started this journey over a year ago.  I knew that I was embarking on new territory, not only for myself, but for everyone around me.  No one knew what a death doula was or what I could offer and provide (I’m not even sure I knew).  I continue to remain fluid, understanding that my role will change and morph continuously as the needs of the individuals are as unique as they are.

My last client renamed me.  I started working with her in February and she passed, peacefully and surrounded by her family, last Wednesday.  After one of our sessions back in March she said that she wasn’t overly fond of the title of Death Doula and said it didn’t capture who I was to her.  She lovingly said I should call myself an End-of-Life Transition Coach.  I realized how spot on she was.  When I step back, all my clients have truly used me during that time of treatment when the thoughts creep in about stopping therapy.  The thoughts are sometime just passing ideas, but ideas none the less.  They find that when they voice these reflections with the doctors or family and friends, they are offered a pep talk, more treatment ideas, ignored or suggested to contact hospice.  Feelings of loneliness and guilt begin to grow.

I am that sounding board.  The one that is sometimes too painful for the family and friends to bear.  They know I’ll be honest.  I don’t dance around the elephant in the room.  (I pretty much sit its lap and say, “Hey everyone, we’re here!”)  I’ve made peace with sitting in someone else hell, allowing for uncomfortable silent.  It’s in that time that life peaks its head up and deep questions can begin to be solved, or at least addressed.  I walk next to them.  Meg was right.  I’m coaching people (and sometimes family).  Encouraging and empowering them to write the last chapter of the book they’ve been writing their whole lives.  They get to pen the final words.  They own it.

Yes, I can still labor at the bedside of the dying but I’m finding that once my clients become empowered to call the shots again, they don’t need me as much.  I stand back and watch as they finish the last part of the journey, by their own volition, the way it should be.  And it’s beautiful!


A weekend of growth, gratitude and grace!

I walked in the door this morning at 1 am and felt so alive and excited about my passion I wasn’t sure sleep would find me.  This weekend was my training through INELDA (International End of Life Doula Assoc.) in Pompano Beach Florida.  My goal for the weekend was to hone my skills as a death doula but the knowledge I gained from the training was far more rich and soulful.  It was a compilation of 30 people, representing 20 states, who felt the calling and saw the need to serve the dying.  Although many of the techniques I learned I have already incorporated in my preverbal “tool bag”, the more important part was the deeper knowledge of why they were important.

Henry Ferko-Weiss, the speaker and founder of INELDA, brought me back to my psych 101 days of Eric Ericsson and his stages of development.  Of course, as a nineteen year old you really only look at the stages you’ve been through (making sure you came out the “right” side of each choice) and the stage you’re experiencing.  Anything after the age of forty was way too far removed for me, let alone the stage at 80!  But, as we all know, time flies way too fast and you traverse the stages, unknowingly, as well as you can and now the final one is ever present…integrity vs despair.  This is the one that most of us don’t have the key to, nor have time to look for it.  We are so unprepared for the idea of us dying that when the shock of a terminal illness strikes, you get into survival mode, literally.  There is no time to truly digest whether this whole book you’ve been writing called Life was meaningful, was it worth something, did you learn anything?  What do you have to pass on?  What it becomes are days filled with doctor appointments, thoughts of your loved ones that you will leave behind, and insurance battles to be had.  In the case of cancer, many continue until their weaken bodies have all but been drained of strength and death is chosen because it’s better than the way they are living now.

What we do as doulas is to help you see the legacy you are leaving behind.  How the world is truly different because you joined it and decided to show up.  We allow time for forgiveness to be given and taken, time to be in the moment, and to honor the sacred space that will be your last.  We hold the space for your family so they can just be with the sorrow and to remind you that you are ever alive until you take the last breath.

Doulas: Doing Death Differently

Great piece that really shares the vision I have of my role as a Death Doula!

Death & the Maiden

We are doulas of death. A birth doula provides support and guidance to the birthday mother and the brand new life. End of life doulas have forged an innovative approach to the care of the dying by putting emphasis on the importance of relationship and accompaniment. What we do is support. Practical and emotional support for those dying and their families. We should all treat the dying with dignity, but also with deference. Our elderly and our ill should be allowed this as much during death as after birth. Our final moments should be treated with the same importance as those first few moments of life. Let us embrace the end as we embraced the beginning.

