Calgary death doula courses train those wanting to help

Calgary is hosting two different end-of-life care courses this weekend for those wanting to learn about what happens before, during and after death — for their own journey, or to help others cope with the inevitable.

Demand for end-of-life care courses draws two different programs to the city

Alexandra MacKinnon is working to become a death doula for children and their families, in Calgary. (Colleen Underwood/CBC news)

Alexandra MacKinnon remembers the moment her mom passed away nearly 16 years ago. 

She got a call from the hospital one night saying her mom had fallen into a coma and wasn't coming back. MacKinnon wasn't prepared for the next step. 

She says it was "a little scary when I had to turn the machines off."

"I was by myself, [my mom] asked that I do everything on my own, not with my brother, not my father, not anybody, so there's a little fear when you first turn off the machines, because there's no coming back," said MacKinnon.

A death doula, or death midwife as they are also known, is not a regulated profession and there's no certifying body or overarching job description.

The doula can help create death plans — some provide spiritual care, psychological and social support, and sometimes physical care.

MacKinnon says despite the stress, overall it was an "incredible privilege, and knowing that my mom would be proud, because it takes a lot of strength to be there. At the same time it was beautiful."

Spiritual aspects of death

MacKinnon says she now wants to be a death doula for children and their families. She's hoping to merge her drumming skills, which she believes could be healing in a palliative care setting, with the spiritual and practical aspects of death that she will be learning this weekend.

Close to 20 people are enrolled in the workshop called Home Death Care Education, one of two different courses being offered in Calgary this weekend specifically dealing with end-of-life care. 

The other course is longer and more intensive. It's being offered over six weekends through the Toronto-based Institute of Traditional Medicine.

"I'm really excited. I've been waiting for this." said MacKinnon. "Because I'm passionate about bringing death home, about people caring for the bodies at home."

Death midwife Sarah Kerr is offering a course this weekend on the spiritual and practical aspects of end-of-life care in Calgary. (Colleen Underwood/CBC News)

'What exactly is a death midwife?' 

Pioneers like Calgarian Sarah Kerr say anyone who wants to do this work needs to pull together their own skills and passion and find the path that's right for them.

"I get so many calls from people who say, 'You're a death midwife? I want to be a death midwife,' and then there's a pause and they say, 'What exactly is a death midwife?'" 

Kerr has been practicing for about two years. Through her company Soul Passages, she offers at-home funerals and memorials, helps families deal with death, offers euthanizing rituals for pets, and provides teaching and mentoring opportunities.

"One of the important lessons we need to learn is that death is safe. It's not dangerous to be with it, it's not dangerous to talk about it," said Kerr. "Talking about death doesn't bring it on anymore quickly." 

Not a money maker, yet

Kerr says it's such a new field that even though she charges for her services, it's not enough to live on. 

"I think there is a potential for it to be an income generating thing in a bigger way," she said. 

"Its really fascinating to me the number of people who are called to do this work. Its almost more than people who want me as a practitioner. There is a huge hunger for meaningful work." 

MacKinnon says she's been working towards her goal for the past two years, but hopes the Home Death Care Education workshop will give her the confidence she needs to consider herself a death doula.

"We all celebrate a baby coming into the world. We prepare for it, and it's so wonderful. And wouldn't it be wonderful to do the opposite ... and let go in a joyous manner."