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The Healing Power of End-of-Life Rituals










Transcript

Traci:

Hello, everyone. I'm Traci Arieli, an end-of-life doula and founder of Comforting Closure. Today, we're going to talk about how the use of rituals during the end-of-life journey might help bring comfort and strength to grieving families in times of deep loss and suffering. Rituals have long been employed as meaningful and consoling expressions of love, respect, and remembering.


These customs let the family focus on their loved one rather than their sorrow, allowing them to stay in the moment. Danielle Slupesky from Conscious Crossroads joins us for a unique podcast on the transformative potential of rituals. Daniella was one of the first end-of-life doulas I spoke with when I considered starting my own practice, and I was inspired by her story, which deeply influences the way she holds space for those who she works with.


Danielle, thank you for being here. I was wondering if you could start off by telling us what inspired you to become an end-of-life doula.


Danielle:

Yeah, absolutely. Well, first, thank you so much for having me. It was fun when you reached out a few months ago as you were beginning your journey, and to see you progressing throughout all of this, it's fantastic. So the more of us out here doing this work, the better. So I was an E.R. nurse back in California, and about ten years ago I had my own long hospital [stay involving] multiple surgeries, lots of dialysis resuscitations, and a couple of near-death experiences. And it changed everything for me. Nursing no longer resonated the same way because I was no longer interested in solely working to keep the physical body going. So much of what I was doing then was rushed and hurried, and I couldn't spend the time I needed to with people at really, really challenging times in their lives. And I wanted to be able to give more support than what I could then. And so I made a huge shift, and a huge change to kind of go out on my own and kind of forge this new path.


Traci:

That's what I know, I've read about it and we spoke about it. And it's really touching, your story, and as I said, inspirational. So thank you for sharing that and being vulnerable.


Danielle:

Yeah. To touch on that a little bit - I'm in a very unique position to have been the nurse, to have been the patient, to have been a family member at different times dealing with someone ill and dying. And it's really beautiful to be at a space in my life where I can take all of those experiences and all of that pain and trauma and beautifulness all of it and kind of put it together and make meaning out of it to help other people.


And so I feel like I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be. And all of the things that have ever happened happened exactly like they were supposed to. And so I just wanted to kind of acknowledge that it's a really neat place to be.


Traci:

Thank you. How do you do rituals? I know you incorporate a lot of rituals with the families that you help with vigils and you help through the transition. And how do they provide comfort for those who are grieving?


Danielle:

I think it's important to note that, number one, I pulled up the definition before we started talking today of what, according to Oxford, what a ritual is. And it has the word religious in it. And I find that fascinating because there are so many rituals and ceremonies that we all engage in on a regular routine basis that have nothing to do with religion per se, like a graduation ceremony.


Not all wedding ceremonies have something to do with religion. We have baby showers. All of these major life transitions carry with them some sort of ceremony or ritual, something that marks the end of something and the beginning of something new. And we've kind of chosen as a society, for better or worse, to give up a lot of those rituals surrounding death, surrounding the dying time.


And I think this is just kind of a modern resurgence of ancient traditions, of ancient practices and bringing sacredness back to something that for a while we chose to medicalize. And I think that now there's kind of this shift happening of medicalizing it and bringing it kind of back home, back to another major life transition. Just the final one.


Traci:

How do you think that affects the families? Because I know, you know, being in a hospital is entirely different than being at home. Usually, hospice is at home and having that opportunity to really do something meaningful, to come together as a family and do something together.


Danielle:

Absolutely. I think it helps initiate the grieving process sooner. It helps normalize more of the grieving process. It helps. Like I said, it's this marking of something ending and something new beginning and having that kind of delineation moment marked by something powerful and something hopefully beautiful. Hopefully, that's the place that someone's memory goes back to rather than remembering, you know, the beeping and the alarms in the ICU.


Hopefully, the families that I've helped remember the candle that we lit when we pulled out the breathing tube, you know, and the fact that they were presented with this candle when their loved one died, and it was suggested that they light it at Thanksgiving, you know, that is placed at the table. So now that moment of something really hard and really challenging and painful is marked with something beautiful and sacred.


And outside of that kind of harsh medicalized system. So I think it helps. I never want to use the word closure because I don't think we ever close the door on any of this, but maybe helps with acceptance a little bit, and helps with us in stepping into the beginning of this transitory phase. That is grief, right? I feel like grief is a super liminal space. You're neither who you used to be or who eventually you will become. And something again, just kind of like when you enter high school and you exit and now you're an adult and you're entering college. It's the same kind of idea where you're ending one phase of your life and one way of being and having to step into a new one. And it's giving us a way to mark that and to honor it.


Traci:

Have there been instances or do you have examples of some rituals that have been significant to you or to some of the families that you've worked with?


Danielle:

Absolutely. It's been really varied, and I kind of I work very intuitively. You know, so depending on who I'm working with, what they're open to and what I feel will be the most healing for either that family or group. And the rituals can be really simple, something as simple as, say, after someone dies and the mortuary comes and has picked up the body.

Now, looking back at the empty bed is really challenging for family members. It's a really hard time, and taking that time now that they're gone to maybe put some flowers on the bed, put some of their photos, put some of their favorite memorabilia. And so maybe, every family member has an object of something that meant something between the two of them.

And they tell the story and they place it on the bed. And now that bed becomes an altar, that bed becomes a living memorial that they can look at over the next few days while they're waiting for, you know, for [someone] to come pick up the hospital equipment. It's no longer that just empty space reminding them that they're missing, but it's now all of these memories and that camaraderie and sharing that the family got to have together when someone is still here doing something like an anointing ritual where you simply take an essential oil and place it on, you know, different parts of the body and kind of say a prayer of

gratitude for that body part or what it's done for you throughout your life. You know, I mean, very, very seldom we do, we take the time to acknowledge how many times our eyelids blink in a day, how many times our jaw moves when we're speaking and eating, how many kisses our lips have done. You know, and sort of really stop and acknowledge all of that can be really powerful, not just for the person who's leaving as a way of kind of helping release and release with gratitude for their body, but a beautiful way of kind of saying goodbye for the family.

I did this ritual with a woman who participated in the Medical Aid and Dying program, which is legal here in New Mexico, last October, and the family was placing these oils on her body as I was going through the prayers and it was beautiful. She was completely surrounded by them. They were massaging her head. They're rubbing her hands at her feet, just telling her how much they loved her. And that's how this woman left the Earth. You know, what a beautiful memory to have for a family as opposed to just kind of sitting there and waiting, you know, for her to die. So I've been in contact with them specifically, and I know that these things were super powerful for them and brought a ton of healing.


And they've specifically told me that these acts in these rituals, and in the time and care and everything that I was able to give, changed their view on death entirely. So not just that one experience, but the way that they view life and death from here on out, which means that they will enter their dying time differently. And so it's I think these things can be extremely powerful, actually.


Traci:

That just sent chills, gave me chills. Thank you. So, I know that as an end-of-life doula, we have, you know, many different types of people calling us. And usually, the people, at least for you, you know, the people that you work with are very open to your spirituality and want to really take advantage of that and incorporate that. How do you start that conversation, about what the ritual will be and create that ritual with that family?


Danielle:

Well, it's, you just touched on something really important here. And as a duola, it's not about my beliefs or my spirituality or what I want to bring to the table. It's meeting people where they are, asking them what their beliefs are, what their preferences are. I can have this whole toolbox of suggestions, you know, of things that I have kind of at the ready, and none of them may fit with someone.


You know, we may have to create something completely individual together and they may be not interested in any of it whatsoever, which is also perfectly fine, giving people permission to be where they are and supporting them in whatever their beliefs are is my goal. And so, I'm very upfront when I meet someone with all of that or it's like, this is about you. And so if you're interested in what I think, at any point, I'm happy to share my thoughts and my experiences. But this is your journey and how can I support you in that? And, so we always start from there, you know, and I've always been really comfortable talking about these things. Even before I went to the doula course and started this as a business, our neighbor across the street was dying of breast cancer and the family had been in and out. You know, hospice services were now coming. I'd taken a few casseroles over kind of thing and I mean, she was pretty close. I think this was maybe three weeks before she ended up dying. And I sat down with her just to chat. And I said, So where do you think you're going to go? And she just looked at me and I said, "Well, when you die, what do you think's going to happen?" Just very matter of factly, like we were talking about what she was going to do tomorrow, and her eyes welled up and she looked at me and she reached out, grabbed my hand, and she goes, "Thank you so much. You're the first person. All these people, doctors, nurses, everybody in and out of here. Nobody said the words, You're going to die."


And it gave her permission to be honest about all of it. You know, she'd been raised Catholic her entire life. The priest had been in and out of there. And she admitted to me, because I was kind of outside of all of that, that she wasn't sure where she was going to go. She wanted to believe what she had always been told, but she just wasn't sure.


And so we got to talk through those fears because I opened the door. And I think that's so often where people are is that they just need that permission. And so just being very real and very frank. And so what? What do you think? How do you want this to go? This is your journey. Let's do it together.


