As physician-assisted death becomes legal in Canada, spiritual care workers are meeting in Winnipeg to explore how they can help both patients and professionals.

Mary Holmen has had a lot of experience talking about end of life issues with patients.

She's a retired chaplain who worked at the Selkirk Mental Health Centre for more than 15 years. Now she is helping to organize a Winnipeg conference on how spiritual care providers will be able to support both patients and health care professionals once physician-assisted death becomes legal. 

Holmen said while spiritual care providers are used to having difficult end of life conversations with people, physician assisted death brings in another element.

She said just as patients look at the spiritual issues surrounding their death and meaning and purpose of life, spiritual care providers will have to examine their own range of personal opinions and beliefs about physician-assisted death. 

"One of the things it means is to be able to put those aside to be present to the patient and the family as they are thinking through these decisions. What does hope look like at the end of life? How do you have conversations with people who are perhaps thinking of ways to end their life with medical assistance? Why do we suffer? Is there any point in our suffering? These are deeply spiritual questions," said Holmen.

Those are some of the questions that will be explored at the conference which starts Friday evening at St. Peter's Anglican Church on Elm Street. Presenters will include ethicists, spiritual care specialists, a clinical nurse specialist and a palliative care physician.

Spiritual care for professionals 

Holmen said it is not only patients and families who need spiritual care on end of life issues. She said physicians, nurses and pharmacists who are perhaps going to be facilitating a person's death or carrying out a doctor's orders will need support as well. 

"They also have their own personal feelings and beliefs which they have to sometimes perhaps put aside, so another role of the spiritual care providers is to work with and support the rest of the professional team," she said. 

Holmen estimates there are about 80 members under the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care in Manitoba. They work as spiritual health care practitioners, chaplains and pastoral care employees in hospitals, personal care homes, mental health facilities and correctional facilities. The association has not taken a formal position on physician-assisted death, according to Holmen.

Everyone welcome

SInce the conference is being sponsored by the Anglican Church, Holmen said it will have a Christian base. But she said that doesn't exclude those of other belief systems from attending.

She said everyone is welcome to attend, including individuals and families. The conference will have four workshops and wraps up on Saturday afternoon.