April 2, 2012

Death is part of life

Book collects stories of local hospice volunteers

Ian Kaufman

Two years ago, Allison Skirtschak took a summer job with Hospice Northwest, an organization that provides support to people with chronic illnesses. Her role was to coordinate the Hospice Stories Project. The project aimed to provide a space for volunteers with the organization to tell their stories and compile those stories into a book.

Now, two years after taking that summer job, Skirtschak is still involved, and the book – entitled Life’s Way – is set to be released next week.

“I had no clue what I was getting myself in for in the big picture,” she says of taking the job. “It really became such a labour of love for me.”

Her role had her interviewing more than 30 people who volunteered with Hospice Northwest, who shared the stories of why they got involved and what their experiences there have meant to them. Together with an advisory committee of four authors from the community, she compiled the interviews into a book. “The real authors of the book are the storytellers,” Skirtschak explains. “These are their stories, and in many ways we were just helping to bring those stories into book form.”

Hospice volunteers go through an intensive program training them in bereavement support, grief counselling, and how to be companions for people facing a life-threatening illness. They work in people’s homes, long-term care facilities, and hospitals. Often volunteers are drawn to do the work because of an experience with the death of a loved one in their own lives.

In a culture that pushes the topics of death and dying to the margins of public discourse and that provides few healthy perspectives on the matter, stories like the ones in this book are more important than ever. On April 13, there will be a celebration of the book launch at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery at 7 pm. Skirtschak, as well as some of the volunteers, will be reading excerpts and sharing their stories. The event is open to the public. The book will become available at the Northern Woman’s Bookstore on April 15.

Last week, I sat down with Skirtschak to discuss the project.

Q: What will people who read the book get out of it?

A: This book tells stories of grief, loss, and survival, told by people who have experienced that themselves. I hope that it provides people with the encouragement and support to continue on in times of hardship and grief, and to create a really strong, supportive community where we can embrace life and death – death as a part of life – every day. And that we can also embrace our dying and support them, and be companions to individuals who are dying or bereaved.

Q: How did you get people to open up on such difficult subjects?

A: I was totally amazed by how honest the volunteers were in their reflections, that they shared so openly about their experiences. People invited me into their homes, I sat with them on park benches – they met me, many of them for the first time – and shared these really raw experiences. Often it was about the grief they had faced in their own lives and the challenges they faced in losing ones that they loved.

Something that I would consciously do before going into an interview space was just to calm myself down and focus in on my breathing, and put [whatever] other stuff I was focusing on that day aside, just authentically practice being there with that person and holding a space to truly listen to what they were saying. We were meeting in people’s homes, in nature settings, in comfortable areas, so they could feel more open. I also think the volunteers have learned through their experiences to be so truthful and raw, that it was so natural for all of them to share what they were going through.

Q: Is it always a personal experience with death that inspires people to become involved?

A: The people I met all had some kind of personal experience that drew them to become hospice volunteers. I was amazed at how people coped with some of the experiences that they went through, such tragic circumstances in their life. Those experiences strengthened them, and made them recognize that they could use those experiences to help other people, to help raise each other up. All of the volunteers mentioned a sense of calling to the work; many of them mentioned a sense of spirituality and that connection in their stories and in the type of work that they do.

Q: How did writing this book affect your perception of the way death is handled in our society?

A: This book changed my whole life. It not only changed my conversations around death, it changed the conversations that I have every day in my life, and the spirit behind my interactions. Just recognizing how precious each moment is, and how every moment that you share with somebody could be the last. I started thinking about that a lot, and it kind of propelled me into a place of experiencing things more intensely. I dug into a lot of books about death and dying: I learned a lot from Elizabth Kubler-Ross and Joan Halifax, and did a lot of reading about the Buddhist perspective on death and dying too. The whole learning curve has been incredible.

Doing this project taught me that we have to speak with our children in an honest way about death and dying, and that we need to get real about this thing that happens every day, and stop pretending that we’re going to live forever. Our society tends to focus a whole lot on anti-aging creams, how to prolong the elasticity of your skin, and all of these things. We need to remember that dying can be really beautiful. There’s so much to learn from individuals who are dying.

Q: What did you learn from this project?

A: It was an incredible opportunity to learn about the end of life, learn about dying in this really real way – talking with people who had been in this situation where their life might be over really soon. Some of them overcame that, and others were actively dying and talked about their experiences. It made me realize the importance of making sure that we live our lives so well, and also not being afraid to die, because it’s so natural.

I was absolutely humbled by the strength with which people coped with really tragic, painful situations in their lives. What I learned from the experience is that pain and discomfort and loss are profound opportunities for learning and growth. We need those experiences in our lives to learn about what it is to be human. We need to be able to go to those dark places sometimes to be able to see the light and to be able to appreciate it.

Something that this work has also reminded me to do is to really listen to what people are saying, to be able to hold that space for them where you are being a witness to their lives. It’s inspired me to call my own grandparents and ask them about stories of their younger life. It’s stuff that I never would have known otherwise. I got to learn so much about this woman who is my grandmother. This project taught me that stories are really powerful – they really have the power to change the way that we live in this world and to change the world as a whole.

Q: You mention the recognition of how precious our time here is. I think many people struggle with how to hold that feeling, as we get caught up in our day-to-day routines. What do you do to remind yourself to keep that perspective?

A: I try to give. Giving and gratitude remind me of connecting with a community. So when there’s a moment when I’m upset about something or getting stuck in this pattern that happens in our daily routines, I try to remember to take a moment to step back and breathe and be grateful, and then go do something kind for somebody else. That’s something that the volunteers taught me – in giving, you truly receive. And these volunteers are such rich people because they give so much of themselves. It’s a richness of spirit, what I’m talking about – the richness of spirit where your eyes just shimmer, because you have such good stories in there.

Hospice Northwest would like to acknowledge the support for this project provided by the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation, the Paterson Foundation, the Port Arthur Rotary Club, and Tbaytel.

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