Winter 2021 - Member Spotlight
Early Career as an Activity Director
For nearly a decade, Valerie supervised, created, implemented, and ran the daily activity program for a bustling Retirement Community. A beloved career in which she was able to establish some profound relationships and connections with residents and their families. “This profession allowed me to do all the things I loved deeply; instruct fitness classes, crafts, teach wellness seminars, organize large, themed events, outings, and simply listen to the life stories of the residents.” Death and dying was also part of life at the Retirement Community. The silver lining around that cloud was the privilege and honor to express heartfelt gratitude for friendships to dying residents. “I embodied, early in my career, just how temporary life on earth is, and that there is no better time than the present to tell those we love how we feel about them.”
Hospice Volunteer, Certified Life-Cycle Celebrant and End-of-Life Doula
Valerie is trained as an end-of-life doula by INELDA, this was a natural progression that evolved from years as a hospice volunteer as well as her “encore career” as Certified Life-Cycle Celebrant. Her company, Gifts of Life Ceremonies was established in 2017. Shortly after her INELDA training is when she met Cindy Kaufman, Certified EOLD in Colorado, and soon the seeds of the Colorado End-of-Life Collaborative were planted!
“After my doula training, I realized how new this concept was and how wonderful it would be to pioneer this collaborative business idea in Colorado.” Serendipitously, the right people and the right opportunities began to align… “I was searching for meaningful work in which I could combine my passion working with older adults and celebrating their lives.” The vision for End-of-Life Celebrations or living funerals evolved and became more meaningful after her end-of-life doula training.
CEOLC Vice President & Co-Founder
Valerie has always had an affinity for working with older adults, and she attributes this calling to her loving and influential grandparents.
“I was and end-of-life doula for my family, before I ever knew there was such a thing as an end-of-life doula.”
My first bedside vigil...
“The last day of my grandpa’s life was spent with relatives coming and going to say their final goodbyes to this adored man. I sat in stillness for many hours after the last visitor had said their goodbyes to my grandpa. He would occasionally open his eyes and raise his bushy eyebrows- so full of expression- as his arms seem to levitate above his body. His gaze was far beyond my earthly eyes as he appeared to look right thru me. My eyes teared and the hairs on my arms were raised by the goosebumps on my skin. I don’t know how I knew, but I just knew that there were others from the spirit world with us at that time. As I lay my hands upon his chest, I became one with his breathing. It was 11pm when I noticed his respirations slowing down significantly. I knew it was getting close. It was Friday, September 5th, 1997 at 11:30 pm, my 89-year-old grandpa took his final breath. To be with my grandpa was a special gift, one that I will always treasure.”
What is a Living Funeral?
(Also referred to as: Living Celebration of Life, End-of-Life Celebration, Fare-thee-well Ceremony…)
These celebrations/ceremonies are for the terminally ill or advanced in age who wish to celebrate their life with their friends and family. This ceremony provides the opportunity for the dying to share stories of love, laughter, and life lessons. In turn, they are also the recipients of shared love from their family and friends.
Basically, there are no rules for a living funeral. Features that are often part of a traditional funeral such as: life story (eulogy), readings, music, poems can also be part of this celebration. The person being honored may choose to talk about (or write) their life lessons, funny anecdotes, blessings, and most of all gratitude for their loved ones in their life!
This may sound like a daunting task for one to commence at the end of their life. However, Valerie uses her compassionate skills as an interviewer to discover the life stories of the honoree. She then writes, creates, and officiates a ceremony/celebration to convey this story to their loved ones.
To some, this concept may seem unusual. However, ask yourself how many times you have attended a funeral and thought, “Wow, how wonderful! Too bad 'Uncle Bob' was not living to hear all of these wonderful stories about him!” The guest of honor can see and hear for themselves how many people love them. It also gives everyone an opportunity to express their feelings and say their final goodbyes. These celebrations need not be called “funeral” … More appropriate is: “The Party of a Lifetime!”
"Life should not only be lived, it should be celebrated." Osho~
I find that many different modalities can be beneficial to the dying.
There is an essential oil for everything and anything! They have been used by humankind since the dawn of history. Aromatherapy can be defined as the controlled use of essential oils to maintain and promote physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being. “I first discovered the powerful medicinal value when I worked with Alzheimer’s patients. The patients that were agitated, irritable, and anxious could be calmed by lotion, lavender, and human touch.