Traci:

Yeah. I found with some of the people that I have companioned and [sat] vigil with, that a lot of times people won't talk about that person dying and they do want to talk about that. And a couple of instances, you know, that the family wouldn't even say the word hospice and you know, the person who is terminally ill, they aren't, you know, you're not fooling that person. They understand and they know. So it's been a real, you know, having that conversation when that person has brought it up or when I've asked questions has been really helpful. And I could see it that they are very thankful and appreciative.


Danielle:

Yeah. So often that even the rituals and things we're talking about there, I believe for the most part they are more for those of us left behind. Right. The person who's leaving, even though they, very few people you know, want to die, right? No matter how old you are, no matter how great your life has been, no matter how long it's been, it's still a sad moment, you know, where we're saying goodbye to one person.


They're saying goodbye to everyone and everything they've ever known. That level of grief is a whole other ballgame, and yet they tend to be the ones that are okay. Yeah, right. They tend to be the ones that accept sooner that are okay with it. And I find often what seems to hold people here is the fear of their loved ones not being okay without them. And often the fear of missing out, you know, on what happens with them here. And that's the big challenge of I think what we do is kind of that joy. I feel for the person who leaves and the pain and sadness and reverence that I feel for those left behind. And so these rituals are kind of helping to bridge that gap.


You know, they kind of help us work through these things in a very tangible way. There's something that very, I think tangible is the best word, something that you can kind of hold on to and do that helps that.


Traci:

So we work with all different cultures and people of all different religions. What type of rituals have you seen that have been very specific to a religion or a culture that has impacted you or have really, you know, connected with you?


Danielle:

I live in New Mexico. We're not an incredibly diverse population of different religious practices. It is a very, very Catholic area for the most part. And there's a lot with it. There's also a lot of what I would just call spiritual people, too, who don't necessarily subscribe to a specific religion. And so I've been surprised, kind of at the range of some of those beliefs and practices. A woman that I just worked with, she kind of had a little bit of everything. I just helped clean out her apartment, actually with her, a caregiver and her son and daughter-in-law.


And I mean, she had everything from Asian and symbols of stuff with bells and tassels and Indian and Hindu stuff and Buddhas. And she had a crucifix above her bed. I mean, she had a little bit of everything and was kind of open to all of it. So those kind of houses are always a little interesting to me.


And I, I love having conversations with those people, you know, as to how they came to this kind of conglomeration of where they are now. I've been inspired, I guess I would say, by some of the Jewish traditions of mourning, right? Like traditionally, they take an entire week of nothingness. They don't even shower. Traditionally, people bring you food. You're not expected to get out of bed for seven days after someone you love dies. And we contrast that with our current, you know, capitalist system of you maybe get three days of bereavement if it was an immediate family member and then work expects you back. And we're not ready for that. Right. We're not ready to enter the world again and just kind of perform these roles that we've ascribed ourselves to.


And I think so they have that initial seven days and then for the next 30 days even, you know, there would be some sort of marking with the black band or black torn piece of clothing to signify that you're grieving. So everybody kind of treats you a little bit softer. Everybody is a little gentler. I think something along those lines would be fantastic to kind of bring into our culture as a whole. But unfortunately, I don't have a lot to offer with this question because I haven't had a ton of different exposure and experiences at this point in my adult career.


Traci:

That was a great answer. So thank you. So what suggestions do you have for someone who wants to develop a unique memorial service for their loved one? What should be their first steps to do that?


Danielle:

That's a really good question. And I think the very first step, honestly, is to sit down and kind of wipe your mind and your heart clean of what you've been told this is supposed to look like, right? Like so often we go through life with this is how things are supposed to be. You know, you get married by this time, you have this many kids, and then when you die, you're either buried or you're cremated. And you either have the service at a church or at a funeral home. And those are your options. And it's that's just not the case. I've heard of some really creative, incredible memorial services, everything from literally putting someone's cremains into fireworks and shooting them off in the sky and having a big like summer picnic, 4th of July-esque party situation, doing living memorials where someone attends their own funeral.


You know, they get to be there for that instead of having everybody come together and travel in while they're gone. So I think that that for me is the first step is just kind of wiping the slate clean of any ideas of what should be and then leaning into who your loved one is. And if you're planning this for yourself ahead of time, who you are, what matters to you?What what's your favorite music? Not what's funeral music, You know, not what hymns are acceptable to play at a funeral. What? What do you want? What's going to remind your family members of you in the way that you want them to remember you? You know, so often we play songs or go through, you know, kind of traditional rituals, you know, like at the mortuary or at a church service that have nothing to do with us. Right. Like, very often, even the person giving the service, the person facilitating it or giving a eulogy, often that pastor or priest didn't know the person, or the person doing it from the funeral home didn't know the person. And so I think it's just that it's really leaning into who you are as a human, who you've been on this planet. And how do you want that to be remembered? How do you want people to feel when they're there and starting from there and creating outwards?


