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Approaching death with peace: Chippewa Falls 'death doula' comforts the ill, dying

CHIPPEWA FALLS — Instead of guiding local parents through pregnancy and childbirth, Betsy Munro Jeffrey is a different kind of midwife.

She is guiding and preparing family members and clients for the process of dying.

Jeffrey is a death doula, part of a growing movement in the United States where caregivers give nonmedical assistance to people at the end of their lives.

Jeffrey, a five-year resident of Chippewa Falls, describes herself as an “end-of-life companion.”

After training for nine months through the Conscious Dying Institute of Colorado, Jeffrey became a certified death doula and currently works with four patients, including two family members − all in various stages of their lives.

Many death doulas provide wide-ranging services, Jeffrey said. With patients, she might attend doctor’s appointments, help a family find financial or legal resources or work to mend estranged relationships before a parent or grandparent’s death.

Jeffrey also wants to make her community more comfortable with talking about death.

“We are a very death-phobic culture. We don’t talk about it, and it’s become highly medicalized,” Jeffrey said. “A hundred years ago, it was one of those skills, going through the death process and dealing with grief, that your grandmother would teach you.”

The death doula, or death midwife, movement is growing across America.

No government or medical body oversees death doula certification. Several certification programs advertise trainings online: The Doulagivers Institute offers online end-of-life doula training for just under $2,000. Lifespan Doulas will train and certify death doulas at its facility in Michigan for around $835. The International End-of-Life Doula Association has four certified Wisconsin death doulas, from Fond du Lac to La Crosse, according to its website.

Jeffrey’s services aren’t covered by insurance, she said.

The baby-boom generation has given voice to a growing demand for death doulas and similar services, she said: “They want to have choices. We saw that with the birth process. If you wanted to have a home birth or water birth, something natural or with medication, they wanted to have a say in what was happening.”

The same push is happening around the process of dying, she said.

Certified death doulas have a range of backgrounds. Nurses, social workers, occupational therapists, yoga instructors and physicians are all certified death doulas at the Conscious Dying Institute, according to its website.

During her training, Jeffrey worked with would-be doulas ranging from palliative care doctors to spiritual practitioners, she said: “There’s a lot of diversity there.”

Jeffrey began exploring death doula training in 2018, after working with her father-in-law and grandfather before and during their deaths.

“The biggest change was allowing myself to sit in that space,” she said of her grandfather’s death. “I’m a fixer and a doer. I want to organize everything. But the best experiences I had with my grandfather were being able to sit with him and just be present.”

Support for the caretakers of a dying person is often overlooked, Jeffrey said.

“It’s very easy to get caught up in the minutiae of ‘fix it,’” she said. “The most sacred part of that passing process is to be with the person as they pass. As a doula, I’m there to maintain that balance.”

Jeffrey’s work doesn’t include medical, hospice or palliative care, but she will attend appointments with clients and help communicate their wishes to physicians, if they desire.

“I’m very much an advocate for hospice and palliative care in general,” she said. “I’m comfortable asking questions and being present, but I’m not a doctor.”

Local hospitals — including HSHS Sacred Heart and HSHS St. Joseph’s hospitals, Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire and Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire — offer palliative and hospice care, as well as chaplains to support patients at the end of their lives.

If a patient wants to bring in an assistant or caregiver like a death doula, “we would certainly accommodate that,” said Matt Schneider, Marshfield regional communications manager. “It comes down to what the family wants in their last days.”

Jeffery’s services start around $100 per hour, depending on what kind of services clients are looking for.

“I might have five or six meetings with you and your family, one phone meeting to help you come up with an emergency kit, or sit vigil with you for three days,” she said.

For the elderly, death isn’t the only struggle, Jeffrey said: Dealing with medical conditions and illnesses can bring on feelings of grief and hopelessness.

She’s hoping to help people through those emotions.

“Loss and grief go together,” Jeffrey said. “I’ve been able to help (family members) move through those discoveries. There’s still loss, there’s still grief, but we can use it to be better.”

