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Death doulas assisting people at end of life

<i>WXMI</i><br/>Laura Hoekstra is hoping to change the conversation and end the stigma surrounding death with her end-of-life doula business
Laura Hoekstra is hoping to change the conversation and end the stigma surrounding death with her end-of-life doula business

By Janice Allen

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    GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan (WXMI) — Laura Hoekstra is hoping to change the conversation and end the stigma surrounding death with her end-of-life doula business, Grace in the Leaving.

“Birth and death, they’re the two things that we all have in common. They’re the two things that we know we won’t escape,” Hoekstra said. “We’ll be born and we’ll die and we don’t need to be afraid of that.”

Hoekstra retired in December 2022, after undergoing training in 2021 to become an end-of-life doula.

“An end of life doula is similar to a birth doula in that we assist, we serve, we are there as companions,” she explained. “A doula can really talk to someone and hear their heart. And then we can kind of be that advocate for what they really want.”

The position is a “calling” for Hoekstra, who has known a life of loss.

“I myself had a toddler when my husband died. And so I am used to life, day-to-day living and talking about death.”

Along with being widowed at a young age, Hoekstra served as caregiver for both her parents before their deaths.

“It was through those times that I really began to develop a skill set, and also realize the huge need for this kind of support,” she said. “Our goal is to help people have the best death possible. We can’t guarantee that of course. But when people think about this before it is happening, we find that makes it much easier for everyone.”

Grace in the Leaving serves the Greater Grand Rapids area.

Hoekstra provides non-medical comfort care, along with bereavement support, funeral pre-planning and legacy work.

“We offer support from the time of a diagnosis all the way up to what we call a vigil time, where the person is actively dying,” Hoekstra explained. ” A safe place to talk, a safe place to be with someone who understands the process. That’s what an end-of-life doula can do. We understand the process. We know what’s going to be happening physically and many other cases, not all, but we can walk families through what to expect. We can be a companion. I think the word companion is a very key word in the work that I do.”

Hoeskstra said a death doula can help to fill the gaps between healthcare and hospice.

“We are all non medical. So that’s a really important distinction between end-of-life doulas and hospice care. Hospice will provide the medical pain relief, they will provide other things that people need, it’s not treatment, but it’s comfort care” she explained. “Many people wait too long. They don’t realize that end of life care, hospice included, is meant to make your remaining days as good as they can be. It’s not a death sentence. In fact, it’s not a death sentence to talk about death.”

Costs differ based on the amount of support service needed.

“It’s a range of pricing that I have seen, anywhere from $25 an hour to $100 an hour for services. Many doulas bill by the hour. Some doulas do have packages. And when you get closer to what we call a bedside vigil, which can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days. We’re flexible in many cases.”

Robin Owens reached out to Hoekstra on behalf of her aunt, Joyce Hart, who’s dealing with grief and her own declining health.

“I just love the thought of having a doula and having life as we leave this earth and birth into a new life. It’s perfect,” Owens told FOX 17 News. “Having someone to else to talk to, to come alongside is just invaluable… even as we talk about the future, and what options you have moving forward it is very helpful.”

Hart is already seeing the benefits of having a doula.

“It’s just comforting to know, you know, that somebody cares,” Hart said.

Hoekstra has already gotten a big response from her newly launched business and hopes to “reframe” the conversations surrounding death.

“I think that just like the beginning of life, the ending of life is sacred. And anything that sacred is worth time and attention,” she said. “How do you want to be remembered? How do you want this all to end? I would like to see people focus more on that. And I’d like to help them do that.”

Hoekstra said she’d like to eventually see doula services covered by insurance.

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