Interview with Ken Doka

HFA published the first issue of Journeys in 1994. In honor of our 20th Anniversary, we talked with Journeys Editor Ken Doka about the impetus for publication, what makes Journeys unique in the field of bereavement support, and the newsletter’s impressive longevity.
Journeys was first published in 1994; what was the thinking behind Hospice Foundation of America starting a newsletter specifically for the bereaved?

Jack Gordon, HFA’s first President, was very attuned to what hospices needed to help fulfill their mission. He had introduced the first state hospice licensing legislation in Florida while he was a state Senator, so understood the intersections between policy and practice. Recognizing that hospices were mandated to provide bereavement support through the Medicare Hospice Benefit, Jack developed Journeys as a way to both support hospices in this work and to reach out directly to bereaved individuals, increasing HFA’s focus on developing grief resources.

From its inception, Journeys has always utilized some of the best-known experts in the field of grief and loss as its writing staff. As Editor, why did you decide to reach out to these writers, knowing that the pieces were going to be written for consumers?

We recognized that then, as now, many misconceptions about grief and bereavement existed. For instance, twenty years ago, the “stage model” of grief was extremely popular, even though it was not really supported by evidence. So, while we wanted the articles in Journeys to be easily “digestible” and accessible to grieving readers, it was important to me and to Jack that they reflect a contemporary, state-of-the art understanding of the grief process.

Who were some of the early authors you reached out to?

Rabbi Earl Grollman, a pioneer in the field of grief and bereavement, was one of our first authors. To me, his writing personified the balance that we were always looking for; he found a way very early on to “ride the wave” between academic thought and translating those theories and concepts into writing that was easily understood by laypeople. His examples were always great to use when reaching out to other experts in the field, as a way to understand how to translate the newest thinking about grief into a resource that offered support and guidance to someone in the midst of grief.

When working with any of our authors, I always remind them of the overall goals of Journeys. The first is to validate the reactions of those who are grieving—and by that, I mean all the reactions that may be experienced. Many of these are often taken directly from letters or other correspondence we get from readers—descriptions of feeling guilty or feeling relief when death ends years of caregiving; questions of “Am I going crazy?” because of the inability to focus at work or even keep track of car keys; even physical complaints of headaches or sleeplessness.

Another important goal is that the pieces offer suggestions for coping. Even if all of the articles in a particular month’s edition don’t speak to the reader, our goal is that there will be something each month that offers tangible ideas to help get through that day as they experience grief and loss.

And perhaps the most critical component of every Journeys article is to provide hope. The message from all authors, no matter their background or theoretical perspective, is to reassure the bereaved reader that he or she will make it through grief, and that they don’t have to do it alone.

As Editor, how do you put together a typical month’s edition?

While I serve as Editor, Journeys is a group effort. In addition to the authors who contribute each month, HFA staff members focus on copywriting, layout and design, and managing the administrative orders (which change every month, depending on how many issues each hospice needs.)

In terms of the format, we always have a Question and Answer column; that was started by Earl and is now written each month by Sherry Schachter (Director of Bereavement Services at Calvary Hospital/Hospice). As I said, we often use “real” questions that are submitted to us either by readers or from hospice professionals looking for support in specific situations.

For the rest of the pieces, I strive each month to find a balance between focusing on the emotional or spiritual responses to loss, and including some information about the “practical” concerns that are very real to people after a death—when do I clean out the closet, or what if I want to start dating again? It’s important as much as we can to touch on the range of experiences that grieving people may be having. So, while we know that not every piece in every month will speak directly to a reader, the goal is that something each month will resonate and offer support.

In addition to the monthly edition of  Journeys, HFA publishes “Special Issues” around specific topics, such as the Holidays or the Anniversary of a Death. How did these issues get developed, and what role do you see them playing?

As is often the case with the way we develop resources at HFA, the Holiday issue was a response to requests from hospices. No matter where people are in their grieving process, facing a significant holiday after the death of a loved one can be painful and stressful. The Journeys Holiday issue is a wonderful resource for hospices, funeral homes, and hospitals to share as an ongoing community resource, either to individual families or for use in support groups or workshops.

We received an immediate and positive response to this issue, which helped us to recognize the need for others. We now offer one specifically for the Newly Bereaved; an issue that focuses on the Loss of a Child; one that looks at Supporting Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities through grief and loss; and a number of others. We also offer an edition of Journeys in both Spanish and Chinese.

I think my favorite “special issue” is what we call “For Kids, by Kids.” All of the articles are written by bereaved children or teenagers, and capture those experiences in a way that no adult author ever could. Just another example of how important it is to “go the experts” when writing Journeys!

Many resources and materials are available to grieving people. As Journeys reaches its 20th year of publication, to what do you attribute its longevity and ongoing success?

As far as I know, Journeys has the widest circulation and has been around the longest of any grief publication. Our mission has always been to offer state-of-the-art information and education about grief, written by some of the best minds in the field, that is accessible and helpful to those who are grieving. Over the years, we’ve featured pieces by Terese Rando, Earl Grollman, Charles Corr, Harold Ivan Smith, Dick Gilbert, and many other names that generally appear on classroom textbooks and bookstore shelves.

Although many hospices purchase Journeys in bulk subscriptions to offer to a family member for one year, we have many readers who continue with an individual subscription because they want to continue receiving the guidance and support that the monthly publication offers. We also hear from readers who purchase Journeys for a friend or family member, because it helped them and they know it will help someone else they love.

I am confident every month that the information we provide in Journeys highlights the value of a good educational tool—it provides the best and most current thinking in the field to people who need support at that moment, in a format that is both educationally sound and accessible.