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Letting ish Go: From Successful Bakery Owner to Death Doula

Jill McClennen with her daughter Verbena

Jill McClennen, a certified yoga instructor, and a CIA and Johnson and Wales trained chef, had a wildly successful bakery in New Jersey with her husband Stephen Wilson called The Sweet Life Bakery, that they eventually had to let go of. She successfully transitioned into a role as a culinary instructor for Cathedral Kitchen, ("Cathedral Kitchen uses food to change lives. We use food to nourish, train and employ people in order to help them improve their lives. We are working to feed and energize a healthy community.") in underserved Camden, NJ, and is now adding Death Doula to her life resume.

Can you give a bit of the story of Sweet Life, what it was, how long you were in business, your highlights and struggles, and why you ultimately decided to let it go?

When Stephen and I met at the CIA in 2000, we were instant friends that had a similar dream of opening a bakery one day. Over the years we started dating, moved to San Francisco and got decent jobs working in restaurants and hotels in the city, but after we got married in 2005, we decided it was time to open the bakery we had talked about for the last five years. My grandmother was getting ready to turn 90 in 2006, and we gave up looking for spaces in San Francisco where we couldn’t afford the cost of living and the start up costs of opening a bakery, so it made sense to move back home (for me, Stephen is from FL) and to move in with my Grandmother. The plan originally was to open in Philadelphia since I am from a “big” small town in South Jersey and the type of bakery we planned on opening didn't seem like it would fit in. After moving to New Jersey and spending a little time in Vineland, we discovered they were trying to bring the downtown area back and we saw a great opportunity to be able to help with that. And we really gave it our best shot, the bakery was very successful in a lot of ways and it definitely was the catalyst to start some positive changes. Unfortunately small town mentality is hard to break through, it is almost like they dug their heels in to not be proven wrong, so when they say “no business will ever survive downtown” they made sure that it was difficult to survive. The bakery was exactly like we imagined it, everything made from scratch with breakfast, lunch and brunch being served as well as baked goods and high quality coffee. The cake portion of the business was the busiest part, on the weekends we would have a non stop flow of 3-5 people working on just cakes that we would deliver everywhere from Philadelphia to Atlantic City to Cape May and everywhere in between. The bakery was rated Best Bakery in South Jersey multiple times, best chocolate chip cookies, best lunches, best breads, best wedding cakes, the list went on. Stephen and I were named Top Chefs under 30 in the US. Best Food Artisans in New Jersey, which was huge, I was blown away surprised by that. The funny part was, the town newspaper would have a Best of The Best and we never even made it into the top three bakeries! Everyday we worked hard to put out the best product we could and we were always proud of our work and our management style and the fact that our customers loved us.

I had our first child in 2010, I found out I was pregnant in the middle of expanding our bakery from 600 square feet to over 3,000 square feet. My grandmother passed away in 2011, and then suddenly Stephen and I had bills to pay with very little income. The bakery was doing well, our bills were always paid on time and our employees were always paid on time, but that meant that we typically weren’t paid on time. No health insurance, very little income, and bills led to Stephen taking a job at The Ritz Carlton in Philadelphia where he had a 45 minute commute each way and long hours. I had the bakery and a toddler, then found out I was pregnant with my second child, and we started to wonder why we were still in this town that neither of us had much love for after years of trying to make a difference, so we decided to close down and move our family much closer to Philadelphia to cut down on Stephen’s commute. I had been volunteering as a guest chef at Cathedral Kitchen for the 6 years the bakery was open, and Camden is one town over from where we moved. They decided to start a baking program and I applied for the job as the baking instructor, I got the job and I have been there ever since.

Did letting go of the bakery lead to something better?

Closing the bakery was the hardest decision I have ever made. It felt like I went through a divorce, so much money spent and debt left over (we are almost done paying for the debt which included an amazing Italian bread oven that cost us $30k) but in the end we knew it was the right thing to do. Now we have jobs with “regular” hours. I work Monday-Friday 9-4 and I have time off in the summer and again in the winter since Cathedral Kitchen has two 17 week programs with breaks in between.

After living through letting go of the bakery, have you been able to let go of smaller things? What do you tell yourself?

I have always been weird, letting go of people and situations has never been hard for me, but give me a vintage cake stand and I can’t give it up. That is something I have been working on the last few years, letting go of sentimental attachments to things people gave me.

What do you do now with Cathedral Kitchen?