Essential Oils and Alternative Therapies
Valerie has always been a self-proclaimed health and wellness enthusiast- sometimes to the chagrin of her family! Complaints of stomach aches, feeling tired, feeling anxious, headaches… are usually remedied with water, nutrition, herbal tinctures, fitness, meditation, Reiki, or… essential oils!
Sometimes there are no conversations at the end of life. Sometimes just being present is all that is asked. These can be special contemplative times for family and the dying. During this sacred time more focus can be spent in the stillness and the presence. To create a serene atmosphere for the dying, one might find comfort in soft lighting, quiet and soothing music, cozy familiar blankets, reading, flowers, loved ones, pets, essential oil diffuser with lavender or another type of calming scent.
Reiki is a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation and may alleviate anxiety and pain. Reiki is loving energy that may not cure the physical body, instead it may promote spiritual and emotional healing, which may ease the pathway of transition.
Guided Meditation and Imagery is a mind-body technique that consists of positive words and images, set to soothing music to achieve specific healing. This technique can be a conduit for easing stress, grief and of course, peaceful dying. There are so many benefits of guided imagery for palliative care patients and hospice patients. For one, imagery mitigates agitation, fear, anxiety and provides peace and comfort. Guided meditation requires no work or effort on the listener’s part.
Valerie incorporates some, or a combination of the above therapies for the dying. Ambiance, essential oils, guided meditation, Reiki… any or all can have a profound effect on the over-all disposition of the dying.
CEOLC EOL Doula Member Spotlight
Member Spotlight - Sigrid Swerdlin
I grew up a little sheltered from the world in a small rural town in Germany. Growing up I only had one living grandparent, but I was very close with my grandma, Anna, who passed away when I was 16 years old. She always said, “If ever I end up in a hospital, I will come out feet first.” And that’s exactly what happened.
Member Spotlight - Janet Reichart, LCSW
For as long as I can remember, I have experienced a fascination with death, with the dying process, and with how people grieve. Even as a child, I was drawn to stories about end of life, and about the medical aspects of death. Somehow, even in youth, I knew that the experience of leaving this physical existence is a deeply sacred transition, one that extends far beyond the cessation of a heartbeat.
Member Spotlight - Sara E. Stewart
After a stroke in October of 2015, Sara had to focus on rehabilitation. Her recovery was underwhelming. It was not until she realized she was grieving that things changed. Sara turned that grief into mourning the person she was prior to the stroke, and she began to speed up her recover process.
Member Spotlight - Vanessa Johnston
In 2015, Vanessa Johnston was looking for a new career. Her passion for teaching high school English had waned, and she wanted a different way to be of useful service in the world. She now spends her time as an End-of-Life Doula, a death educator, and an advocate for all the new options in the field of death care..
Member Spotlight - Valerie Nicholas
Valerie has always had an affinity for working with older adults, and she attributes this calling to her loving and influential grandparents. Valerie has been a life-long professional working with older adults and has devoted herself to end-of-life care as a hospice volunteer, life-cycle celebrant, and end-of-life doula.
Member Spotlight - Kerry Arquette
Kerry is the secretary and co-founder of the Colorado End-of-Life Collaborative, as well as the proprietor of End-of-Life Midwife. She has authored several books and is regularly invited to speak and teach about her work as an end-of-life doula, as well as a victim’s specialist for the Denver Police Department. Her most recent book, War Cries: Unheard Voices, Unmarked Graves, is a beautifully haunting collection of poems that give voice to the stories of many people much like ourselves who died during WWII. CEOLC is proud to feature her article, “Why Our Collaborative Is Imperative,” as we launch our new Collaborative Blog. Find out more about Kerry in this month’s Member Spotlight.
Member Spotlight - Cindy Kaufman
Cindy is the president and co-founder of the Colorado End-of-Life Collaborative, as well as the proprietor of HeartSpeak End-of-Life Companioning. She is regularly invited to speak and teach about what it means to be an end-of-life doula. Her most recent book, The Mortal’s Guide to Dying Well: Practical Wisdom from an End-of-Life Doula, was released in May 2020. Visit Cindy’s website to see more articles, publications and interviews.