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Rising Stars: Meet Keri Winchester

Today we’d like to introduce you to Keri Winchester.

Hi Keri, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?
I was born with bilateral dislocated hips and spent my first few years in and out of hospitals. Seeds of compassion bloomed early. My mother recounted during one stay in the hospital I told my mom how sad it was that my roommate never had her parents come visit. Throughout my life, I heard “give your flowers to the living” and this fostered the importance of telling and showing the people in my life what they mean to me. The first death that touched me was my grandfather, who had been ill for several years with undiagnosed throat cancer. His death saddened me, but there was a deeper relief knowing that he was no longer suffering. I found gratitude for the time we had together.

I received my Master’s degree as a speech-language pathologist and have worked for the last 30 years within acute care hospitals, cancer centers, and hospice. During my time at the cancer center, I found that I needed to supplement my knowledge to support my patients. I completed Mind Body Nutrition and Dynamic Eating Psychology training. It was during this training one of my fellow coaches heard me talking about supporting my mother-in-law through her death and introduced me to Alua Arthur and her Going with Grace End-of-Life Doula Training program. It was here that I realized I had found my soul’s calling.

My journey of embracing death doesn’t come from a traumatic event. It isn’t founded in deep grief. It is an accumulation of 50+ years of living life and the experiences with death that have befriended me along the way. My personal life has found death among family and friends. Many deaths have been prolonged and “expected” and others have been sudden and surprising. I have been blessed to sit vigil with family and friends as they have died. I have been an advocate to ensure that people’s deaths are peaceful and supported as per their wishes.

I am a lifelong Arizona resident. My soulmate of 30 years, Shawn, has supported me along our journey of raising two children who have grown and flown the nest. We have also brought the world to us over the years with hosting 10+ foreign exchange students, teenagers—there are bundles of life lessons there.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
Life is always filled with challenges which is part of the journey. Building a business around death and grief can be viewed as controversial. Many folks don’t want to talk about death. Here in the US, we have sterilized the dying process over the years, moving death out of the home which has only extended the taboo and fear around death. So bringing the conversation into the mainstream around death, dying, and grief is a road with many obstacles. However, obstacles deserve and need to be tackled.

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar, what can you tell them about what you do?
As a Death Doula, I hold space, guide, empower and support those that are dying and the constellation that surround the dying. I am a gifted listener, empath, intuitive, and connect deeply and purposely with other humans. My strength of communication serves to build a bridge to allow discussion about death and dying.

My personal life and much of my career have been spent with those diagnosed with cancer. I believe that the day that someone receives a diagnosis, they deserve someone to walk alongside them who can support them in asking questions, facilitating conversations with loved ones about choices regarding treatment and quality of life, goals of care. It is never too late to have critical conversations and plan for end-of-life (legacy projects, death cleaning, advanced directives, body disposition, memorials). I do not support the narrative that if you choose not to or are unable to pursue treatment, you are “a failure,” “giving up” or “losing the battle.” I believe that it is okay to make the decision to die and plan for this choice.

I am particularly proud of my ability to connect with humans that are dealing with the knowledge that their death is approaching and want to talk about it. Setting the space for the dying and guiding the constellation in sitting vigil is a gift. I find it so important to prepare them for what they may experience and allow them to be present. My grief training has further allowed me to bear witness and hold space for the grief that comes before, during and after death.

Networking and finding a mentor can have such a positive impact on one’s life and career. Any advice?
I always suggest finding mentors or networking with the organizations that you receive training through or associated groups. I have found connections through my Going with Grace program, the National End-of-Life Doula Alliance, Certified Grief Educator program and locally with the Arizona End-of-Life Professionals.

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