"I can't change the outcome but I can make the process much more bearable, even beautiful."
Newmarket resident Julie Cryns helps families cope with and plan for death. Most people don't want to think about death, so they avoid planning for it and often families are too grief-stricken and don't know where to turn for help, she said.
As a certified end-of-life doula, Cryns works closely with families and offers them non-medical support and emotional comfort before, during and after death.
"Part of my job is to help the whole family, with the dying person at the centre, to make process as understandable and bearable as possible," she said.
Doula — Greek for helper or maidservant — is a term typically associated with childbirth but end-of-life doulas are an emerging movement in Canada.
End-of-life doulas take on many roles and Cryns said she takes cues from the family about what they need from her.
Some families are very open and welcoming, and some have a lot of support and only require her to find resources to help make things happen, she added.
Cryns helps individuals identify what matters most to them. Whether it's wanting to die in a specific way (at home) or be surrounded by certain people or things she provides the information needed to realize that wish.
"Most families have no idea where to start."
She also provides emotional support to those who are already grieving. Some people have a large support system but, she said, feel more comfortable opening up about their grief with an impartial person.
Often families aren't able to think of the big picture, Cryns said. They tend to think in terms of the present day and it's only after losing someone that they wished they had done something to commemorate them.
Cryns helps families create memory projects, which allow individuals to have a hand in creating something so that their family can remember them after they're gone.
"Everyone has an innate desire to be remembered," she added.
As a former primary school teacher and mother of two, Cryns has a special interest in helping children with their grief. She said a lot of families tend to shield children from the process of dying because they believe it protects them, but that children respond well and grow from an experience where they are allowed to be included.
In her role she explains death to children in a way that they can understand or helps empower families to involve children in the process so that they don't feel excluded or confused.
When her husband died 10 years ago, Cryns felt "overwhelmed and unprepared."
They hadn't discussed his wishes when he became ill and after he eventually suffered brain damage, Cryns was forced to make decisions without knowing what he would have wanted.
Though she had family, she didn't want to burden them with her grief. She had never heard of an end-of-life doula but wishes she had.
End-of-life doula services are not covered by OHIP, but Cryns said she wishes they were, if only so that more people would know about them.
Cryns has an End of Life Doula Training Certificate from Douglas College, as well as an Advanced Care Planning certificate from Hospice Palliative Care Ontario and a Children’s Grief & Bereavement Certificate from SickKids Hospital.
"I really want to feel I have as many tools in my tool kit as possible. I want to provide the best service I can to my families," she said.
Cryns said that many cultures are better at talking about or dealing with death and dying but in Canada and in her native Scotland it is often not discussed.
"People tend to push it away. They tend to not face up to it, not plan for it because somehow then it won't happen; Well, it will happen."
Her job, she said, is to walk alongside families and help them in any way she can to make the journey as bearable as it can be.