A Good Death: Finding Comfort in MortalityDec 27, 2022 08:23AM ● By Jesse Kuhnle
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
From her earliest memories, language has always been important to Jenni Herchenbach.
“I remember going into preschool, and there is this little boy and everybody is crying,” Herchenbach recalled. “I asked what happened, and the little boy said, ‘I lost my grandma.’ And I was like, ‘Why are you here? Why aren’t you looking for her?’ It seemed so odd to me.”
The moment stuck with her, and would inform her relationship with death, and especially, the language that surrounds it.
Such language still matters to Herchenbach, which is why the officially licensed sacred passage doula refers to herself as a “death doula.”
“I deal with death,” she said.
Dealing with death encompasses a variety of specialized services. Herchenbach founded Omaha-based Flourish Collaborative to offer her services as an end-of-life coach and grief navigator for clients across the country.
After raising six daughters, Herchenbach returned to school and earned a master’s in occupational therapy. With a special passion for mental health and trauma care, she found herself drawn to sitting with people during “really tender, difficult moments.” Working with patients in intensive care units, Herchenbach often noticed a gulf between words and feelings when questions of mortality arose.
“Some well-meaning aunt would walk in the room saying something like, ‘You’re so lucky to be alive’ and that person didn’t feel like it,” Herchenbach remembered. “I always thought it was such a strange thing to say to someone.”
Herchenbach recalls conversations with “bruised and broken” patients whose lives had been rapidly, irrevocably changed. Then, when COVID hit, Herchenbach was away from work for a time—allowing her to take a deep dive into “all things death, dying, and grief.”
The sheer volume of death brought on by the pandemic encouraged a willingness for people to discuss it more candidly, drawing Herchenbach’s ear.
“[As a kid] I remember thinking death must be really, really scary or we’d talk about it more, and I think there is a lot of phobia in our society because we don’t talk about it,” she said.
The term doula means “service mother” and is commonly known as a professional labor assistant who provides emotional support and advocates for clients throughout the childbirth process. A death doula does much the same thing, but on the other end of life; serving and advocating for the dying.
Herchenbach said, “Death is coming for you no matter what, whether we talk about it or not so I really try to get people to talk about ‘What would your good death look like? ‘Have you told anyone?’”
René Harper first worked with Herchenbach in fall 2021. Harper was the primary caregiver of her mother and had grown concerned about her health. Harper had recently communicated with her mother about moving into an assisted living facility. Shortly thereafter, her mother succumbed to a stroke.
“I had to work through a lot of my own guilt,” Harper said. “Did I take good enough care of her? Did I do everything I could do?”
Herchenbach worked to “tend” Harper’s grief, listening without judgment and without trying to “fix” anything.
“I remember it so well,” Harper said. “It was just a beautiful time. A respite for me. To sit there with her and express my feelings and feel safe to cry and for her to be in that with me. That was a really amazing gift she gave.
“It also brought up a lot of fears of my own mortality...if I would have the death I wanted to have. Because I don’t feel like my mom got that. I want to create my own scenario. What I love about the death doula process is it allows you to have some control over that.”
Herchenbach serves a mix of clients, from terminal patients to those who “just want to plan for what their good death looks like.” A common exercise is to ask, “What would you do if you had 90 days left to live?”
This question and the ensuing conversations often serve as a wake-up call, helping prioritize between “what has to be done” and “what doesn’t have to be done.” Herchenbach broaches oft-overlooked considerations, such as sharing passwords to online accounts, creating a “burnbox” (a collection of items you wish to be kept private or destroyed upon your death), writing down family history and life stories for children and grandchildren, or naming a power-of-attorney.
“The people who are most afraid to die are also the most afraid to live,” Herchenbach said. “When you can finally have the conversation of ‘What if later doesn’t come?’ it really helps people decide, ‘Why am I waiting?’”
It may seem counterintuitive, but end-of-life-planning is often a joyful and illuminating process. As Herchenbach facilitates end-of-life conversations, family members find joy discovering things they never knew.
“Some of the stories and conversations that come up…the things families learn about each other. It just tickles me so much,” Herchenbach said.
“I think we can go out just the way we live. We all have the right to pursue our own good death. We just have to talk about it.”