How 'death doulas' help families process life's final transition
Published Saturday, December 2, 2017 10:00PM EST
Last Updated Sunday, December 3, 2017 1:00PM EST
Annette Aubrey says she’ll never forget the day she learned that her husband had terminal cancer.
Her husband, John Gordon, had plans for a weekend getaway, but they decided to stop by the hospital first to check on what they believed was a minor medical issue with Gordon.
That’s when a doctor delivered the news: Gordon had stage four cancer, and only a few months left to live.
“I remember us looking at each other across the room. He was sitting on the examination table and I was sitting in a chair, and our eyes just met,” Aubrey told CTV News. “It was nothing that we would’ve imagined. We were shocked and blown away by it all.”
The couple was still processing the diagnosis when they attended the funeral of a friend’s mother. The service was officiated by Sarah Kerr, work works as a death doula.
Doulas are typically known for helping expecting mothers prepare for childbirth. A doula often designs a birth plan and helps address any questions a mother might have about pregnancy.
Death doulas offer a similar service, but for life’s final transition. Death doulas can help with practical issues like wills and end of life requests. They may also offer counselling, provide emotional and spiritual support, help clients cope with grief and often offer special rituals designed to help families find closure.
Aubrey and Gordon were so struck by Kerr’s approachable way of discussing death that they hired her to help with Gordon’s end-of-life plans.
“It helped us to normalize our feelings around it,” Aubrey said.
Helping people prepare for death might seem like an emotionally exhausting line of work. For Kerr, the career choice came after her father suffered a stroke, and she found herself unable to comprehend the suddenness of mortality.
“After the shock wore off a little bit, I was a little bit angry at my culture that no one taught me how to deal with this -- I was completely without resources,” she said.
Since becoming a death doula, Kerr has helped organize living funerals, which allow families and friends to share memories with their loved one before they pass.
Barb Phillips, who calls herself a home funeral guide and life-cycle celebrant, is a doula based in Cobourg, Ont. She often receives requests for home funerals.
“It is sometimes too quick when somebody dies and gets whisked away. You have not said goodbye in the way you want to say goodbye,” she said.
After a patient dies, Phillips will lead body-washing ceremonies anointing the body and sharing memories. The ceremony ends with a loved one pulling a sheet over the face of the deceased.
The ceremonies provide a more personal way to address the finality of death, Kerr added
“Baby Boomers are now reaching their death or their parents’ death, and they want a new, more meaningful way of doing it,” she said.
The approach appears to be growing in Canada. Jennifer Mallmes trains death doulas through B.C.’s first end-of-life doula program at Douglas College.
Interest is high, Mallmes said, and she recently offered classes in Regina, too.
She says that when she first started, she had just two students. Now, her classes are sold out.
“My generation is growing up and seeing grandparents and parents passing away, and knowing -- or wanting -- to do better than what is actually happening right now in the medical system,” she said.
After Gordon died in hospital, Aubrey and her children -- led by their death doula -- washed his body while singing songs and sharing stories about his life. Aubrey said the experience helped her family process the loss.
“I just find it to be a helpful process that I don’t believe many people know about yet.”
With a report from CTV’s medical affairs specialist Avis Favaro and Elizabeth St. Philip