Deathing Care: It Takes a Community

by Ann Gillespie, Canadian Program Manager, Conscious Dying Institute

I’ve been asked many times what it was that sparked my fascination with all things deathly since 2012. Everyone has a different answer to this question – some begin exploring when they, because of age or perhaps a diagnosis, become face-to-face with their own mortality. Others, because they were left feeling unsettled after a bad experience with the death of a loved one. Still others intrinsically know that we need to retrieve the “old ways”, the knowledge and practice of folding death back into the arms of a family or community.

For me, it was a gradual waking up to realize that we had it wrong in North America. In my late 20s and early 30s I was living and working in West Africa. I lived in the city, on the bustling main street where, from my balcony, I could hear, smell and watch life unfolding wherever I looked - mothers preparing supper in the courtyard below my window, kids screaming as they splashed next to their mothers laundering clothes in the mountain stream that flowed out to the sea.  But perhaps the deepest memory was of the New Orleans style music that would filter through the everyday soundscape as another funeral procession made it’s way down the main street to the King Tom cemetery close by.

A friend’s uncle died and I was invited to attend the wake – just one of the many occasions the family and community gathered to celebrate a life ending, a life now honoured now as part of the pantheon of ancestors. What was so wonderful was that the immediate family were not involved in contacting the relatives and friends, the event planning, the cooking… they had only to be fully present, to receive the consoling and be part of the weeping. The community lifted up and held the family.  Whether Christian or Muslim, it was the larger community that looked after the protocols around death.  It wasn’t just the family mourning and celebrating, but the whole community.

Some years after I returned to Canada I was living in an “intentional community”, with a housing co-op in the city and a rural farm 45 minutes out of the city. We had one member who had an advanced stage of cancer and was going to have to be in hospital. He asked the community members if they would support him to live out his days at home in the co-op.  His immediate housemates and finally the whole community (40 people) agreed, though many were personally resistant because they had never encountered or been around someone who was dying.

In the following month and a half everyone signed up for short or long shifts to be with him so that he would be with someone around the clock.  People would watch funny videos, read stories, read messages from the network he had around the world, cook food that he could eat or just quietly sit with him.  In the late stages when he was close to death, we set up a vigil circle just outside his window in the courtyard with drumming, and soft singing.  This continued for 3 days after he died. The family, which was out of town came throughout the time, comforted that he, and they were being carried in the process.  It was personally a life-changing experience for me and I know this experience was a true gift to everyone who showed up.

Both these experiences set me on a path to explore more about death and dying in our culture, and search for ways to create/recreate some foundation in community as a way to support a better way of dying.

This is what motivated me to start doing Death Cafes in 2013, and then in 2015 to invite Tarron Estes and her Conscious Dying Institute to come to Vancouver to offer the End-of-Life Doula certificate program. Intuitively I sensed that the work of an End-of-Life Doula might form the hub of building new forms of community to provide care for at the end of life.

And with the third 8-day program about to take place November 24-26, I’m not alone in thinking this.  There is a small but growing network of Doulas in Vancouver and throughout BC, and in Vancouver a group of 7-9 Doulas have formed a collective of sorts, the BC End of Life Companions which will be “launching” at an upcoming Death and Dying Expo on November 4th at SFU. 

It’s encouraging to note that being a Death Doula is recognized as one of the top 7 jobs that reflect what is important in 2017 ( What Doulas can offer is both radically simple….  and at the same time, ultimately profound, “A revolution capable of increasing the evolution of human consciousness – a potential that is heightened when people understand that their life nears an ending.” (Tarron Estes)

There are still 2 weeks until October 24th to take advantage of the Earlybird$200.00 discount for this transformative End of Life Doula Certificate program happening Nov 24-26 in Vancouver (with phase II March 7-11. Get more information on the website:, or contact Ann Gillespie 778-708-4306.

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