Vicki Eber has worn many hats over the course of her career. She’s been a yoga instructor, massage therapist and wellness coach. She’s been a college professor, worked at a nonprofit, serving new mothers and their babies, and owned a business. She has two bachelor’s degrees, one in psychology and one in anthropology, and a master's in public health.
She recently decided to try on another hat, which she views as a culmination of those she’s worn before. Through her own experiences with death and grief, Eber was motivated to help others. In the fall of 2021, she became an end-of-life doula, hoping to encourage people to not shy away from what is largely considered a taboo topic, but rather use it as inspiration to live life as fully as possible.
Input Fort Wayne sat down with Vicki Eber to learn more about what an end-of-life doula is and why some avoid talking about death.
Vicki EberIFW: What is an end-of-life doula?
My very brief definition that I always give people when they ask what the heck I do is that just like a doula or midwife prepares a family for a baby to come into the world, an end-of-life doula or midwife prepares a family for an individual to exit the world.
The more formal definition would be that we're non-medical, end-of-life support. We can work hand in hand with hospice or separately. It's kind of limitless, depending on what the doula has credential-wise.
In my training to become a doula, there were social workers, counselors, therapists, and former nurses and doctors who wanted to go in a different direction. Some doulas specialize in natural burials and home funerals. I personally am just here to give nuggets of information. I'm more of a death educator. It just varies from person to person.
IFW: So how did you become interested in becoming an end-of-life doula?
Well, I always say I was born into endings, death, and dying. My mom died when I was eight. She was diagnosed with cancer when I was six, so I have dealt with terminal illness and death and dying all of my life.
My mom's been my inspiration all the way to this very moment of me talking to you. She had cervical cancer. It was very rough for her. I wanted to help clean her port and do other things to help. That inspired me to become a massage therapist. I wanted to be a nurse but I didn't want to poke and prod with needles. Then, that led me to yoga and yoga philosophy. The whole practice of yoga, like meditation, prepares us for that ending, if we look deep enough into the practices.
I'm also a wellness coach, and I started to find that I was often coaching folks who were caregivers of family members that were nearing the end of life. Then I had a teacher tell me that my purpose, the things I had to do, were in alignment with my mom, and I got really mad at her. I said, ‘I've already dealt with death. I'm done with it.’
This teacher always has a way of saying something just right that starts pulling the thread and it ends up making sense later. I've always been fascinated by the spiritual realm. And then I thought, ‘Well I'm already coaching family members on how to manage their own stress as a caregiver of somebody who's dying, which is preparing them for this grief that they're going to experience.’
So I went through my doula training and realized I'm already using all of the tools that they were teaching us, it was just very concentrated on death and dying and those scopes of practice.
IFW: How does one become an end-of-life doula?
My study was online for eight weeks, so it was convenient as far as not having to travel anywhere. I liked mine because it gave me motivational interview tools, which is really important, especially dealing with interpersonal relationships like how family dynamics can get kind of heated when somebody's dying in the family.
A lot of the study to become a death doula covers cultural backgrounds because every culture and religion has a different way of approaching end-of-life. Other topics were working with children, legacy-making, and different therapies to integrate into your practice like music therapy, art therapy, massage therapy, and meditation.
Vicki EberIFW: When somebody dies, are you required to have the body moved to a funeral home within a certain amount of time?
I love that you're asking this because I think a lot of people think when someone’s dead, we need to call right now. In the state of Indiana, you have three days before the funeral home needs to pick up a body. You're allowed three days with your loved one.
A lot of people want the body out of their house or out of wherever; they don't want to look at it, they don't want to be with it. But other families want to take their time. A lot of it is a spiritual practice – the sacredness of the Spirit leaving the body and I think that's such a beautiful thing.
We used to do that - that's how we attended to our dead: we sat with them, we prayed with them, we bathed them, we clothed them. We took the time. Then the funeral industry kind of came in and that changed how the practices and rituals happened. Again, it varies by culture as far as preparation of the body and everything. It can be quite lovely if we get more comfortable with it.
IFW: Why do you think people are so uncomfortable with death and talking about dying in our culture?
We are so focused on being productive and busy. I don’t think we like to think of ourselves as not doing things anymore.
IFW: How can people begin to get more comfortable with death and dying?
We need to practice talking about it more. I co-facilitate a Death Cafe with fellow death doula Lauren Richwine. It is held the second Saturday of each month at the Peggy F. Murphy Community Grief Center, 5920 Homestead Road in Fort Wayne. At these monthly gatherings, we enjoy a cup of coffee or tea and baked goods while joining in on a discussion of death and dying.
Vicki EberIFW: On your website, divine-dwelling.com, it says that you are taking a “pause.” What does that mean?
I'm trying to figure out what the structure looks like as far as individual offerings and what kind of time and energy resources I have within myself too. It's taxing– the grief process. Whether it’s anticipatory, before the client is dying, preparatory grief that the client is going through, or post-death grief, it's so heavy holding that space for someone. It can be very, very taxing until you learn how to handle it.
I think that's where I'm at– learning how much I can hold so that I can fine-tune what I’m capable of saying yes to and what my doula hat looks like as Divine Dwelling. Is it me teaching yoga classes based on death and dying? I want to teach the yoga philosophy of looking at death while we can enjoy our lives here now.
My goal is for people to use death as an inspiration to live their most full life.
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