I am an instructor and proctor for ServSafe, where I get to teach both culinary and baking students which I love. I find the information interesting and I love being able to work with and get to know all of the students. I tell them all the time, and it is the truth, that by the time we are halfway through the program they all feel like family and I love them all.

Some of your students are former prisoners, what did you learn about the cycle of life of your students?

I have learned so much from my students, and not all of my students were previously incarcerated. The criteria is that they be unemployed or underemployed, but we do get a lot of students that were incarcerated and in some cases still are, but are living in transitional housing. Even those that have not been incarcerated usually have family members that are or have been. It is very prevalent in the demographic of people I work with that they lose family members to the streets, whether it is through incarceration or death. Considering that Camden is five minutes away from the town I live in, it is in some ways a different world, but unfortunately what a lot of people don’t see, and are not willing to see, is that it is still a town with amazing human beings living in it. They just seem to have obstacles that make it hard to break out of the cycle, and honestly some of the stories I have heard break your heart. Children being forced into gangs by older siblings, parents losing teenage sons to gang violence, men and women being incarcerated leaving children with no dad or mom to raise them. My heart has been broken open by some of the stories I have heard, but it was a good thing. I was compassionate from the beginning, but now I am determined to do all that I can to help make changes. I don’t have a lot but I do still have privilege and I plan on making sure I do what I can, when I can, to help people that don’t have the same privilege.

How has that led you to consider becoming a death doula as a next/additional career?

Since I was a child, I have always been drawn towards the things a lot of people found scary. My imaginary friends were ghosts, which sometimes I wonder if they were actually imaginary but that is a whole different story. After my grandmother died, and she had amazing care through hospice, I considered going back to school to be a hospice nurse but I didn’t really want to be a nurse. I wanted to be there to support the dying person, their families, help them through the transition from life to death, but I didn’t know there was a job like that already. I had an experience with one of my students where her teenage brother was shot and killed, while they were in NY burying his body, the people that shot him burned down their house, so I woke up on a Saturday morning to a phone call from her telling me that her and her 9 month old daughter had nothing but a diaper bag and nowhere to go. They were at her grandmother’s at the time but she couldn't stay there, plus she had nothing. No clothes, no diapers for the baby, she lost everything. When I got to her grandmother’s, the mother of the boy who had been killed and had just lost her house sat on the back steps and cried on my shoulder. I had never felt suffering like I felt coming from this woman. The only thing I could do was hold space for her pain, breathe it in and allow her to pour out the pain. That moment really told me that I had a gift for sitting with grief and pain, I felt honored to witness it and be there for her, even though I went home and cried for about an hour in my backyard after I spent time with the family. Since then I have learned a Buddhist meditation technique called Tonglen where I learned a technique to do what I naturally did for this woman who was suffering so much. Breathe in pain, breath out love and light.

About 8 months ago I heard of a death doula, and there was this part of me that was like ‘oh my god, that is it, that is what I need to do’, and since I have off about four months out of the year, I had been trying to figure out something I could do as part time work. Being a death doula is something I can do until I die if I want, I could be 90 years old and still helping people with this work, whereas I don’t know how long my body can take working in a kitchen. I have been in food service since I was 17 and I am 41 now. I am not ready to retire from kitchens yet, but my body feels it more than it used to.

What’s the difference between a hospice worker and a death doula?

Hospice is medical care, death doulas do no medical care at all. They tend to not have the time to spend with patients like they would really like, so death doulas are a perfect addition to hospice care. Both prioritize comfort and quality of life for the client who is terminally ill, but the doula is able to help make sure that the client's wishes for their death are met. Some doula's will even sit vigil with the client and their family at the time of death. It is still fairly new to our society, even though for many generations women did this for their towns, so there is freedom to decide what services a new doula will offer.

What got you into becoming a death doula?

Once I had heard the term, I started to research. That led me to books and training programs and TED Talks. I have almost completed my certification and I have an amazing mentor in LA (Death Doula LA) whose name also happens to be Jill, which is one blessing for me with being home because of Covid restrictions. My mentor has to do mentorships over zoom right now anyway, so she was able to take a mentee that is all the way in NJ. It is hard right now because doula’s can't see clients in person and so many people are dying alone, leaving families to grieve in a new way, with no real funeral services.

Is there training and certifications to become a death doula, or mentors to guide you?

