Phyllis Farley

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
(www.shiraruskay.org/doula).

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