A career in helping people face their mortality has opportunities popping up like daisies

The death and dying industry is a giant that has changed very little for the past century but is now growing thanks to the emergence of never before seen jobs such as “death midwife” and “death doula.”

Alexandra Mackinnon is among the new members of that industry. After transitioning between jobs for the last five years she is on her way to becoming what she refers to as Alberta’s first death doula.

“So you’re born and you have a birth doula and it makes sense that at the end of life you would have a death doula,” says Mackinnon. “We celebrate bringing people into the world and we prepare for it for nine months and it’s a joyous occasion. I would like to see that happen at the other end.”

Calgary’s own death midwife, Sarah Kerr, already offers similar kinds of services.Mackinnon is passionate about equipping people to navigate some of the hardest times of their life successfully. Photo by Jennifer Dorozio

“My primary work is supporting families through trying times,” says Kerr. “So when death knocks on the door, it’s helping the dying person and the family to navigate through that time in a way that honors the soul’s journey.”

That navigation can include everything from planning the funeral process to helping the client and their family say goodbye.

“I facilitate all those processes so that it really honors the spiritual values of a family,” says Kerr, adding that people who aren’t religious don’t have “traditions and rituals” that they can rely on, “when all hell breaks loose and their lives are turned upside down.”

Kerr helped one mother deal with the grief following a stillborn baby years before and also aided another client in dealing with the unresolved death of a parent.

“My work really says the dead are still with us in our hearts and we need to resolve those relationships for our sake and for theirs,” says Kerr. “It’s really facing what’s coming and being at peace with the fact that it’s [life] ending.”Alexandra MacKinnon hopes to turn her passion into a career as Alberta’s first Death Doula. Photo by Jennifer Dorozio

There are many people who want to get into this line of work. Kerr has an organization titled Soul Passages where she gets weekly calls from people who are looking to do new jobs dealing with death.

“There is a huge cultural silence around facing and meeting death but at the same time there is also an incredible hunger and the hunger doesn’t know how to be fed but it wants to be fed.” says Kerr. “We’ve never been educated, we’ve never learned how to be in a relationship with [death].”

The emergence of positions such as death doulas and death midwives seem to be a direct response to the lack of preparedness we feel when it comes to death.

Kerr explains that this denial of death or death dysfunction is taught from a young age and not natural to our function as human beings.

“Death dysfunction is learned, by saying it’s not safe for a child to go to a funeral, by not modeling to kids right relationship with death we teach them to be afraid of it,” says Kerr.

Cory Hrushka, a registered psychologist and grief therapist, sees the emergence of death midwives and death doulas as a good thing, working hand-in-hand with the client on a therapist’s couch.

“It’s kind of like helping them follow through with a lot of the recommendations that a typical grief therapist might work with and providing in home and regular contact support,” says Hrushka. “There’s going to be some good crossover if the doula or that supportive person is going be able to help them out in the real world rather than sitting in the office.”

These new jobs have arrived as baby boomers are getting older and taking a look at what that means.

“Baby Boomers are, I think, driving this,” says Kerr,” they’re saying we want to do this in a way that’s more meaningful, we want to face it in a way that other demographic groups ahead have not chosen too.”

Mackinnon, a baby boomer herself, agrees, “It’s a very recent that we’ve only started to have the funeral industry and strangers take over our loved ones I would like to see it come back to the home, to have the family around, to really have that dying person be a part of the process that really completes the circle.”

jdorozio@cjournal.ca