Indigenous death doula mentorship program aims to teach youth to help others through grief
'I just want to be able to support my family and my community [when] people die'
A new death doula mentorship program is being offered to Indigenous youth to equip them with skills to help others deal with grief and loss in their communities.
"It's important for me to learn about this work because prior to colonization, I think we shared a different relationship with death. One that wasn't so scary and fear-driven," said Kayleigh Lagimodiere.
Lagimodiere, who is Cree, is 17 and one of 12 young people chosen to take part in the Indigenous Death Doula Program being offered by Blackbird Medicines in partnership with Canadian Roots Exchange.
A death doula is someone who supports people who are experiencing grief and or going through the process of death.
In January, Lagimodiere's aunt Tracey Stevenson died and she got some experience doing death doula work.
"An elder from Swan Lake [First Nation] came and taught me how to prepare the body," said Lagimodiere.
"That was like the first time that I had actually seen a dead body. Prior to that, at funerals, I wouldn't go up."
Lagimodiere said there have been a few recent losses in the family and they were having a hard time navigating through the grief.
"I just want to be able to support my family and my community [when] people die," said Lagimodiere.
"I want to be able to help restore our practices that were there and to help people."
The experience inspired her to apply for the Indigenous Death Doula Program, which was accepting applications from youth aged 12-29.
Lagimodiere said there were a number of different interest options that were available to applicants. She chose palliative care, harm reduction, cultural death practices, legacy planning and culturally grounded death and dying resources.
The program was started by Blackbird Medicines and its Indigenous death doula collective, which includes Connor Sarazin, Tasheena Sarazin, Colleen Cardinal and Elaine Kicknosway.
Founder Chrystal Toop, Omàmiwininì (Algonquin) from Pikwakanagan First Nation, started doing death doula work in 2018.
"I come from the background of a full spectrum or a life spectrum doula worker," said Toop.
"So I started out working with babies, pregnancy, things like that. But there's just a huge demand on the other end, on that death spectrum."
According to the website, Blackbird Medicines offer a range of services including virtual consultations, slideshows and videos for funerals, virtual funerals and aftercare to support people who have lost loved ones.
"For a lot of us, we came to this work because we were doing social services, front line work," said Toop.
"Some of us have stories around missing and murdered men, women, girls, two spirit. And we have these personal experiences, so we recognize that Indigenous death doula work includes harm reduction from death."
For the doula program, they are hoping to get more young people involved.
"The program itself is a gentle introduction to people, to support them," said Toop.
It features two individual one on one sessions, as well as two group sessions with the whole collective, all of which will be done online.
Kicknosway said doing death doula work comes naturally to her. She has helped friends and family who have lost loved ones to cancer, but has also helped families go through things like suicide or other tragedies.
"What does Indigenous grief look like?" said Kicknosway.
"We need to make it a natural place to talk safely and to have spaces for this work."