Bringing Dying and After Deathcare Back Home

Registered Clinical Counsellor

I was born in the early 1950s in a close, loving family of five children and two hardworking, devoted parents. My childhood and adolescent years were spent in a small city located in the interior of British Columbia.

When I think back to those times, I have no clear memories of incidents that involved dying or death. Living in the city, I was rarely exposed to the natural process of life and death that often comes when living closer to the natural world. We did however have a good-sized garden each summer and my uncles raised cattle.

When I was 10 years old my grandfather got quite ill and then died suddenly in the hospital. I never saw him again and I was not allowed to go to his funeral. It was as if death was supposed to be kept at a distance. Given this particular value system there was no opportunity for me as a child to get acquainted with the experience of dying, death and grieving as a natural part of everyday living.

I believe similar versions of my story are not uncommon in our Western world. I see a prevalent, contemporary theme that continues to seep into every aspect of our culture, a theme that affects our relationship with death and dying. It comes in the form of a focus on staying young, in the form of hiring others to attend to all aspects of dying and deathcare, with the end result being a continued distancing from the natural process of living and dying. I see an ever-prevalent fear and dread around aging, illness, grief, dying and death, the end result being very few of us now deal with death directly.

My experiences around dying and death shifted dramatically at the age of 18 when I married my first husband who was a member of a First Nation and I became part of his community. Almost immediately, I experienced a drastically different frame around dying, death, and after deathcare. My husband was from a remote northern community where death was a frequent visitor and an integral part of life there. In his village, struggles with alcohol and drugs resulted in many people dying at a young age. Coupled with accidental deaths and the natural aging and illness processes of all humans and it wasn’t long before I was presented with a very different death experience.

The Tl’atz’en people addressed the issues of death and dying communally and with deep involvement. Attending my first ‘wake’ and seeing a dead body laid out for the first time in someone’s home was initially quite unsettling for me. Curiously, a very short time was needed before I settled into this unusual yet heartfelt experience of saying goodbye to someone. The wakes I attended were beautiful in their reverence to this final transition. With the deceased’s body present, children were invited to be respectfully part of witnessing death. All of the people present were gifted an opportunity to see death as part of life.

I witnessed and joined others in their crying, mourning openly, laughing, remembering, praying, singing, celebrating the dead person’s life. I would feel the grief settle in my body without it being bad or wrong. I saw what it was like to honour the loss of someone openly and celebrate and grieve as a community, death as an accepted part of life. I witnessed how families and community members were asked to help support people who were sick, aged, dying and dead and how this was considered an honor and a privilege.  

Being a part of this community I have sat with many individuals in their transitioning from life to death.  I have been asked to help with post deathcare of people’s bodies, I have driven dead ones back to the village, I have held a small baby for several hours as she took her final breaths and I have cleaned and cooked to support others who are mourning.  The opportunities to form a different relationship with dying and death have continued to present themselves. 

Over time I have grown to honour accompanying someone in his/her final hours and in supporting his or her loved ones after death.  The culture of death that was still alive and practiced by the Tl’azt’en people allowed me the opportunity to learn ways to support others in their dying and after their death.

One could say I learned the art of ‘death midwifery’ from the Tl’atz’en people. In our current Western culture I believe it is a lost art.  Yet, I believe that midwifing death is part of our human make up. It is in our bones. There is now a movement of people who want to teach others how to make death a part of our modern lives. The Canadian Community for Death Midwifery is working on a set of best practices on how to share these concepts of death midwifery with others. We share a common concern that there is current cultural alienation from dying, death, deathcare and grieving. We view death as a normal and natural part of life and believe in the importance of participatory engagement with dying, deathcare and grief. We are dedicated to the idea of the deep ecology of deathcare. As a part of the process we are developing a website that will soon provide the Canadian public with a wide range of resources for anyone interested in reclaiming their connection with dying and death.

All my time spent with the Tl’azt’en people has served me well, the practice of death midwifery playing an important piece in my own family. Somewhat ironically, it was with those who kept me from my grandfather’s funeral, my mother and father that I got to practice these teachings. Armed with fortitude and a deep knowing of the importance of taking care of our dead and dying, I researched and learned what was necessary and legal when not in a First Nation’s community in order to help someone die at home and then do the post deathcare ourselves. With much discussion and sharing, I encouraged my family to support Mom and Dad in their dying process.

In 2010 we brought my father home and he died with family all around. We then lovingly took care of his body together and had a three-day wake celebrating and honouring his life, grieving for our loss, and supporting each other. My mother died in 2012 and we were blessed with bringing her home to die and then caring for her ourselves. Again we had a three-day wake where we grieved together, laughed and remembered, ate, sang and danced together. We have effectively been death midwifes with my parents and plan to do so with other family and friends who are open to doing death differently. Supporting my parents in their final hours and after their deaths are two of the most treasured times in my life. In this place of gratitude I want to share my learning with others.


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