There are a few certification programs I have found online, but at this point you don’t need a certification. There is no real governing body. There are a few groups you can register with and take a test to prove you know what you are doing, but it is really up to the person to decide what is right for them. There are mentors, usually that offer training with their mentorship, but usually no certification. It is really up to the person.

Is the idea that you help them pass at home, or at a hospital or both? Are there other services besides helping them pass?

The idea is to have them pass wherever they would like. I think most doulas are more on the holistic side, hoping to help provide a ‘good death’ for their clients in whatever way their client see’s a good death, so if that is in a hospital then we are there to help that happen and if it is at home we are there to try our best to make that happen as well. There are many ways for people to have funerals and be buried and so a big part of our services are to help provide education on the options that people have.

Do you only work with the dying, or with the family as well?

That is very much up to the doula, some offer respite care for the caregivers, some work mainly with the client, and only come in contact with the family as a mediator between the two.

Are there resources for you to deal with your grief or overwhelm as a doula?

All of the doula's and books and training's I have learned from tell you that you need to really come to terms with your own death before doing this work. And to have a good self care practice set up. Some doula’s will only work with one client at a time and then take time off in between so they have space to grieve. It is up to them to do what they need.

Hospice with your grandmother in 2011, what was that like? What parts of her transition stuck with you? Did that inspire you to go down this path?

Hospice was amazing, not just in the care they gave my grandmother but in helping me as a caregiver understand what was happening, and what I could do to help my grandmother. The nights that I would be up with her and a six month old baby, listening to her talk to “the woman standing right over your shoulder” was a crazy experience. She was not afraid of them, if anything she was comforted by them and their singing so I just relaxed and let my baby nurse and listened to her talking. But the women and men that helped in her home, and then the last few days when she was transferred to a hospice center, they were so calming and caring and I had never felt that type of care from anyone in the medical field. My grandmother's primary care doctor for the last twenty years refused to see her in the last month and I was so angry with him. Yes, we all knew she was dying but she was in pain and to him it was like she was already dead. So when hospice stepped in, I felt so much relief and support from them.

Are there rituals that you perform for the dying?

Right now I am still in training and can’t see people in person but I am going to make that a part of my services, creating sacred space and helping my clients and their caregivers to create rituals that will be meaningful for them and calming at the time of transition from life to death.

Are there aspects of your spiritual beliefs that play into your job?

My spiritual beliefs are my spiritual beliefs, it is not my job to educate anyone on what I believe or to have them follow what I think is correct. It of course influences my entire life, but I am there to create an experience for my clients that honors their spiritual beliefs not my own. My yoga and mediation practice are a huge part of my self care, and I will be offering a trauma sensitive yoga to my clients and their caregivers as a way for them to connect with each other and to help ease some stress and tension.

What are your thoughts on hallucinogens, and other plant medicines known to help with the death transition process?

I would love to see them more widely used, especially after reading about the research on psilocybin being used to treat anxiety in patients who are diagnosed with a terminal illness and they are faced with the idea of their own death. Unfortunately in our country it is not widely accepted at this point but I am hopeful that things will change in the future.

What are your favorite resources to help people understand, and be okay with dying?

There are some excellent sources you can find online. Instagram has a lot of death doula’s that post some great links to resources and suggestions for books. I have a wide range of books I have been reading from the medical process of dying, to the spiritual side, to the physiological side of death.

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

The Worm at the Core

End Well Project has some great videos

Soulpancake on YouTube has a series called My Last Days, and there are some really touching videos

Is there anything that you’ve learned that you can use in your daily life?

Honestly, getting together an Advanced Directive and talking with your loved ones about your wishes is so important. Our lives could be drastically changed at any moment and if there is nothing written down and your loved ones don’t know what your wishes are, then you are at the mercy of the doctors who will do anything they can to keep you alive which in some cases causes a lot of suffering.

Ultimately, what are your takeaways from Letting ish Go?

Life is short, I know it sounds cliche but it is true. Don’t hold onto things just because it was something you once wanted, because change is inevitable and attachment really is the root of all suffering. Attachment to things, including our life and our body, will only bring us suffering. There was a fun story I read in a Buddhist text that spoke about a woman who was very attractive, and when she was on her deathbed she was very attached to her body and not wanting to let it go. Buddhist believe in reincarnation and they also believe that you should be at peace with your death at the moment of death in order to have a good reincarnation, so when this woman died and she was very unhappy about leaving the body she had grown so attached to, she reincarnated into a worm living in the corpse of her previous body. I don’t know why but I love that story so much.

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