Traci:

You brought up during your answer just now the Living Funeral and do you hear or do you get questions about that often? Is it becoming more popular where people want to celebrate their lives while they're still living and they want to celebrate it with their friends and family? So there is some type of ritual or some type of type of gathering for that. Is that, do you see that more and more now?


Danielle:

Definitely. Definitely. I think so many of this kind of nontraditional ways of working through this challenging time are becoming more and more popular, I think. I think that's honestly true of all parts of society right now. Right. Like, we have many more people who are working remotely who are traveling the world while they're working a traditional job, you know, digital nomads, people kind of stepping outside of the system and living off the grid more, just recognizing that the systems that we've created for the whole don't fit for everyone.


And that's okay, right? We don't all have to fit into a specific box and do things the way they've always done, just because that's how they were always done. So yeah, I think most of the things we're talking about are becoming more and more popular and people are hearing more and more about it. I mean, even so, NEDA, the National End of Life Doula Association in 2019, before the pandemic had around 200 members, and they're up to over 2000 now.

So just in this threthree-yeariod surrounding COVID, the doula community itself has kind of blown up. Still, it's pretty small numbers compared to, you know, all other industries. But that says a lot, right? I think COVID kind of put death at the forefront and something that we've been able to shove behind the curtains, you know, and keep behind closed doors was put in our face in a way that made us very aware of it and aware of the ways that we're dealing with it that don't serve us well, you know, And so how can we start developing a relationship with death and loss and grief that does serve us well, that helps us rather than hinders us? And so, yeah, that was a long-winded answer.


Traci:

You know, it's so interesting because, you know, since COVID, we have seen a lot of changes even to what's in the news and surrounding death. And, you know, the TV shows that we watch and end-of-life you could see that there is more end-of-life doulas even on the television shows. And there's more acceptance of the rituals and of really being present during the dying process.


And it is you know, maybe it is because of COVID and people really are understanding that, you know, that we are going to die, that, you know, it was really put in front of all of us, really. So, yeah, I definitely agree. And it's interesting to toe what will happen or what has happened over the last few, you know, couple of years and what's going to happen in the next few years.


Danielle:

Absolutely. And it's it's interesting because in some ways it feels very new, you know, And people are like, oh, that's interesting. That's new. It's new age. And it's like, no, it's really more of a modern resurgence of some really ancient stuff. You know, it's primarily women, but people have been doula-ing both birth and death and caring for life in between, caring for sick people in between. As long as we've been around, you know, and we've I think more instinctively, we know that this is a very important time. Right. And so I think the minute someone is given the opportunity to slow down and acknowledge that it hits something deep inside of us, that it feels right. And so even someone that's really far removed from there they're not in touch with their own grief process or their own loss, and they're doing everything they can on the surface to push it away. Very often, once they're invited in, they're there, they're really ready to do it and it feels good.


Traci:

How have you found that rituals have been a bridge between the worlds of living and dying?


Danielle:

That's then an interesting one for me, specifically after my own experiences. Someone asked me recently if I could be doing this work the way I do now, if I hadn't have had my own experiences with death and near death. And I. I could be doing it and I could be helping and I could be being present, doing all of the things, but it would feel different to me because I wouldn't know for sure that the people that I'm walking up to the bridge, the gates, the crossroads, whatever term we want to use, I know in every cell of my being that they're okay.


And so the idea of creating and building these bridges to help them get to the other side feels incredibly natural, totally normal. And like this calling, this thing that I kind of I came back to do, that I have to do. And so it just feels so normal and natural to me. It's honest, honestly, in a way hard to answer that question because it's just feels so innate.


That's what you write. We walk, we're walking each other home. That's the whole point of life. But for those that haven't had that experience, right, that I have, again, I think it's just having something that changes us. The change that delineates this was how things were before. This is how they are now. We're entering a new phase again, super similar to graduation ceremonies and wedding ceremonies and baby showers, and all the other things that we participate in retirement parties. And so my overarching goal is to get us to see and view and lean into death the same way we do those other things. Right. It's scary to graduate high school and go into adulthood. It's scary to retire, to enter marriage, all of those things. But yet we do it with curiosity and openness and anticipation, a little bit of fear, you know.

But we talk about that and we work through it. And so I think these rituals give us that same opportunity in the dying space. I hope that answered that question.


