'Death is still a taboo': Demand for death doula training growing in N.S.

Jennifer Mallmes believes you only get one chance at a good ending.

Mallmes, an end-of-life doula, started a program in 2016 to teach others how to offer emotional support to dying people and their families.

"Death is still a taboo. People don't want to talk about it. People are uncomfortable with talking about it," Mallmes said.

"When people finish the program, they're coming out with a sense of empowerment that they can fully meet the needs of somebody who is dying."

This summer, Mallmes brought the program to Nova Scotia for the first time. The 16-space class filled up immediately and she ended up taking on 10 more people.

Because of the demand, the program from Douglas College in B.C. is returning in February 2020 and holding two sessions in Truro, N.S.

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Students learn how to help families broach difficult conversations around death, like what someone wants to happen to their body and who will make decisions if they lose the capacity to do so.

"End-of-life doulas are sometimes the bridge," said Olga Nikolajev, a nurse practitioner who will teach the course in Truro next year.

"We're in these siloed industries. Health care is only up until the point of death and then it gets handed to the funeral industry ... what to do with a body after death, that's not really a conversation a nurse would have."

Nikolajev said end-of-life doulas are there to help make things a little easier on the families.

Decreasing the fear of death

"People are not well prepared. They end up in ICU [intensive care unit] or in a crisis. Then, because they've never talked about it, they're in more of an unknown than ever," she said.

"When we talk about dying and death, it actually decreases the fear of it because the unknown becomes a little more known."

Doulas are not currently regulated in Canada, but Mallmes hopes they will be one day. For now, she and several others started the End of Life Doula Association of Canada, a self-regulated board and community of practice.

She said the program is now offered in every province, except Quebec.

While some people with medical backgrounds take the course — even though it isn't required for their medical certifications — Mallmes said some students are simply people planning ahead for the day they need to help family members.

She said it's important for families to have conversations about end-of-life options before it's too late. Otherwise, families sometimes find themselves embroiled in conflict over not being in agreement with what to do.

"That is your ultimate gift to your family, to be able to leave them with memories of peace and contentment and not chaos," Mallmes said.

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