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#OTGYpsi: Ypsilanti "death cafes" provides support to those experiencing grief over loved ones and preparing for their own final moments


Concentrate Ann Arbor

Rylee Barnsdale's Feature Article: From end of life doulas to opera, Ypsilanti embraces unconventional approaches to death and grief

Acacia End of Life Services

Acacia on Facebook

Acacia on Instagram

Acacia's Upcoming Death Cafes

Fifth Wall Performing Arts

Ken MacGregor


Rylee Barnsdale: This is Rylee Barnsdale with On the Ground Ypsi, and I'm sure I don't need to tell anyone listening how challenging it can be talking about death, whether it's managing the grief from losing a loved one, making sure your own personal affairs are in order, or consoling someone else who's experienced loss. Death culture in the United States is difficult and usually done alone. But in Ypsi, there are some folks who are challenging that culture to make death a little less frightening and a little more neutral. My guest today is Hanna Hasselshwert, who runs Acacia End of Life Services as a "death doula" here in Ypsi, working with individuals and their families before, during and after death, to make the process more manageable and less lonely. Hi, Hanna. Thanks so much for being here.

Hanna Hasselshwert: Hi. Thank you for having me.

Rylee Barnsdale: So, I'm sure that you get asked this all the time, but for the folks listening who may not know, what is a death doula?

Hanna Hasselshwert: Yeah. So, we are a non-medical professional. We offer spiritual emotional support to the dying and their loved ones. And this can start pretty early on to do advanced planning, getting affairs in order, you know, removing those old boxes in the basement that we don't know what to do with and getting everything in order to doing bedside care, sitting with somebody, and be a respite, be a support for their family. And then, we can also offer end of life planning, memorial planning, kind of nontraditional funeral planning as a emotional, spiritual support for somebody.

Rylee Barnsdale: So, this isn't a nurse position. This isn't hospice care. This is more emotional.

Hanna Hasselshwert: Exactly. Yeah. We cannot give medication. We can't do any breathing treatments, anything like that. But, yeah, we're there for the spiritual, the emotional, the companionship, and just a little extra guidance.

Rylee Barnsdale: How does one get into this kind of field? Is there a certification process that you went through? Is there any schooling that you did? How does that whole process of becoming a death doula work?

Hanna Hasselshwert: Yeah. So, you don't need any schooling necessarily, just really a certification to give you the credibility and learn what you kind of need to be doing here and get the right steps, learning from other folks who have done this. So, I did a program out of California called "Going with Grace." Alua Arthur is a death doula lawyer, and she runs a great program. In Ann Arbor, we have Mary Lynn Rush, who does a death doula training. And then, we also have Patty Brennan, who offers training as well. So, we have two pretty cool people that we use.

Rylee Barnsdale: So, those working in the death business, for lack of a better term, funeral home directors, hospice workers and death doulas, I feel like there really has to be a passion for people. It can be a very scary and isolating time. Where does that emotional interest come for you?

Hanna Hasselshwert: Yeah. So, my degree was in hotel and restaurant management leaving college. I worked in restaurants for a while, and then I became a nanny and house manager. So, caring for people has always been kind of on my forefront. As I was a house manager, I was kind of looking for something more sustainable to have a family. It's really hard to be a house manager and a nanny and take care of your own kids and house. So, I was looking for something better suited for me. I found a funeral director, and that was kind of a lot of schooling. I saw a lot of debt there going back to school, which scared me. And then I found a death doula, which is a certification. It's very personal. When I was younger, my dad died, so I'm very familiar with death. You know, since he died, my aunt died shortly after. Then, my grandma. I feel like I've dealt with death kind of every year.

Rylee Barnsdale: Whoa.

Hanna Hasselshwert: So, it's really second nature to me. I feel comfortable with it. I know how to face it. I know how good it feels to face it sometimes, rather than hiding from it. So, what I wanted to do was give people the support and the care that I can give to help with their families.

Rylee Barnsdale: This is 89 one WEMU's On the Ground Ypsi. I'm Rylee Barnsdale, and I'm sitting with local death doula Hanna Hassellshwert. Hanna, outside of the services you offer through Acacia, you're also doing some other work for the greater Ypsi community, for those experiencing loss, to come together and have an open conversation through what's called the "Death Cafe." Can you tell me a little bit more about what a Death Cafe is? Kind of sounds a little bit spooky. You want to expand on that?

Hanna Hasselshwert: Yeah, yeah. So, Death Cafe started in 2011. A man named John Underwood, I think it was in the UK, started these. They're all over the world. Anybody can kind of Google and find one in a lot of different places, even their website. You can see where they're all held. So, it is a group of people who want to talk about death. We talk about things from the afterlife to funeral planning to grief from a loved one who had just passed to grief from a loved one who passed 20 years ago. We kind of touch on everything and anything. We do, of course, stay away from politics and religion and kind of shifting anybody's beliefs, but it's a super, super safe space. We've had a great group of people that come month after month and to give support, to give care, to give compassion to these other people just wanting to talk about it and kind of get rid of the taboo.

Rylee Barnsdale: So, the cafe that you host is held, you said, once a month, at the gallery at Stone and Spoon over on West Michigan Avenue. Can you give me some insight into some of the topics and things that you cover? You mentioned talking about a little bit of everything. Is there anything that kind of sticks out to you?

Hanna Hasselshwert: Yeah. So, I think a lot of the topic is either parents not knowing how to talk to their kids or kids not knowing how to talk to their parents. How do I talk to my mom about this? How do I talk to my son about this? We also have people who have had a child passed within the last six months, and they come just for support and other people that feel comfortable talking about death, people who are older and terminal, maybe, people who are younger and just are interested in learning and breaking the taboo.

Rylee Barnsdale: I'm someone who maybe hasn't experienced a loss. You mentioned also someone who has experienced a loss maybe several years ago, someone who just wants to be more comfortable talking about the topic of death. You know, a death cafe or visiting at least once, you'd say would be, you know, a worthwhile investment.

Hanna Hasselshwert: Absolutely, absolutely. And there's definitely people that come who haven't lost anybody or anybody super significant and close to them, but they're want to learn about it and want to make themselves comfortable with it. And so, when that does happen, you know they're ready for it.

Rylee Barnsdale: This is WEMU's On the Ground Ypsi. I'm chatting with local death doula Hanna Hasselshwert. So, one thing I found interesting through putting together this article after our initial conversation was speaking with some local artists and creatives whose work is putting a spotlight on death. You know, I spoke with Grey Grant, who runs the local experimental performing arts organization Fifth Wall Performing Arts. They've written a full-length opera from the perspective of a mortician and touring their lover and reconciling with that loss. Local author Ken McGregor as well--he specializes in horror fiction but is currently working on a project to put together an all-ages graphic novel about grief and how to understand it and kind of sit with it. How do you think, as from your perspective as a death doula, that exploring death, grief and these other topics through a creative lens can help someone understand death more, maybe view it in a more neutral way?

Hanna Hasselshwert: I think that these kinds of things that people are doing is almost normalizing it, right? You're going to see the opera, but it has this spin to it. It has this undertone. And the children's book-- what a great idea to kind of get kids into this earlier. So, I think anything like that is just helping people talk about it, help generate conversations and help again break that taboo.

Rylee Barnsdale: Ken's work, specifically too, is looking to help folks find community and understand and know that there are other people out there who have experienced these great losses. What is your perspective on that sort of aspect of things, that kind of community building aspect of it? Because that happens with the Death Cafe as well.

Hanna Hasselshwert: Yeah, I think it's that Ken and I actually talked the other day, and it's making that grief part of you, rather than kind of let it run your life or take over. It's just embracing it wholly and taking it in and kind of navigating through life with that by your side. And you can help and show compassion to people, let them know that you're there, let them know that you've been through something else. It's really important when people come to the Death Cafe to see that they're not alone. And, we have 12 people, usually, or more. And all these people sit there, and they're comfortable in this situation knowing that all of these people care about death, look at death and they're not afraid of it.

Rylee Barnsdale: And since your perspective on death and death culture is vastly different from mine. Given your work, I am curious to know why having a business like Acacia, or why hosting a death cafe is so important to Ypsi's community. Why is it important to kind of shift the way we talk and think about death and kind of challenge that taboo that you said?

Hanna Hasselshwert: I think it's important because once we realize that we're going to die, once we kind of put that in the top of our minds, we start living our life to the fullest. You realize that this life isn't forever, and no matter what you believe about the afterlife or not, there is so much to say about understanding it and then taking that to move forward. And so, I think if everybody did that, we'd probably have a happier, more easygoing life.

Rylee Barnsdale: And, if someone is listening to this right now who is dealing with a loss or who is caring for a terminally ill family member or maybe just wants to be more neutral about death and sit with it a little bit better, where can they find you and the Death Cafe?

Hanna Hasselshwert: Yeah, my website is w-w-w/dot/Acacia End of life dot com. Um, you can find me on Instagram and Facebook. And then, the Death Cafe is, as you mentioned, held at the gallery at Stone and Spoon right on Michigan Ave.

Rylee Barnsdale: Well, thank you so much, Hanna, for being so open about your work as a death doula and your own personal experiences with death. I really appreciate the conversation.

Hanna Hasselshwert: Thank you.

Rylee Barnsdale: For more information on today's topic and links to the full article, visit our website at wemu.org. On the Ground Ypsi is brought to you in partnership with Concentrate Media. I'm Rylee Barnsdale, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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Concentrate Media's Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.
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