Traci:

Yes, it did. Do you feel that there are myths or misunderstandings about rituals performed at the end of life that need to be dispelled?


Danielle:

I think in less of the idea of dispelling myths, and more of the idea of opening our minds to a broader definition of what a ritual is, what ritual means, and what ritual is capable of doing. There are very specific rituals, that specific practice is required to be done in order for a soul to transition or to be released or and I think those are really important. Those should take place whenever possible if that's what matters to that person and to that family. But the idea that any specific something has to happen in order for things to be okay, I would love people to be able to set that down because, in my view, from what I experienced, the only judgment that occurred on the other side came from myself.


There was no there was nothing but openness and love and acceptance of everything that was. And after feeling and experiencing that, I don't want anyone to feel fear that, you know, if my last rites weren't given, if I didn't have the anointing of the sick, or if a specific ritual wasn't performed, that your loved one is okay. Because from everything that I've experienced personally, that's just not the case.


So I think if anything, I would like to dispel that, that while those rituals are extremely important and they mean something to us, I don't believe that anything is necessary or has to happen in order for this to be okay. This is the most natural thing along with birth, it's the only two things that are guaranteed to happen to every human. And it's like we were born to die. We do both of those things entirely naturally. And that process will happen with or without human intervention.


Traci:

You know, we're at the bottom of the hour here. We're almost out of time. And I wanted to give you time to, is there anything else that you want people to know about rituals or anything else?


Danielle:

I will share one kind of quick story of a woman that I I worked with. She just participated in the MAID program and had her injection two weeks ago on Saturday. She was in her eighties and the first few times we met together, she just repeatedly told stories of abuse that her mother had perpetrated against her as a child. And it was severe enough that this woman was born in Germany, you know, in the forties, and her mother was arrested for how badly she was beating her. So it was severe abuse. But I asked her one day, well, what do you plan to do with all of this hurt and all of this pain when you leave? And she said, well, I just have to take it with me.


And I just said, Well, what if you don't? What if we can unpack some of this and leave it here? And she was very open to that. This is the woman I was referring to with all of the different religious stuff everywhere. And she was very open to crystals and rocks and stones and things like that. And I went to our local rock star and I got a really heavy, dense rock.

Small but dense. And we did a ritual together where she held it. And I walked her through a guided meditation where she put all of the energy, of all of the pain, the shame, the anger, all of the things that come along with being an abused, traumatized child into this rock. And I went really slowly through it so that she really took her time.


Tears were just silently streaming down her face. And as the rocks getting heavier and heavier, you know, her little skinny arms are slowly falling down. I then asked her to picture her mother in front of her, and we went into detail, you know, what's her hair look like, her eyes, which she wearing all of it. And I said, When you're ready, I'd like you to set this rock back down at your mother's feet. You have carried this weight your whole life, and it's not yours. It's always belonged to her. And it's okay to give it back. And when she was ready, she did. And really powerful for both of us. We were both kind of crying through it and the next week I went to go see her and she had set up this whole crafting table where she was making these as she was crocheting water bottle holders out of plastic bags and making this lovely flower arrangement to give to all of the women in her retirement home.


And just seeing the difference that something as simple as this created ritual, it created space within her. So she had room to be more creative for her last three months on this planet. She said to me, maybe three weeks after that she goes, You know, Danielle, I've been thinking about it. I can't leave until I'm full of nothing but love and I was like, when I'm right, like, it felt so good.


And the last three months of her life were very different than they would have been if we hadn't walked through this ritual together. Something super simple, but it symbolized setting this thing down, creating space within herself. And so it's not just a matter of just at the dying time, right? Like we have opportunities all throughout life to unpack and unload and to process difficult things. beingAnd when we do, we have room for more connection, you know, more compassion. You're more open to be vulnerable and surrender. And by doing that, we give others around us permission to do the same. So I guess that's what I would like to leave everybody with.


Traci:

Thank you so much for all your expertise and everything you've shared with us. How can people get a hold of you?


Danielle:

Right. So I have a website https://www.deathdouladanielle.com/ and I'm also on LinkedIn as Danielle Slupeskyi. I'm not big on social media stuff. So those are the two places you can find me.


Traci:

And I'll put that below in the description of the video so people can reach out to you. Thank you again. And viewers, thank you for taking the time to watch this video. Remember, healing is a unique and personal journey, and rituals can play a transformative role in supporting and honoring loved ones and yourself. If you've any questions, please comment below or reach out to me directly.


And if you found this video to be helpful, please like share, comment and subscribe. Thank you.



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