It’s one of the only guarantees we have in life.
“We’re not all going to give birth, you don’t really have to do your taxes, but we’re all going to die,” says Kayla Moryoussef, who is part of the movement to make the public more comfortable when talking about death.
Moryoussef is studying to become a death doula. Much like a birthing doula, who guides pregnant women as their infants are born, a death doula helps support people who are dying.
A death doula’s duties have several parts, Moryoussef explains. The most fundamental is sitting vigil with the dying and supporting their families.
“The second part is the death planning. The ‘who, what, where, when and why,'” she says. The doula arranges the “smells, sights, tastes and sounds of when somebody is actively dying. […] So that they can have the death that they wish for.”
The doula’s third responsibility is the deceased person’s legacy, says Moryoussef. “What do you want to leave behind and how can I help you with that?”
The service can be a huge support for family members who want to fulfill their loved one’s wish to die at home, says Tracey Robertson, the co-founder of the Home Hospice Association. Her organization provides training for potential death doulas.
“Most of us haven’t organically or naturally learned how to be with someone who is actively dying,” she says. “It can be scary when we see breathing changes, hear different sounds, when we see in some cases people are hallucinating, they may see people who aren’t there.
“It’s really important to have somebody there who can comfort not only the person who’s dying, but also the family members, to say, this is OK. This is what we should expect.”
Dan Steinwald had the support of a death doula when his wife Diana died of colon cancer in 2017. Diana chose to pass away at home, surrounded by loved ones in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
“How do you invite your family and friends? What does that invitation look like?” Steinwald says. “It’s not like you can go to the local card store and what not.”
He says their doula helped answer those questions in a time when he and Diana were dealing with saying goodbye.
“[Our doula] organized the whole afternoon. We had lots of hugs, lots of stories, lots of tears … she just provided that soothing kind of support I was looking for.”
To keep the conversation going, Moryoussef is part of a team at the Home Hospice Association that organizes Death Café. The casual coffee chats provide a forum for people to ask questions about death and dying.
“A small percentage of people who come are imminently dying who have a diagnosis,” she says. “Then it’s 50/50: people who are really excited and really want to talk about dying and death [and] people who are terrified, but are really curious.”
On Nov. 7, the group is holding its first-ever Death Café specifically for those with chronic illness and chronic pain.
Robertson says the association’s doula training class has grown from three students in 2017, to 30 students this month.
“It just goes to show how much more we’re starting to learn about it, how many more people want to do this work,” she says. “That will only allow more and more people to access the care.”
Moryoussef adds, “I often tell people that conversation about dying and death is just as much a conversation about life and living. It’s so life affirming to talk about dying and death, it reminds you of what your values are. It reminds you of why you’re living and what you’re living for.”