Doula 5

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Some last thoughts on the cafe!

Hi Shelby,

This is a reflection I wrote for my Tuesday healing prayer service at Westminster Canterbury. This is how I use my life experiences to encourage others. Thanks again for the wonderful time with awesome women!! Blessings. Fontaine

This past Sunday I attended a meeting with eight women who were strangers to me. The meeting was called a Death Cafe and I was excited about going. You might wonder why I would look forward to a meeting with such a title: Death Cafe. Another name for the meeting was Peaceful Passings Cafe: Open Forum to Talk About All Things Death.

Death Cafes were started in England a few years ago. They are gatherings at cafes, in which people meet to have coffee, tea and cake and discuss the ways we die. Interested individuals are concerned with how death has become such a clinical experience, often in hospitals, hooked up to machines, in a sterile environment. Often when people are asked how they imagine their dying, they say they would like to be at home, surrounded by loved ones in a calm, quiet, peaceful setting.

The women I met on Sunday are primarily nurses who have worked for years in ICUs of hospitals and/or in hospices. They have experience in seeing people who are very ill and how they are treated by doctors, hospital staff and family members as they are dying. These women want to look at different approaches to death and dying: they want to involve the patient, the family and friends more fully in the process by education, support and good communication.

There is an African phrase that has been used to describe a woman who helps and supports another woman as she is giving birth: a birth doula.

Using this concept for the dying, the helping person would be a death doula.

When I was younger and having my children, I was asked by a couple of my friends to be with them when they were giving birth. I was a birth doula.

I have often sat vigil with friends who were dying and I did so with both of my parents. I am quite interested in being with and supporting those who are being born and those who are dying. A death doula.

Another thing I am very interested in is the concept that we come from God, we live our lives in God and we one day return to God. How do we travel this journey of life that is given to us so graciously? How do we grow in love, in grace, in joy? How do we return to God as consciously as possible, allowing our dying to be as important a part of the journey as our living?

I would like to invite each of you to think about your dying. This might be a new thought for you or something you have pondered before. It might seem alien and strange or there might be a little twinge of interest and wondering. It can be very helpful to family and friends to let them know how you feel about end of life issues and challenges. Talking about dying can actually be liberating…if we can just start a conversation. Think about it, talk to God about it, pray about it.

I felt very comfortable by the end of the meeting with my new found friends. We talked about our experiences, we laughed and shed tears together. We shared common ground in our thoughts and feelings about how to support others in the process of dying, in how to offer the possibility of a more peaceful passing and of how to live more consciously and fully even as we are dying.

God made us, God loves us, God will gather us to himself in due time. When God calls us home, the terrain will be new and unknown, but the path will be paved with love. May we continue to grow and learn on this journey while also waiting eagerly to fall into the arms of infinite love. Amen.

Death Cafe!!!

Well, this past Sunday I facilitated my first “death cafe”.  I put it in quotes because it was difficult to find a coffee shop in the Richmond area that would allow me to call it that!  So…I called it a Peaceful Passings Cafe: a forum to talk about all things about death.  It was nothing short of amazing!  I ran it like a true Death Cafe and the two hours flew by.  My love is working with my clients (and I use the words “client” as both my patient and the family.  Although the dying process is physically happening to only one person, the journey to death has ripples that touch so many.  I hold the space for the family, as well as, for the patient) but I see so much of my role as a community educator.  This is a grassroots movement!

We live in such a death-phobic society.  As the baby boomers are starting to see their own mortality, they are starting to ask questions.  They are pushing boundaries.  Decades ago they did this with the birthing process.  Can you imagine the look on the first OB/GYN’s face when their patient stated that they didn’t want to labor on their back, but walk around!  That they wanted the baby to be placed right on them and not whisked away!  As this generation is facing their last chapters, they want to take that power back again.  This time saying that they don’t need every medical test, drug and study preformed on them until it has robbed their already frail body of any light and energy that remains.  They are showing the medical community that while there are a lot of medical experiences around death, that death, in and of itself, is natural and should be treated as such.

There certainly will be more Peaceful Passings Cafe’s in the future!  Out of it has come a new public website for like-minded people (RVA End-of-life network), new ideas of how to spread the message and the beginning of a true movement in Richmond!