OTTAWA — Michael Crane met his mother’s death doula at the drink table at a friend’s party.
He asked Barb Phillips what she did for a living and her response immediately drew him in. At the time, he was struggling with his mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis.
“I was very intrigued and very interested when she started talking about being a death coach and actually walking alongside the family who is experiencing a death or a pending loss,” said Crane.
A few months later, he was feeling overwhelmed with emotion and decided to reach out to Phillips for help.
“I’ll never forget the first discussion with her. I basically was crying the entire time,” he said. “It was the first time I had talked about my mother’s death with someone outside our family in that level of depth and detail.”
Phillips helped the family engage in conversations about death that Crane believes otherwise would not have happened. She talked to his mother openly about what was happening to her and how she was feeling. After his mother passed away, she helped the family plan the funeral and ensure they were fulfilling her wishes.
Phillips said we live in a death-denying culture where even talking about dying is taboo. Many people don’t allow themselves to take the time to grieve properly.
“People’s grief is more engaged at the very beginning,” she said of her practice. “It’s seen as something viable and valuable rather than trying to shut it off.”
A growing field
Phillips is one of a growing number of death doulas in Canada trying to transform the way we view death and the dying process.
“It seems to be really reaching a tipping point,” said Marco Mascarin, co-director of the Institute of Traditional Medicine in Toronto.
The institute’s Contemplative End of Life Care program is now so popular, the school now offers annual training. Forty students enrolled this year — the largest group yet.
“I say it’s an atrophied skill. And we’re re-learning it as a culture,” Mascarin says.
The Institute uses the term ‘thanadoula’, from the Greek words ‘Thana’ meaning death, and doula, which means servant.
Life and death
Thanadoula Susan Dawson trained as a birth doula but decided to enroll in the program after hearing about death doulas on a radio show.
“I’ve walked the death path with several loved ones in my life and I just knew,” said Dawson. “I see the transition out of life as having the potential to be just as celebratory as the transition into this world.”
The program attracts a variety of professionals who work in palliative and end of life care — and even some people who are terminally ill. Many students have experience with a loved one dying and want to address the gaps in the system.
“I can’t imagine having gone through my dad’s death without taking the course,” said Yolanda Campbell, who just lost her father a month ago.
For Crane, having a thanadoula brought peace and a sense of closure and satisfaction.
“As a son, I was able to do everything possible for my mother. Those are the thoughts that I will take with me for the rest of my life.”
WATCH: Innovations could improve access to palliative care for all Canadians. Shirlee Engel reports.