Hospice Training at Valley Hospital in Ridgewood NJ

Doulas for End of Life

Taught by Henry Joji Fersko-Weiss, LCSW  at Valley Hospital Hospice


I was sitting in a white antiseptic classroom  at Valley Hospital Hospice Offices with seven other members of Heart Circle Sangha and eight other people who had volunteered for this training  to be with the dying in the final hours of their life.  We were being asked to imagine our own deaths and how we would like it to be at the end of our own lives. Who did we want to be there?  Did we want quiet, natural talking, children, or music? Would we like someone to read us poetry or something spiritual or something personally meaningful?  Where did we want to be? How did we want our families to honor this period of transition?

As I contemplated my death, I immediately realized I did not want to be in my bedroom which is upstairs and away from the main life of the house.  I wanted to be downstairs in my study facing the backyard where I could look out on the sky, trees and grass, with fresh air coming from an open window.  I wanted to hear quiet chanting of the Heart Sutra although no one in my family knows it nor would they be comfortable chanting.  I would have to depend on the sangha for that.  I wanted all my family there although since they live far away, I realized that was unlikely.

The process brought back sad-sweet memories of my mother’s death a year ago.  I wondered if she would have liked music.  We never asked her.  When Henry mentioned that skin becomes so sensitive and delicate, it can crack open on its own, I thought of the new sheets I had bought for her in her final weeks when she changed to a hospital bed at home.  Months later my grandson complained they were too “scratchy”, and my heart sank thinking of mom on scratchy sheets as she died.

I remembered my sister and I sleeping on the floor by her bed the last night and waking up all night long to hear her breathing and falling asleep again knowing she was still with us.  She died at 9:40 am the next morning.


I think this program is incredibly important.  So little attention is paid to the actual end of life process that we are not prepared for it when a loved one dies or when we ourselves have to face our own end of life.  We are not accustomed to being dependent or to our parents becoming dependent on us.  In addition to feeling fear, family and patient may experience anger or shame.  Having a trained non-judging volunteer doula available  can bring solace to the family and patient.

Henry talked about the medications used at end of life, morphine, lorazapan (an anti-anxiety medication) and others.  There were questions about whether we would ever be administering medications but were reassured it would be the family’s responsibility and only as a last resort would the volunteers administer meds and only with the hospice nurse on the phone directing us.

It reminded me of how scarce the hospice nurse seemed at the end of my mother’s life although she always called us back promptly and was so very supportive.  I remembered how frightening the envelope of medication seemed when mom first went on hospice care and how glad I was we didn’t need to know about it yet.  It was stashed in the back of the frig where we didn’t even have to see it.  And yet in almost no time, we (my sister and I and our wonderful home healthcare aide) were learning how to draw the morphine and the lorazapan into the syringe and administer it to her by placing it into her mouth along her cheek.  It erased her pain and helped her to relax.  It was like a gift from the gods that helped her find ease.

Once I gave her an extra dose of morpine when I was supposed to give her lorazapan.  I was horrified and afraid I’d hastened her death.  The nurse was wonderfully reassuring that it wouldn’t cause her harm at this point and that it would only reduce her discomfort.  The nurse explained it was a judgement call regarding when it was appropriate to increase her pain medication or to give it more often.  The nurse assured me she was already ready to reduce the intervals between doses.  She was a very kind nurse.


Helping a patient find peace in these final days or hours may be challenging. It is natural to be afraid or angry.  Staring boldly into the unknown is hard no matter what your faith.

Henry has developed a lovely  guided meditations around the patient’s favorite places and fondest memories.  He’s developed a way of interviewing patients to solicit the personal information needed to create a personal guided meditation that invites them to relax into a place of inner peace and calm and to accept the transition that they have begun.  I found these meditations very moving.

Some years ago I developed a guided meditation for a friend who was dying and I found it helped him in moments of crisis and fear.  He would periodically ask his wife to invite me over to guide him in this way.  I would see his face relax and peace enter his mind and heart.  He was a Christian and I was a Buddhist, but like Henry’s meditations, this was non-sectarian and very comforting.  I subsequently used it with others who were dying including my mother.

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15 Responses to Hospice Training at Valley Hospital in Ridgewood NJ

  1. Alan says:

    Thank you for posting this moving account of caring for your mother. Henry’s class and the meditations seem like they would be very helpful.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    What a beautiful article. Thank you for sharing your experiences, your heart.
    I am very interested in working to offer meditation to those in hospice, it’s something I think is highly valuable and terribly underused. I was wondering if you could share what Henry’s meditation was? I’m trying to gather information and ideas to support my desire. Thank you much, and blessings….. Elizabeth

  3. Lorraine Flisher says:

    I am very interested in learning about your training program to become a Doula for End of Life. I am a registered nurse who currently volunteers at our local Hospice House and I have certifications in Reiki, Craniosacral and Acupressure. I am not seeing any of this being offered to our patients or their families. I have only ever heard of Birth Doulas but a dear friend of mine who lives in Hillsdale NJ recently lost her mother and told me of their extaordinary experience with an end of life doula who had been trained through a new program at Valley Hospital. I would be very interested in taking this training. Could you send me a contact phone # and some details as to how I could get more information about this. Thank you, Lorraine Flisher

  4. Nanice says:

    I am also interested in end of life care and would be interested in becoming a doula for end of life. Please send me info.

  5. admin says:

    All who wish to learn more about the end-of-life doula program, please leave a comment here and we will forward your request to the program director.

    • Diane Sackin says:

      Hi, I am interested in learning more about the end of life doula program. I have a degree in Special Education/Gerontology/Fine Arts. I retired after having breast cancer in 2003, blessed to be in remission for seven years. I became a caregiver for several family members and completed Valley Hospice Training in 1998.
      Thank You ,
      Diane Sackin

  6. Meredith says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. I too would like information on the End of Life Doula program. This is incredibly important work and desperately needed. Thank you.

  7. Darryl says:

    What a beautiful story. I have the honor of witnessing several loved ones in their passage. I am interested in becoming an End Of Life Doula. Any information or direction you can give would be appreciated.

  8. Pamela Sullivan says:

    I enjoyed your article, thank you for sharing. I am a Reiki Master and massage therapist for about 12 years and also interested in the end-of-life doula program. Could you tell me what the difference in doula training and hospice volunteer training. I am interested in this field and would like to know the locations and dates of upcoming classes. I live in south jersey, so I would like to find the closest locations.
    Thank you, Pamela Sullivan

  9. Lynn Chestone says:

    Please send me any information on your training to become an End of Life Doula and hospice volunteer program.

    Thank you so very much!


  10. Alexis Ocheltree says:

    I would like to learn more about your End-of-Life doula training. Please contact me and/or forward any information you can. Thanks. Alexis

  11. Sherri says:

    I would like more information about this program I would like to be involved.. thanks so much…

  12. Pat Barnett says:

    I would like to learn more/attend classes to become an end of life doulas. I am a psych RN, I know Reiki and I practice meditation.

  13. Pat Barnett says:

    I would like to learn more about end of life Doula

  14. Patricia Brussel says:

    I would like to learn more about the Doula – end of of like. What a beautiful article.

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