Death is no stranger to two Okanagan women, who have guided their loved ones through the unique journey.
What’s new, however, is their growing role in helping the wider community embrace a different kind of death experience.
“There’s a lot of paradigm shift(ing) happening right now, people want to talk about it,” said Sue Berlie, shamanic coach, death walker and psychopomp.
Berlie, alongside Alison Moore, a life-cycle celebrant and sacred passages doula are also both trained as home funeral guides through the Canadian Integrative Network for Death Education and Alternation (CINDEA). They are also facilitators of the Okanagan Death Cafe.
Death Cafes were created in 2004 and have spread around the world. The events offer unique opportunities for conversations about death, the dying process and preparation to be had. Through guided in-depth conversations with each other, participants find solace and a new understanding of a usually taboo subject. Currently, 6,588 Death Cafes have been hosted in 56 countries.
Berlie and Moore were drawn to the worldwide Death Cafes because of their grassroots nature, and the high demand for people wanting to get more involved with the death and caring of their friends and family. They were also getting sick of the current “business” of dying.
“A lot of people want to die at home and aren’t given that opportunity, and when they do (die at home) we don’t let them lie there and have their friends and family come in where we can hold services … rather, the person dies and has been whisked off to a funeral home and everyone has been left there with a void,” Moore said.
Funerals cost somewhere between $1,000 to $12,000 according to Canadian Death Services Online, and B.C. currently has the highest rates for cremation in Canada.
Seventy per cent of North Americans prefer to die at home, and only seven per cent said they wanted to die in a hospice or palliative care home, in a survey conducted by Donna Wilson, at the University of Alberta. Wilson also teaches nursing and researches dying in Canada and the survey also found 60 per cent of Canadians actually die in hospital and 10 per cent die in nursing homes.
Outside of religion, rituals to be held after death are lacking and that’s become a problem, Moore said.
“People are having a deeper experience when helping and preparing for death, part of what we are excited about is helping people grieve well. You should die well and grieve well.”
Moore’s education in the world of death and dying began when she found out she was expecting her first child and her best friend was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer.
“Here I was gestating life and my best friend was given three to six months to live. She ended up living on Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ farm (a pioneer in near-death studies and author of On Death and Dying) and becoming one of the subjects in her book. She brought us on this journey of spiritual exploration with her,” Moore said.
Talking about death and dying hasn’t been difficult since that perspective-shifting experience. Now as a celebrant, Moore “marries and buries” people, guiding them through different life-changing experiences; the birth of a child, officiating marriages and officiating funerals.
Moore is now a certified death doula who first guided her father through death.
“It was very interesting being on the inside, as a daughter and being the person that was trying to hold space for the person I was caring for — it was an extraordinary experience. We are trained to focus on the person we are caring for, providing them with a beautiful quality of life and death. We are of service to the path that the person is taking and it is a sacred one.”
Berlie, a psychopomp (a guide of souls to the place of the dead) takes a different spiritual journey in her work. There is no general scenario, as she works on a case by case basis. She can be there during a death, after, or if asked by a family member or the person who is dead to ensure their spirit is not trapped. Berlie also facilitates conversations, ceremonies and rituals. She calls it dreaming themselves into their next life.
“It will always depend on what people believe, you have to stay within their beliefs, you cannot introduce anything. It is about them and what they want,” Berlie said. “Dreaming into what is next, is more of a conversation and I see that with the more Death Cafes we hold, the more people become open to other things and they start to explore within themselves wondering ‘well maybe my body doesn’t just shut down and that’s it for my spirit.’”
Berlie works alongside spirit guides, spirit animals and the realms to help spirits continue onto the journey of what is next.
Her work began when she was 18 years-old and her best friend died suddenly in a car accident.
“He stood there clear as day and talked to me the night he died—I later went to a psychic 30 years later and she said ‘Oh who is that over your left shoulder? You have a bright gold orb hovering there, he hasn’t left your side.’ It was my friend and he didn’t realize he was dead. He is my spirit guide and I believe he helps me in my work.”
Berlie later volunteered at a hospice and found she was not able to help people in their last stage of life in the way she felt compelled to. She changed her career in order to strengthen her ability as a psychopomp by becoming a shamanic practitioner and certified death walker. Shamanic practitioners are healers who move into an altered state of consciousness to access a hidden reality in the spirit realms with the purpose of bringing back healing, power and information.
As a death walker, Berlie accompanies people as they go through their journey towards death, nurturing, enhancing and strengthening the capacity of the person about to die. While providing legal and practical knowledge to them and the family.
The next Okanagan Death Cafe series has yet to be scheduled, but the women have decided to host them bi-monthly instead of annually to accommodate and continue the conversations around death and dying.
“What I would like to see and what is beginning in these dialogues on death and dying is, that people are opening up to the fact that the one thing we know when we are born is that we are going to die. We need to start embracing in our daily lives because each day is a gift,” Moore said.
For more information, or to find a Death Cafe near you, visit www.deathcafe.com.