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Death and Dying on the Campaign Trail


City council candidates don’t normally talk about death and dying.

Campaigns are about hope and assurances.

Let me assure you, this will likely be my only mention of death during the campaign.

But I couldn’t NOT write about my recent visit to the inspirational Pilgrims Hospice.

It’s a curious thing, how a place devoted to dying can feel so full of life. But it does. Pilgrims Hospice is not the solemn, grim and shadowed place of our imagination.

Here, death is accepted and honoured. Staff and volunteers offer psychological and spiritual support, as well as programming in areas like legacy work — writing final letters or putting a photo album in order.

Volunteers and staff view death as a passage, not as an existential fade to black. It is for people of all faiths, or no faith.

I wrote a column about the hospice years ago. This time my involvement is as a volunteer on the organizing committee for Pilgrims annual fundraising golf tournament.

Consider that for a moment, please. Consider the challenge of asking people to donate to a cause we do our darndest to deny.

Death isn’t trendy.

“But as a part of life it is as natural as birth,” says Executive Director Deb Birkett.

The same can be said of grief, she adds. Grief is a natural healing process following the death of a loved one.

Too often today, people are prescribed anti-depressant medications, which can confuse or delay the passage of grief, she says.

But seeing grief as an illness is symptom of our collective death denial. We hide death away in hospitals and homes. We remove frail seniors from their communities and place them in care facilities.

We don’t talk about death, though it is inevitable.

A dear friend, Cheryl Nixon, died years ago. I wrote about her in a column. It seems a bit crass. But I wrote about anything that mattered deeply to me.

At any rate, Cheryl believed strongly in the notion of returning death to the community. She believed we’d live more poignant, meaningful lives and be drawn closer to our neighbours if death was experienced in the neighbourhood.

Cheryl and her husband Roger organized a living wake. Cheryl was weak and jaundiced, but sat at the front of a large circle of chairs in the community hall. People took turns standing to reminisce about their memories of Cheryl.

Cheryl wasn’t religious. Not even spiritual, per se. She didn’t believe in an afterlife, save for any lasting effect we had on loved ones and on the community.

Her life and her death left an impression on me. I think of death now in softer, gentler terms. I think of it in terms of grace and hope now. Yes, I think we can hope for a meaningful, loving and gentle death.

Eventually, we might even use terms like ‘connected’ or ‘engaged’ or ‘sense of community’ when we talk of death.

Piligrims Hospice is doing its part, by offering compassion and dignity to Edmontonians in the last stage of life. They also help host Death Cafes from time to time, to open discussion and relieve our societal phobia.

Pilgrims Hospice is creating lasting and loving effects on the broad community. If you find it in your heart to do so, please donate.

You can do so here: http://www.pilgrimshospice.ca/

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