OTTAWA (CCN)—Dying Healed workshops to train volunteers to reach out to the sick and the dying have become one of Life Canada’s most successful programs, says executive director Natalie Sonnen.

The national educational pro-life organization developed the program after Canada legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide to “raise up an army of volunteers who can spend time one on one with people who are vulnerable,” said Sonnen.

They developed a 55-page manual and a corresponding 45-page workbook and divided the training into five sessions that can be held over a series of three evenings or on a weekend.

Dying Healed launched in the summer of 2017 and since then has trained over 700 volunteers. “It’s taken off,” said Sonnen. “We’ve been in over 30 different communities across Canada. 

We’ve trained easily about 50 different facilitators who can lead Dying Healed programs in their area.”

“The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive,” she said. 

“We’ve come to realize through developing and running this program, how vital it is for people to be engaged and to be spending time with the vulnerable,” Sonnen said. “That could be people who are lonely and disabled, not necessarily people at end of life who are terminally ill.”

Sonnen includes the lonely among the vulnerable. “So many people are disconnected and socially-isolated in our culture,” she said. “When they are socially isolated they tend not to see meaning in their own lives and become very vulnerable to things like assisted suicide and euthanasia.”

Dying Healed informs volunteers about the ethics of euthanasia and assisted suicide; and describes what palliative care is “so we’re all on the same page,” said Sonnen.

But the heart of the program is how it addresses human suffering—why human beings suffer, what the purpose is, and why suffering has meaning, she said.

The program explains “why understanding the meaning in our suffering helps us to live better when we’re suffering and even when we’re not suffering,” said Sonnen. “We wanted people to feel comfortable with discussing death and dying. It’s not a horrible thing.”

“People can be prepared to die well,” she said. “There is such a thing as beautiful death and most of us can hope and pray for a beautiful death, one where there you’re surrounded by your loved ones, you’re reconciled to your past, you’re freed of your sin and the guilt of sin--for Catholics would mean you’ve had access to the last sacraments and you’ve made your peace with God, and that physically your pain and discomfort is managed appropriately through proper use of palliative care.”

“So that’s where the words ‘Dying Healed’ came from,” Sonnen said. “You’re not healed physically, but healed emotionally, psychologically and spiritually and you’re prepared to go from this life to the next.”

“We felt that one of the big missing pieces in the whole debate on euthanasia was a proper understanding of human suffering,” she said. “Though we don’t want to suffer and want to mitigate our suffering as much as possible, there has to be an acceptance of suffering as part of our journey in life and in death.”

The program gives volunteers formation in end of life issues “so they could feel confident going into any kind of institution, home-based setting, parish or church-based visitation program and be able to minister to the vulnerable.

Anastasia Bowles, Life Canada’s director of operations and outreach, said she started volunteering at an Ottawa inner-city palliative care hospital around the time of the launch of Dying Healed. “I can honestly say the experience has been life-changing,” Bowles said.

“It’s a beautiful and profoundly important ministry,” she said. “Catholics refer to this ‘visiting the sick’ as a corporal work of mercy.” 

“What I didn’t expect was how much it would also affirm me as a volunteer,” Bowles said. 

Volunteers commonly say they receive much more than they give, and it is so true! Our volunteers are given as much a sense of meaning and purpose as those they are visiting. We come away with a tremendous sense of value in what we have done. We know it is God’s work.” 

“There are so many people in need, right here in our own backyards,” said Bowles. “When I visit a long-term care floor, it deeply pains me to see so many elderly people lined up, waiting for someone to talk to them or something to happen. How can we deny them our companionship and care?”

“This is what Dying Healed is all about: restoring human dignity, not through euthanasia or assisted suicide, but through that all-important human connection,” she said. “The elderly and dying need it. Our country needs it!”

Bowles said they know of at least one situation where someone who had taken the Dying Healed workshop was able to help a relative who was in the process of applying for so-called Medical Aid in Dying to reverse the decision, and instead obtain help from a Catholic physician and from a priest.