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Lehighton woman helps people cope with death

Diane Szwajkowski feels a calling to help people in the end stages of life.

Called an “End of Life Doula,” the Lehighton woman explains, “It’s about death positivity.”

End of life Doulas are a “non-medical person trained to care for someone holistically (physically, emotionally and spiritually) at the end of life.”

When her father became ill in 2005, Szwajkowski researched helping her mother as a caregiver.

She wondered, “What do adult children do?”

So she said, she became “a caregiver to her mother’s caregiving.”

She located “Doulagivers” online and began the training process. This included training as a Care Consultant, Eldercare Doula and End of Life Doula, an intense virtual and online training requiring continuing education units regularly.

Before this she was a licensed massage therapist, using holistic modalities such as reiki.

Szwajkowski worked with a family helping with doctors’ appointments, organizing paperwork such as advanced directives and working on legacy projects. Her role was to “advocate, support and companion them until the end of life.”

She sat vigil with the family until the person died and assisted with grief and bereavement for six months.

Before the COVID pandemic, she was offering free in-person seminars on “What is an end of life doula?” then offered free Zoom calls through the Palmerton Library.

What she does

The care goes beyond the end of life, as doulas continue to work with families after the loss of a loved one. Whereas hospice helps families care for their loved ones at the very end of life, Death doulas help before the end and continue after a death.

Doulas “help people transition to and from this world” and work in conjunction with hospice and elder care facilities.

Doulas act as a “director” for the family to ensure end of life care occurs as the client and family would like it, for example they may request soft music and candles. An attempt is made to leave “no stress for those we leave behind.”

Teaching is done about end of life care. An end-of-life doula often works with the entire family and will continue after death with grief and bereavement care and guide families through the memorial or funeral planning.

The length of time varies on the family’s needs and the services they have chosen.

She does not accept insurance, but creates packages for each family and offers a sliding scale.

Learning to care for a loved one

Suzanne O’Brien, RN founded the International Doula Givers Institute to help “teach families the life-changing skill of how to care for their loved ones before they were in the stressful situation of caring for a dying loved one.”

She began offering free training and webinars to help families through the death experience. In 2017 The International Doulagivers foundation was founded.

O’Brien explains, “Death is seen as a natural part of the living process instead of something lurking in the shadows.”

As the elder population has grown this field has expanded quickly. Death is the second leading fear in this country. In 2017 Time magazine named End of Life Doula as one of seven top new professions.

Generally there’s a fear of talking about death in the United States. Death Cafes started so that people can have conversations about death while indulging in coffee and sweets.

Jon Underwood, a UK web developer, was inspired by Swiss sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Krettaz to develop the Death Cafe model in 2011. This is considered a “social franchise “ and gathering which is facilitated, rather than lead, to bring the taboo of death away.

The gathering is meant to have no agenda objectives or themes. It’s an opportunity for people to comfortably engage in conversations about death and dying in a social setting.

Held monthly locally at retail store “Within Harmony” in Lehighton, the next one to be held on Feb.12 facilitated by Szwajkowski. To register contact the store at 570-436-4359.

For more information, check out her Facebook page DoulaDiAnn or contact her at 215-230-0654.

Diane Szwajkowski is an end of life doula. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO