‘Dying to Talk’: conversations on dying can help people live life fully

MOUNT FOREST –  When it comes to death and dying, RoseAnne Desmarais, a “death doula” and member of the End of Life Doula Association of Canada, believes talking about it can bring comfort and help people “live every moment.”

The word doula means servant or helper in Greek. Just as birth doulas support women during the birthing process, death doulas offer support during the dying process. 

Desmarais said she believes having a plan for “end-of-life care is something everyone should have, not just when we receive a terminal diagnosis.”

“Our lives are finite – we are going to run out of time,” she said. “Death is not something that’s a destination, it’s something we walk with intimately every single day. It is important to have that uncomfortable conversation so we can plan for it. And then we can put it aside, and we can get on with living.”

Since 2012, Desmarais has provided services like respite and vigil care, advance care planning and family and caregiver support. She also moderates grief workshops on primary losses, like that of a parent, child, or sibling – and secondary losses, like divorce, estrangement and pet loss.

Desmarais also leads quarterly workshops entitled “Conscious Conversations, Dying to Talk.”

“It’s for anyone who is going to die. That’s the common link for all of us,” she said. 

The workshops are modelled after “café mortels” (death cafes), originated in 2004 by Swiss sociologist Dr. Bernard Crettaz. 

Death cafes are participant led get-togethers with the purpose of talking about death and sharing food and drink, usually tea and cake.

“My café has morphed into more in-depth conscious conversations to discuss what my guests find important,” she explained.

“This allows the opportunity to showcase individuals in the community who have specific life experiences they would like to share.” 

Her model also offers the sharing of information, reference materials and resources “to help people start their own end-of-life planning and begin to have the important conversations with their loved ones while not in a crisis situation.”

One 86-year-old workshop participant expressed her need to talk about her death with family members, but they were unwilling. 

Desmarais said, “She gets to freely talk about her worries. It’s amazing when people go around the table and they’re answering; we find ourselves in other people’s stories. We recognize ourselves.”

“One thing about getting a diagnosis, there is the gift of time,” Desmarais said.

“When we know that we only have so much time, we can utilize that time to the best possibility. We’re not going to waste it on doing things that don’t bring us joy, that mean nothing.”

Desmarais has taken an approach with clients that have proved effective. She would “tell them they have 24 hours to live. What are they going to do? 

She noted, “I’m going to have a living funeral. I’m going to be the guest of honour. I want to see people and look them in the eye and say, ‘Thank you for being in my life. You made a difference in my life.’”

‘Death cleaning’

Another thing people can do for themselves, and their loved ones is  “death clean,” Desmarais noted. 

“When you death clean, you’re sorting through stuff (and) it gives you time to reminisce, it gives you time to give back and share. It’s just a beautiful way to relive your life.”

“Sort out what you need, what you can let go of, and what you’d like to gift, because at the end of the day, families don’t know what to do with it,” she said.

Desmarais works with clients on “the seven pillars” in My Personal Comfort Plan, a booklet created by writer, counsellor and end-of-life consultant Chelsea Peddle.

The pillars include: comfort for my body, how I wanted to be treated, my environment, readings and rituals, complimentary therapies, who I want with me, and things I’d like to avoid. 

“They are planning tools to help bring physical, emotional and spiritual comfort through illness and an individual’s final months and moments,” Desmarais said. 

“It allows us to explore our comfort wishes with our loved ones so they understand our values, wishes and what’s important to us, especially when we can’t speak for ourselves. 

“It gives our loved ones and caregivers something tangible to do, so they feel empowered in supporting us.”

“As a doula, I’m there to support the families and kind of normalize the death process,” Desmarais explained.

“Because death in itself – there’s no pain in death. Our bodies know how to die. I think a lot of pain comes from the disease. But there’s also the emotional connections when people feel like they can’t let go, they can’t leave their families behind.”

She said it is an honour, “to be at the bedside and to be able to explain the dying process to the loved ones, to say that death rattle is not hurting them. They’re so unconscious and deep in their sleep with one foot on the other side of the threshold.”

She concluded, “We all need to tell people that we love them. Now. 

“Just in case we don’t get another chance.”

Lorie Black