I discuss my work through a Jewish lens with Rabbi Richard Address.
Listen below or read the transcript!
Richard: Shalom and welcome. I am Richard Address, director of Jewish Sacred Aging, and we welcome you to another in our series of podcasts on Jewish sacred aging. These podcasts hope to feature conversations that relate to issues that touch on the issue of longevity in our community, and we welcome your comments and suggestions. You can email them to me at RabbiAddress@jewishsacredaging.comAnd it is a pleasure to welcome to our podcast today Emily Pinzur, calling in from the beautiful state of Washington out in Seattle, and Emily, thank you for joining us here on the podcast Jewish Sacred Aging, how are you doing today?
Emily: I’m wonderful, thank you so much for having me, it’s my pleasure to be here.
Richard: Well, thank you for giving us your time. We want to talk about you and your role as a mourning m-o-u-r-n-i-n-g even though its morning ins Seattle. A mourning doula, what first of all for people who may not be familiar with the concept of a doula, what is a doula?
Emily: So, doula is actually a Greek word meaning “A woman who serves.” So, traditionally, doulas have been used in a birthing capacity to be present at childbirth to support laboring women, and it’s non-medical support. It’s emotional support, it’s some physical support, helping out with movement, massage, things like that. But really being there to support the laboring mother with whatever her needs are during childbirth. And so, the mourning doula, and end of life doula, and home funeral doula and death doula which are all some of my roles; are the same just supporting people but at the different transition of end of life as opposed to birth.
Richard: Okay, so many people listening to this, colleagues especially, are going to be familiar with the Chevra Kadisha, the traditional group that monitors, takes care of the body. This is different than a Chevra Kadisha, correct?
Emily: This is different.
Richard: Okay, walk me through the differences between what you do and the Chevra Kadisha, just to make sure everybody has understanding of this.
Emily: The role that would be closely associated with that would be the Home Funeral Doula role, and many people do choose to have home funerals. Up until 150 years ago, all funerals took place at home. The funeral home is a relatively new concept, and people are doing that now. Sometimes people choose to keep their loved one at home, and that’s where the home funeral doula role comes in. I can help families to stay with their loved one in the home and care for their loved one’s body simply, lovingly, respectfully helping them with the physical aspects of keeping their loved ones at home; cooling measures, coordinating movement to the final resting place, wrapping the body lovingly in the shroud. So, I think that would be the role that would most closely fit along with the Chevra Kadisha.
Richard: So, when do you get involved with an individual and with a family? Is it the last days, the last month? Do you come every day? Is it …do you… I mean, to be crass about it, do you charge by the hour? Is there a fee for a family to contact you and say “We need this?” because this is a concept, I would imagine to many people listening to this, to be a new concept.
Emily: I agree with you, and it’s a good question. Part of what I love about what I do is that there’s a lot of flexibility involved. So, I mentioned several different roles. I can work with a family all across those different roles for as much or as little care as they like and require. So it’s possible, for example, for me to start out working with an individual or family as an end of life doula. That is simply starting with people, even people who are young and healthy and have no immediate concerns about death and dying, to understand what their options are. To understand all of the information that is available to them so that they can make good choices for themselves about death, dying and disposition. So what I am trying to do is make sure that people are fully informed about their options, then create an end of life vision for themselves that is integrative and authentic. So, I can start with them, all the way to going to the next role, death doula. If someone were actively dying; going to them, being with them for the transition should they like, helping them with their life review. I’m sure that’s a concept you’re familiar with…
Richard: Right, right
Emily: Telling their story. There’s a lot of research that says that has multiple benefits, that would be through the transition, for someone like me to be there. You know, that’s an individual and family choice, too, and I might be called in to be with a person during their final transition if the family is traveling and on their way and not able to be there, or if that person is a resident at a care facility and they have medical staff coming in occasionally but it’s not the level of support they’re looking for, or if a family member is there and wants some additional support. Then, there’s the home funeral doula if someone chooses a home funeral. Then, there’s the mourning doula; that’s after someone has lost their loved one, and they realize they still have to do all of the things and tasks and arrangements that have to be made when a loved one dies. So, the mourning doula role is a little different. It’s more of a concierge type of service providing informational, emotional and practical supports for people to allow them to be with their own grief. So, it really depends on th3e family. It really depends on the individual. It really depends on how things are going. People can call me in for as many or as few of these services as they would like, so I do offer packages and a la carte services as well.
Richard: So, I have to ask you this question again. How do you advertise this? I mean, you just can’t put up a billboard on I-5., or as you get off a plane at Sea Tac, you know, “By the way…” Do you work with congregations? Cause I’m sure congregations would say “We do this! We have a Rabbi, we have caring community people.” How do you get this message out into the Jewish community? What are the allies as you do this?
Emily: Sure, that’s a good question, too. Definitely physicians and other medical professionals. Naturopaths, acupuncturists, yoga studios have some people I would generally work with but also community centers; there are a lot of specifically Jewish community centers and approaching congregations as well. Yes, I mean, there are rabbis who are doing the work preparing people. I’m just doing things in a slightly different way. It’s more practical and informational, the kind of support that I am generally offering. So, I started out working in hospice, and I transitioned to doing this work because I found there were limitations as a hospice social worker. I’m a social worker as well, and I felt that certain families needed more support than what hospice was providing. Hospice support is very specific because of Medicare, their payor source, and certain interventions that I thought would be helpful wouldn’t be covered. For example, if a person is actively dying, hospice is not called in unless the patient is experiencing out of control pain or respiratory distress. So, sometimes a family might want a different kind of support; that would be the time for me to come in. I also wanted to start reaching people earlier and work with organizations kind of like what you’re talking about, in a broader way because often by the time someone signs on with hospice, my patient and their family is just too ill or to overcome with emotion to ask the right questions, understand their choices or change the way they engage with death. So, as you know, preparation brings so much peace of mind when it comes to death and dying, and to speak to your question about advertising, it does amaze me that, in our culture, someone will endlessly research their purchase of a big screen television or a new car. They’ll price shop, they’ll consider the options, the bells and whistles. They’ll think about how the purchase affects their budget, but when it comes to death and after care, we don’t really want to think about it. It is hard to advertise. We think “I don’t want to think about it, I’m too young, I’ll think about it later, it’s creepy, it’s morbid. But it really isn’t. I think that’s a true disservice to ourselves. So, part of what I advertise is how to embrace your values, and how to conclude an examined life with an examined death. And I do think more and more people want to do that. I am also connecting with people who care about the environment and want to understand how current death practices in the United States affect the environment, and how we can do a little better. In a place like Seattle, I’m finding a lot of people who are interested in that.
Richard: Absolutely. You must have a website where somebody can get this menu.
Emily: I do.
Richard: And what’s the website?
Emily: It’s SilverWheelHealing.com
Richard: Emily, what was it…something must have touched you in your life, in your soul or your journey that motivated you to go into this. Can you identify this, because this is, like, a different journey shall we say from a young lady growing up in Southern New Jersey, say, just for the sake of argument? What was it? Was there a moment when your soul was touched and said I feel this calling to do this work?
Emily: There was. I had the privilege of working in hospice because, while there were limitations, there were moments of such exquisite grace and beauty, and some of those moments were actually being present for people’s deaths. Sometimes people will say to me, if I meet them at a party and they ask me what I do for work, they’ll say “Oh but isn’t that depressing?” That’s the most common comment that I get, “Isn’t that depressing?” but I don’t think it’s depressing. I start also learning…a few years before I came to this work, I found Reiki and energy healing. I was really able at that time to connect to a bigger source, I would say…something outside of myself that I knew was missing doing regular, conventional therapy as a social worker up until then. I bridged that gap in my own life and in my work with others by learning how to listen more fully using not just my mind but also my heart, my body, my body’s energy centers, and I started feeling a deep healing and connection to that which is larger than the observable universe because of the subtle energies that emanate from the body directly and are unbounded. I was able to kind of hone in on those, so being able to connect with people on multiple levels in a really holistic way was an impactful moment for me. I was working in hospice, and I had an injury and had to stop working for a little while. I think oftentimes there are moments of transition that happen when something out of the ordinary happens when we have time to reflect instead of going and going and going as we are conditioned to do. When I had that forced time out, a friend of mine who was a hospice nurse called, and we were talking and she said she’d heard of this program, this End of Life Doula Program. And, I can’t quite explain it, but I felt, immediately, this huge “yes” kind of emanating from the core of my being, and I knew that’s what I was meant to do because I knew I’d be able to use all the skills I already had, combine them and take this work further and deeper than I ever had before.
Richard: So, there was an actual training program?
Emily: There was.
Richard: And, walk us through that; what was involved in this?
Emily: It’s called MourningDoula.com; M-O-U-R-N-I-N-G, and it’s an offshoot of a training program called Momdoulary.com So, my teacher, Laura Saba, has been a very successful birth doula for many years. Doing the birth work, she felt she needed to do something further to address end of life because she was noticing so many…this is really just the opposite side of the same coin. These are both transitions, these are both transitions that are physical, and metaphysical from one state of being to another. She noticed these similarities, noticed a lack, and developed the MourningDoula.com program which is a really comprehensive program. I did it online, it took several months. Right now, we don’t have a licensing or regulatory board; it’s interesting because even though this is really ancient work, it’s kind of new work, as you were saying. But, Laura’s been cropping up all over in the news. She’s been doing a lot of good work promulgating our business and letting people know what we do. And you go through all of the different roles. This is called a 5 in 1 training, and we took an exam. We are a small group, but a mighty group! Laura’s idea is to roll this program out all over the country.
Richard: Talk to me a little bit about the fear factor. You’re dealing with individuals and families facing one of the great, if not the greatest transitions, transformational moments in a person’s life and given still, despite all the education and awareness that seems to be cropping up, I see it in my own work in Jewish sacred aging etc etc; there’s still a fair amount of unknown and fear as people approach the end of their life. Talk to me about how you work with an individual or family with that.