Favor the farmers

I have a favor to ask you. Of course, the favor depends somewhat on whether or not what I’m writing resonates with you, and there is always the chance it won’t, or that, you’ll simply discard this column when you’re finished reading it, and we will go our separate ways, like two people on an ill-fated first date. But I’m going to place my trust in you because we’re both likely Wisconsinites and Americans, and I suspect that even if our politics aren’t simpatico, our consciences are.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “...Wisconsin lost nearly 700 dairy farms in 2018, an unprecedented rate of nearly two a day. Most were small operations unable to survive milk prices that, adjusted for inflation, were among the lowest in a half-century.” And, as of earlier this year, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture reported that 8,046 dairy herds represent a number 40% smaller than a decade earlier.

I know you don’t need me to reel off more statistics. You’ve seen it with your own eyes. You’ve seen the farms for sale and the heart-breaking livestock auctions. You know proud Wisconsinites who only want to work their family land, who now have to redefine who they are, and how they make their livings. We all endured this past winter and perhaps no one bore the burden more than our farmers, who lost countless barns and livestock due to the record snow and cold. I don’t have to look very far in my own life to see this tragedy. My wife’s family has long farmed outside Strum, and one of the farms in “my neighborhood” recently stopped milking after over a century of continuous family operation.

This country, and this state are deeply divided along political lines. It’s hard to know how to reach across the aisle. It’s hard not to raise our voices in argument.

It’s hard to find common ground. I feel it too. But on this issue, and when it comes to our friends, neighbors and fellow citizens, I am asking you for a favor. Call your local, state, and national representatives. Call the Republicans and call the Democrats. And tell them that it’s time to help our farmers. Trust me, you’ll feel better after you hang up the telephone, or post your letter. Because what you’re doing is an act of political and civic engagement that transcends politics and connects us all through the food we eat, the land we share, and the pride we derive in identifying as “America’s Dairyland.”

Our politicians are simply not doing enough, and the proof is in the ongoing slow emergency of this crisis. Billions of dollars of tax incentives were earmarked for the Foxconn project in southeastern Wisconsin for a foreign company; both Republicans and Democrats voted for that project. And likewise for the Milwaukee Bucks new stadium; nearly a half billion dollars to a bunch of hedge-fund millionaires who wouldn’t know a Holstein or Guernsey if one tipped over onto their fancy shoes. Again, Republicans and Democrats voted for in support of that project, with our tax dollars, while good Wisconsinites go bankrupt. Everyday, this newspaper should be full of op-eds by local and state politicians offering helpful solutions to this problem and pledging their bi-partisan support. These politicians ought to link arms and righteously (they like to be righteous) stand up for their constituents. But, it seems perhaps farmers don’t donate enough to political coffers. Probably, they can’t. Hard to pay for political play when your worried about your mortgage, medical bills or groceries…

On Sept. 21, Willie Nelson is bringing Farm Aid to Alpine Valley in East Troy. This might be the most visible and positive statement of support that I’ve seen for Badger farmers yet. For what it’s worth, I want to raise my voice in solidarity with the Red-Headed Stranger, Neil Young and John Cougar Mellencamp, three musicians who’ve raised millions through the years in support of struggling farmers. So, please, contact your politicians (all of them) and ask them what they’re doing for our struggling farmers. Or, if you find contacting your politicians a loathsome chore (trust me, I can relate), I’d ask you to consider supporting our local farmers by buying their products.

Wisconsin’s license plate reads “America’s Dairyland.” “Dairyland” means more than dairy farms. That word suggests not just an industry, but a landscape, and perhaps even, a work ethic, passed down through the generations. The truth is, right now, we are in danger of losing the spirit, if not the reality of that slogan. But wouldn’t it be worthwhile if we stood together and proudly supported that promise? Wouldn’t it be visionary if rather than losing farmers, we began growing new farmers, preserving valuable farmland, and securing our own food chain?

The good news: We can do it, if we do it together.

Next Saturday: When State Street closed, the world opened up for B.J. Hollars.