British Columbia

Death doula training: health program formalizes Indigenous tradition

For most of his life, Shxw'Ow'Hamel First Nation elder Mike Kelly has been helping ease the end-of-life transition.

'The work that I do is comforting the loved one that's lying there ready to go back into the spirit world'

Mike Kelly, left, receiving a certification of completion for the End of Life Doula training​ course. (First Nations Health Authority)

For most of his life, Shxw'Ow'Hamel First Nation elder Mike Kelly has been helping ease the end-of-life transition.

The job is now more commonly known as an end-of-life doula — similar to a birth doula — but it's long been a part of Indigenous tradition. Kelly started helping with death in 1975, after accompanying his elders to hospitals and to the homes of those at the end of their lives.

"The work that I do is comforting the loved one that's lying there ready to go back into the spirit world and comforting the family who's grieving and hurting," said Kelly, whose traditional name is Semauklyn.

"I always call it being a mediator."

Shxw'Ow'Hamel First Nation elder Mike Kelly has been helping people at the end of their lives for decades. (Clare Hennig/CBC)

The First Nations Health Authority recently partnered with Douglas College to offer formal doula training for people like Kelly, who have been doing the work in their communities for years.  

For some Indigenous people, being able to remain in, ​or return to their community, to die is very important.

"All the work that I do today, we learned how to do that a long time ago," Kelly told CBC's The Early Edition.

"But the name doula come in and I didn't know what it was."

First Nations Health Authority is offering the training course with Douglas College. (Submitted by First Nations Health Authority )

Kelly said the training taught him more about the legal aspects of the job and how to better communicate with health officials.

He emphasized that a doula isn't a replacement for a doctor or nurse. His work focuses on supporting the patient and the patient's family spiritually and emotionally, as well as physically.

"Our work changes from praying to keep [the person] with us to preparing to lay them to rest."

For most of his life, Shxw'Ow'Hamel First Nation elder Mike Kelly has been helping ease the end-of-life transition. He recently took part in a formal training program put together by the First Nations Health Authority and Douglas College. 7:05

With files from The Early Edition