End of Life Doulas: Taking the mystery and fear out of death


PITTSFIELD — Suzanne O'Brien wants to take away the mystery — and in turn, the fear — surrounding death.

"Unfortunately, death is not something we are able to avoid, so why not make it an empowering experience?" said O'Brien, a registered nurse and creator of Doulagivers, a non-medical program that trains community members and caregivers to support end-of-life patients and their loved ones physically, emotionally and spiritually.

O'Brien — who first saw the gaps in end-of-life care while working as nurse in oncology and later in hospice — will host an End of Life Doula Level 1 training from 1 to 6 p.m. Saturday at Moments House, 34 Depot St. in Pittsfield. This event has a $40 suggested donation and is open to anyone in the community, not just those dealing with end-of-life care, O'Brien said.

"Anyone can benefit from this information," said O'Brien, who splits her time between the Hudson Valley and New York City. "At some point in life, we will all be touched by this topic. It's better to learn these skills while there isn't a crisis going on."

Alice Trumbull, co-founder of Moments House, agrees, which is why when she first found out about O'Brien and her program decided to host a training event.

"Whether you are interested in completing the levels of certification or not, this would be a great day for anyone to attend," she said. "I believe knowledge is power and fear comes from the unknown. Chances are each of us will experiencing the end of life transition of someone we love and each of us will most certainly transition ourselves so this is a wonderful informational program for all of us."

At the Level 1 program — there are three levels to complete to become a certified Doulagiver — O'Brien focuses on what she calls the three phases of care: shock, stabilization and transition.

The "shock phase," she said, is what it sounds like.

"Someone gets a terminal diagnosis and nothing else matters," she said. "It's a very tricky place for people. What can you do? What can you say?"

This, she said, is often when people withdraw, not knowing what to do or say. But, O'Brien recommends doing the opposite — show up, and ask specifically what you can do for the patient or caregiver.

"Keep in mind their perception is they have lost all control over their life," she said. "So come in and give that control back to them. When you show up, do you have to say anything? No, it's important to show up and ask, 'What can I do for you? What can I help with.'"

The second phase, stabilization, is what O'Brien said she considers the "most beautiful" phase. All of the patient's pains are being quickly treated, and this is the time when forgiveness is given or received, when good byes are said. She encourages her trainees to help facilitate this precious time with one-on-one visits

During the last phase, O'Brien said education and understanding the process of end of life is key. In her discussion, she goes over what to expect and what signs to look out for when entering the transition phase.

"We want to always keep in mind that no matter how high the level of care is, we're not going to reverse end of life," she said.

At Moments House, where Trumbull and her daughter, Danielle, work to meet the needs of everyone impacted by a diagnosis of cancer, they have seen first hand how difficult this transition phase can be for loved ones and family.

"We understand everyone is affected, not just the person who has cancer," Trumbull said. "The same is true when someone is transitioning. In fact, I have seen from the times I have been blessed to be a part of this time in life that it is often the family and friends who struggle more than the person at end of life."

Saturday's training program can accommodate 30 people, according to Trumbull. Anyone interested in the program can call 413-822-3286 for more information or to reserve a spot.

"We have no certified 'end-of-life' doulas in local our area," Trumbull said. "I had never heard of this concept of care before reading Suzanne's book ["Creating Positive Passings: End of Life Doula, Level 1, Caregiver Training"]. We have wonderful hospice services, but they are often limited by time, insurance coverage, and bureaucracy, not necessarily able to meet the needs of everyone involved. I would love to have this service available to our community."

For more information, visit www.suzannebobrien.com.


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