Phyllis Farley

Doula for the dying

| January / February 2005

When Phyllis Farley attended a conference on end-of-life care in 1998, she realized that the same hands-on help and emotional support women welcome when they're giving birth is also needed at death. So Farley, an 80-year-old New Yorker, and aunt and mentor to Nina Utne, founded an organization called Doulas to Accompany and Comfort the Dying.

The word doula is Greek for 'woman who serves.' In modern maternity care, doulas provide emotional support and reassurance to mothers during labor. Farley's program, on the other hand, trains men and women to assist and be with people who are terminally ill. Over the course of eight sessions, volunteers learn everything from relating and listening to the ill person to more practical tasks like helping with a living will.

The first person Farley supported through the dying process was a German-speaking woman with a beloved schnauzer. Farley, a dog lover who's fluent in German herself, would listen to her stories, being careful not to interject stories of her own life. She adapted quickly to the woman's wishes -- from periods of silence to reading books to simply sitting and holding her hand. Farley also learned to get over her fears about death and dying. 'Most people have enormous resistance to considering death, which is pretty childish,' she quips. 'You can't let your own feelings get in the way.'

When the woman was finally hospitalized, she told Farley she wanted to see her dog one last time. Despite regulations and a reluctant security guard, Farley successfully smuggled the pooch into the hospital. Asked how she managed the stunt, Farley, resolute in her commitment to respect the woman's wishes, says simply, 'I don't like being crossed.'

Doulas to Accompany and Comfort the Dying now has 50 actively placed doulas in and around New York City, with avid interest from communities across the country. But Farley remains modest about the organization's work. 'It is a very selfish act, when you think about it,' says Farley. 'Helping ease someone's passing is wonderfully satisfying.'

For more information, visit the Web site of the Jewish Family Consultation on Care Near Life's End, part of New York's Shira Ruskay Center (

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