Emily: I think that preparation is really the key because of course, all of us know that we’re going to die, and, in fact, we’re dying from the moment we’re born. We just haven’t been paying attention. I think we’re taught as a society and I think this is not specifically an American trait but I think other countries talk about death and dying better, more openly; it’s just our lack of understanding. For example, if I tell people they can have a home funeral, no one understands they can do that because there is an informational monopoly held by the funeral industry. Not to malign them in any way; they’re doing excellent work and are incredibly helpful for families. But we just don’t understand what our options are, and I think this contributes to the existential fear you’re talking about. I think the more information we have about the options we have available will decrease the other sense of fear because it’s kind of like a snowball effect; everything gets formed together and that snowball is getting bigger and picking up pace as it rolls down the hill. Of course, there are difficult family dynamics that we encounter. Of course, as people approach their time, they’re thinking about regrets, they’re thinking about things they wish they’d done differently and again, I really think the key is tapping into acceptance and forgiveness, and that is a big part of the doula’s role. We’re just sitting with people. We’re just holding space for people to examine what is. I think that helping people talk to their family members earlier, and tell their stories in a way that is meaningful to them, is also really healing. If you’re doing a life review with someone, and you find out something new about them, or if you’re the patient and you find out something new about yourself, that can shape and change the relationship. So, it’s really about communication, honesty, and having someone hold the space. And, not being afraid of fear; fear is okay. What I as a doula do is sit with an experience of a full range of emotions.
Richard: So, is it safe to say that really what you’re about is healing? Because, you use the word a lot. Really, this is a healing modality ushering someone into death…correct?
Richard: And so your website, SilverWheelHealing.com incorporates this concept of healing. Talk to me about what the silver wheel is before we run out of time.
Emily: Oh, great, I’m so glad that you asked. Well, the silver wheel is the full moon.; it’s another way of saying the full moon. And the circle...you know this from Jewish concepts, obviously, is the circle of life, holding all of life together. There’s a Celtic goddess named Arianrhod; partly I named my business in homage to her. In their mythology, she was the goddess who ferried the dead from one side to the other. Her myth is about standing with people in liminal spaces, and helping them make a safe transition.
Richard: The work that you do, it seems to me that the MSW you have would be a real important component, correct? Because, to put it bluntly, you’re doing counseling, in a way, are you not? So this training is really, really important.
Emily: It’s interesting. I’d really thought about whether or not to include those credentials on my website because I and some of my social work colleagues have found that if you do include those credentials, there is a certain expectation for how the work is going to go. That maybe it would be more like traditional counseling where you sit opposite one another at a desk, and do a lot of talk therapy. So, I had to think about whether that was something I wanted to include. But, I felt it was important for myself because had I not started my career as a social worker and had that underpinning of, understanding of families, and family dynamics and psychodynamics, and had I not done the work that I did as a social worker, I don’t think I would have gotten to where I am now as a doula. So, I want people to understand y background, I want people to understand how I think, and I want to use all of my skills to sit with a family. Some of it; it’s not counseling that I do as a doula as much as coaching. Mournindgoula.com students use a coaching model, a kind of progressive questioning to help people hone in on making their best possible choices.
Richard: And, real quickly, the difference between counseling and coaching is one of direction versus holding?
Emily: Mm, you could say that. Coaching is less in depth. It’s more pointed. I’m certainly there to listen, but I’m more helping people figure out what their next step is regarding specific tasks we’re working on. For example, one of my roles that you and I haven’t talked about so far is the post-loss reorganizer role where people have to work with a loved one’s material artifacts, a lifetime worth of possessions. So, I might do the same kind of coaching that any other organizer would do, in that role.
Richard: To put it simply, because we run across this, clergy run across this all the time; after the funeral, the shivah and everything, even if it’s a non-Jewish funeral; the moment the surviving spouse has to go upstairs and deal with the clothes in the closet. And you’re available…that moment, as many of us know, relives many emotions, perhaps stories, and is another momentous, in many cases, transition. Part of your role is to be there with that family, with that person, in that moment…correct?
Emily: Yes, it is, and the kind of guideline I use is helping people through “addition by subtraction,” so figuring out how to add more value to your life by letting go of things that no longer serve. It’s pressure free, it’s meaningful. It’s a curation, a way to find the things that feel the best to you. And how this works for me with regard to the other roles is I’m going to sensitively address any and all feelings that come up along the way, because I understand where you’re coming from.
Richard: Emily, thank you very much. Emily Pinzur. Mourning doula, personal loos coordinator; really, I wish you much happiness and joy in this. I have a funny feeling you’re really on the cutting edge of the revolution that’s taking place within the religious and non-religious communities here dealing with end of life. So, continued success, we wish you good luck and the website SilverWheelHealing.com Emily, thank you very much, take care.