Rachel Donnelly is the Founder & CEO of Black Dress Consultants, where she helps manage end-of-life affairs so that individuals and families can stop wondering what they should be doing and get back to the things that matter.
Who do you care for (now and/or in the past)? What is your role/relationship?
I have cared for many members of my family in the past, including my grandmothers, father, mother and uncle. These loved ones have all since passed away and now I care for my amazing husband, son and daughter.
When did you start to realize you were a caregiver/end-of-life decision maker?
As a small-town doctor’s daughter, it was normal to be around those who were sick, aging or dying. I spent many days in my father’s office and accompanying him when he made house calls or rounds at the hospital.
My caregiving journey officially began at age 13 when my father was diagnosed with cancer. Three years later, my mother, siblings and I had to make the difficult choice to discontinue life support and he passed away shortly after.
Unfortunately, years later, I had to make the same choice for my mother, which left my sister and me as the next-in-line caregiver for our uncle who was in the late stages of Parkinson’s Disease.
These circumstances forced me to grow up earlier than my peers and to make decisions around end-of-life that many have never considered so young.
What helps you when you’re feeling overwhelmed by your caregiving/death/after loss responsibilities? What advice would you give to family caregivers in this situation?
There were countless times when I agonized over whether I was making the best decision for my loved ones.
With each task and decision, I tried to remind myself that I was doing the best I could with the information and resources I had. Many times caregivers and family members are put in circumstances where they have to make decisions without knowing what their loved one would do or want. Sometimes, you just have to take a deep breath, follow your gut and do the best you can.
I would encourage family caregivers to ask for help and when possible, outsource tasks to friends, family and/or professionals. You don’t and shouldn’t have to do this alone.
What is the one thing you know now that you would tell new family caregivers?
Do as much estate and legacy planning as possible NOW. And I’m not just referring to wills, power of attorney and advance care directives. These documents are crucial, but I also encourage family caregivers to document and preserve stories, traditions, photos, digital assets and other end-of-life wishes.
How has caregiving/loss changed you?
While I jokingly refer to myself as a real-life Little Orphan Annie whose life should be subtitled “Death Becomes Her,” I realize now that my upbringing and experiences with caregiving, end-of-life and after loss led me to create something truly extraordinary, which is a business that I needed. Necessity is the mother of invention, right?
I founded Black Dress Consultants to help family members and individuals manage the unavoidable logistics and administrative tasks of end-of-life. Every day, I wake up with a goal to help families grieve better, whether that is by making sure they’re more prepared beforehand or by taking tasks off their plate after a loss.
Each phase of my life has been a learning experience, which I’ve tried to approach with laughter, knowing it truly is the best medicine.