Rachel Donnelly: Black Dress Consultants

Hannah Halberstam
March 03, 2021
Rachel Donnelly: Black Dress Consultants

Rachel Donnelly has been there. She’s been totally overwhelmed by the tasks associated with managing the business of death and dying. She’s managed end-of-life care including nursing homes, home health aides, medications, doctors, and hospice. She’s hired attorneys in three different states, and cleaned out and sold five houses, including one that was half-burned. She’s managed multiple estate sales, a trust for an estranged family member, and distributed countless bequeathed items. She’s fought insurance companies for payment, transitioned banking and investment accounts, and tackled mountains of paperwork.

Rachel founded Black Dress Consultants to counter these obstacles, and to help others who are going through the difficult process of caring for aged and departed loved ones. Her mission is to provide solutions for life’s transitions, and to serve as an ally for legacy planning, and guide for navigating end-of-life. 

On some days, Rachel feels like a real life Little Orphan Annie, whose life should be subtitled “Death Becomes Her”. Her father passed away when she was 16, and, a few years after that, her grandmother moved to an assisted living home, where she passed away shortly after. Several years later, Rachel’s mother passed away, soon after being diagnosed with cancer. Her mother’s passing left her with five houses to clean out and sell, as well as taking on her role as caregiver for her uncle, who was in the late stages of Parkinson’s Disease. Last fall, Rachel’s uncle passed as well, and she has assumed the role of co-executrix of his estate. 

Over the years, Rachel has worried over the decisions that she has made, hoping that they were according to the wishes of her departed loved ones. She’s been at the side of many deathbeds, holding the hands of her father, mother and uncle while they passed. 

“Each task has been a learning experience,” Rachel said. “I’ve tried to approach [them] with humor and laughter, knowing it is truly the best medicine.”

When it comes to helping families, Rachel’s approach is to help take administrative and logistical tasks off of their plate so that they have the space to grieve or get back to their everyday lives. She tries to view each job as an opportunity to find new ways to make end-of-life management more, well, manageable. She aims to treat families with empathy, understanding and reassurance. 

“My biggest achievement thus far is starting Black Dress Consultants in January 2020 and not giving up during the Covid-19 pandemic,” Rachel recalled. During this time, she has learned to keep paddling, despite the many obstacles that appear before her.

Rachel is proud that she is learning from her experiences with aging, dying and departed family and clients. Within the death-care space, Rachel has been pleasantly surprised by how open and willing everyone is and has been. While the death industry is so vast in terms of services, resources, and offerings, it also feels like a tight-knit family to her at times. 

“I’ve met the most amazing people along the way who stay true to their mission to help not only families, but others in the business.”

There is much that Rachel would like to see fixed about the death-related space. She believes the most immediate thing to be improved is communication around the topic of death, and to make it less of a faux pas to talk about. Many people are uncomfortable discussing death, and therefore, avoid the conversation at all costs. However, death is one of the most expensive events in a family’s life, and demands pre-planning if at all possible. Improving communication and establishing/fostering a better environment to talk about death will lead to individuals and families planning better, and seeking out help and resources such as Rachel’s. 

“If you think about it, we seek out help and outsourcing surrounding birth, marriage, and other life events, but it’s much less common with aging and end-of-life. The value added for end-of-life and after loss support is priceless.”