How a Vigil Plan Can Help Shape Your Final Days
Christine Borchert and the team at Evening Star End-of-Life Doula Services help explain what a “Vigil Plan” is, and why you may want to create one.
What is a Vigil Plan?
A Vigil Plan is a blueprint, a set of ideas and suggestions, created by an individual that outlines what kind of emotional and physical support they’d like to receive in their final days when their energy and the ability to talk is waning.
The Vigil Plan follows the person who creates it, whether their last days are spent in a hospice facility, hospital or their own home. It is similar to how women working with birth doulas create a birth plan that directs how they’d prefer childbirth to go at home or in the hospital.
By creating one, loved ones can know what is important to that person at the end and improvise solutions if there are limitations where they are located. For example, if a Vigil Plan called for a candle by their bedside, but a hospice or hospital won’t allow one, the candle could be replaced by an electric one. Or, if it indicated they didn’t like massage, their family would be aware of that and able to guide their care in their final days.
A Vigil Plan is just one aspect of end-of-life planning, but can be an important document to clarify a person’s values, wishes and what brings them joy.
What’s an example of a person’s particular story that stands out to you as you look back on creating a better vigil?
We had a client who was a practicing Buddhist. He had done a lot of the emotional work to prepare for his death. But he was particularly struggling with how to handle last visits from two family members. He was concerned that their time together would not be focused and meaningful, with opportunity for emotional movement and healing. His Vigil Plan spoke very clearly to the topics of conversation he was open to. His beloved shared this Vigil Plan with people before they came to visit so they could have time to process. Reports were shared with us that both of these final visits were emotionally very important, and that the Vigil Plan was critical in laying the foundation.
If someone does not have access to an End-of-Life/Death Doula, but still wants to improve their final days, what would you suggest for them or family members as small things that could make a difference?
One simple way to make those last days meaningful is to ask your loved one to look around the room and choose something they see that has meaning to them. If you can, bring it to them to hold. Ask them why it’s on display. Where did they get it? Who gave it to them? Why do they like it? What was happening in their life when they got it? What lessons did they learn from this time, item, person? How have those lessons been integrated into who they are now? These conversations may be worth recording or writing down to share with family and friends at a memorial or at a later time.
What are some things you can do to create a better experience for people dying away from home, especially during the pandemic?
For those in a hospital or hospice or care facility, ask a staff member to facilitate a phone or video call and consider recording the call. You can prompt a story with a question about some family history that perhaps you’ve heard before, for example, “Mom, why did Uncle Jimmy enlist in the Army?” You could also write them a letter expressing your gratitude and lessons learned. These ideas give your loved ones an opportunity to remember and ground themselves in the things they know and did well. Taking a walk down memory lane of a life well-lived can be emotionally healing.
Why is conversation an important element of creating a Vigil Plan?
No matter what your religious or cultural background, many people find talking in these final days or weeks to be a rich and meaningful experience. Hearing is said to be the last sense to leave us at life’s end, so these last words can be very important.
There are many benefits to conversation:
- Conversation allows for exploration of a life well-lived.
- Conversation grounds loved ones in experience and life, which is calming and healing.
- Conversation allows for wisdom to be transferred orally.
- The benefits include lower anxiety, pain and breathing challenges for the person dying.
When you are engaged in conversation with your failing loved one, listen for comments that tell you how they like their senses to be engaged. Think about how you could awaken their senses once they are bedridden. Music, windows open to birdsong, fresh flowers, a pet on the bed, scented candles — all of these can be suggestions on the Vigil Plan.
There’s been a lot of conversation around what makes a “good death,” especially this year with COVID. Do you in your work have thoughts about what makes a “good death” for your clients?
In our work, we don’t use the term “good death,” because there is no single definition of that term that fits everyone. We strive to support people in having “as good a death as possible”. Providing clients with information about their options at end-of-life helps them make a plan that aligns with their values.
We encourage clients to complete their end-of-life paperwork (i.e. advance directives and wills), to write letters, to have conversations they need to have, to tell their stories — to engage as openly and truthfully with their loved ones as possible. These things can pave the way for a better death. We know that healing can happen until the last breath.
All of that being said, we’ve all heard the sayings about “best-laid plans.” It is possible that not all issues will be resolved, not all pain will be controlled. Things could be a bit messy, or maybe not. We support people in making space to hold more than one truth, to relax into the grey areas.
Since people don’t like to talk about death in our culture and many put off planning, what’s one simple thing you encourage them to do?
If you or your loved one aren’t ready to talk about your own death(s) — this is actually the norm — don’t feel something is wrong with you!
Inviting people to share their experiences around the deaths of people they’ve loved opens the door to exploring their own wishes. In any of this work, if someone doesn’t want to talk about a topic, respect that. Many people need an indirect approach to open conversation. Use these questions to open the door:
- What was it like for you when you learned that _____ was nearing death?
- Do you remember how you found out about it?
- Were you able to have a final visit? How was that for you?
- Have you ever been with someone when they died? Can you tell me what that was like for you? Were some things handled poorly/well?
You can gently use some of this information to create the start of a Vigil Plan.
If you want personal support in getting started with this activity please message Evening Star at firstname.lastname@example.org or call their message phone 503-395-7305.
A Vigil Plan Class is scheduled for 3/13/21 register here ($15).
Photo by Yannick Pulver