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A Place for Grief 

Peaceful Presence Project aims to help people plan for death and change our approach to grief

In the past year and a half, you wouldn't be alone in wishing there was a guidebook for dealing with the loss and grief that can come with living through a global pandemic. Turns out, two locals were working on this well before the pandemic. Co-founded by an oncology and hospice-care nurse who spent years attending to the sick and dying, the Bend-based Peaceful Presence Project has a mission to help people die with dignity. Among the nonprofit's endeavors over the last year has been a workshop, tailored to the experience that so many people are having throughout this pandemic, of "Loss and Grief in Times of Disaster."

Erin Collins, the registered nurse and one of two co-founders, saw from her work the need for "support in living well while facing the reality of mortality." She founded the project in 2019, along with Elizabeth Johnson, whose own experience losing her son just after birth revealed for her how society does—and doesn't—manage the grieving process. In short, the two aim to increase the community's "literacy" around the concept of death and dying.

The end-of-life doula team at the Peaceful Presence Project. From left are Marian Boileau, Elizabeth Johnson, Kari Sims Anthon, Erin Collins and Beth Patterson. - JENNIFER KINNEY
  • Jennifer Kinney
  • The end-of-life doula team at the Peaceful Presence Project. From left are Marian Boileau, Elizabeth Johnson, Kari Sims Anthon, Erin Collins and Beth Patterson.

"We have such death denial in our community that the more people who become comfortable—and it doesn't mean that they have to become a death doula, but they engage in some sort of self-exploration around death and dying so that we do increase and improve our death literacy—the better off we're all going to be," Collins told the Source.

Training and sending death doulas into the community is one facet of the project's mission. End-of-life doulas guide people through discussions and planning for end-of-life care, along with providing bedside support to people who are dying.

"Many people are familiar with birth and postpartum doulas, who serve families during and after the birth of a child;" the group's website describes. "End-of-Life or Death Doulas serve families on the other end of the life cycle."

Central Oregon alone has hundreds of home health and hospice nurses, Collins pointed out, but only a few dozen death doulas.

"We oftentimes are forced to go through the grieving process in a really solitary and hidden way," Johnson said. "I was just in conversation with a person the other day who had a really close family member die, and he said, 'I'm going out to dinner with friends tonight, but I assured them that I wouldn't say anything about my loss—that I wouldn't ask them to be part of that conversation with me, and they all said in response, "good, thanks for prefacing our time together like that."'

With our society being "addicted" to these ways of "getting better," it's tough to share that grief openly, she said. "I always say, these ways of grieving and being in our bereaved states, are meant to be shared," Johnson reflected.

Another facet of their work is a workbook titled, "End Notes," that helps walk people through the steps to consider when planning for a death. Peaceful Presence also received funding from the Central Oregon Health Quality Alliance to assist the area's unhoused population in their end-of-life planning—a program that is still in the beginning stages, Johnson and Collins said.

The Peaceful Presence Project’s workbook, “End Notes,” helps people walk through the planning stages of death and dying. - PEACEFUL PRESENCE PROJECT
  • Peaceful Presence Project
  • The Peaceful Presence Project’s workbook, “End Notes,” helps people walk through the planning stages of death and dying.

Educational events take the form of workshops and gatherings for community members, families and clinicians. A four-part "Live Well" series helps participants explore what matters most to them in life and death. In October, around Sawhain—the Gaelic festival that marks the end of harvest, and a change from the light to the dark part of the year—the group hosts events that last year included a tea ceremony and altar openings.

This week, the Peaceful Presence Project is also hosting an online auction and fundraiser to help raise funds to further its mission. The event, happening Sept. 19 from 4 to 5:30pm, includes live music, speeches from community leaders, an auction and raffle prizes. The auction portion opens Thursday and closes Sunday for those unable to attend during the scheduled time. As with most people coordinating events, the co-founders look forward to a time when they can host in-person events once again.

With the advent of the pandemic and the region's growth, the Peaceful Presence Project's founders see the need only growing for their services.

"We've seen this with COVID; with the amount of loss we've endured in the past year and a half, that grief and loss and death is not going anywhere, and in some ways it's going to be something that we're going to have to hold with even more frequency," Johnson shared. "And so, as a culture, just learning how to show up with one another and for one another in those spaces."

Virtual Fundraiser for the Peaceful Presence Project
Sun., Sept. 19. 4-5:30pm
Link to registration at thepeacefulpresenceproject.org

About The Author

Nicole Vulcan

Nicole Vulcan has been editor of the Source since 2016. (Blame her for everything since then.) Favorite car: A Trek commuter bike. Favorite cat: An adopted dog who looks like a Jedi master. Favorite things, besides responding to your comments: Downton Abbey re-runs, Aretha Franklin albums, and pink wine.
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