Live your Legacy: Lessons and ideas from a good life and death
Webinars | November 2, 2021
On November 2, the Dying With Dignity Canada team was joined by Chelsea Peddle to learn about reframing the idea of legacy. In this recording, Chelsea shares some traditional ideas, including her mother’s book, and talks about creating a living legacy through values and relationships.
Chelsea Peddle is an end-of-life consultant and death doula serving Victoria, BC and beyond. Her warmth and professional guidance help individuals, families and children feel anchored through the uncertainty of a serious diagnosis or the grief of terminal illness. A former health policy analyst and plain language writer, Chelsea has deep knowledge of our health care system and available resources. Like many of her clients, Chelsea has been a family caregiver to loved ones with terminal cancer and accompanied her mum through MAID in 2019. Chelsea has an End-of-Life Doula certificate from Douglas College and is a member of the End-of-Life Doula Association of Canada and Death Doula Network BC. She also has a master’s degree in education from the University of British Columbia and a Certificate in Human Rights Education from Equitas International Centre for Human Rights Education in Montreal.
Good afternoon, and welcome, everybody. My name is Kelsey Goforth, and I’m Dying With Dignity Canada, Senior Program Manager. I’m joined today by my colleagues Nicole Curtis and Samantha Shier. I am thrilled to welcome you today to the first session of Dying With Dignity Canada’s online conference, Reflections on Death and Dying.
We will be meeting… November breaking in December for the holidays, and then meeting again in January. And we will be presenting a range of topics related to death and dying. If you haven’t done so already, all sessions and the registration links are available on our website, so we encourage you to sign up there for future sessions.
We are putting a link in the chat today for this Thursday’s session which will be with author and journalist Sandra Martin. So, do register for that one, that’s coming up later this week. We also want to acknowledge that today is World Right to Die Day, an occasion to stand in solidarity with all those who have made this choice.
Say, we are grateful for the countries around the world that allow us to dying and recognize the work that has yet to be done. Before we get started today, I want to acknowledge that while we are meeting virtually, the land Dying with Dignity Canada is on is traditional territory in many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishinabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wyandot peoples.
And is now home to many diverse First Nations Indigenous Inuit and Metis peoples. We also acknowledge that Toronto is covered by Treaty 13 with the Mississaugas of the Credit. We invite and encourage you to do your own research regarding various treaties in particular the land in which you’re on today while meeting with us.
We are pleased to welcome Chelsea Peddle. Chelsea is an end-of-life consultant and death doula serving Victoria, BC and beyond. Her warmth and professional guidance help individuals, families and children feel anchored through the uncertainty of a serious diagnosis or the grief of terminal illness.
A former health policy analyst and plain language writer, Chelsea has deep knowledge of our health care system and available resources. Like many of her clients, Chelsea has been a family caregiver to loved ones with terminal cancer and accompanied her mom through MAID in 2019.
Chelsea has an End-of-Life Doula certificate from Douglas College and is a member of the End-of-Life Doula Association of Canada and Death Doula Network BC. She also has a master’s degree in education from the University of British Columbia and a Certificate in Human Rights Education from Equitas International Centre for Human Rights Education in Montreal. Thank you so much for being with us today, Chelsea. I will turn it over to you.
Thank you. What an honor it is to be kicking off this first annual conference with Dying With Dignity. Thanks so much for having me here today. I also want to start by giving thanks to the [inaudible] people on whose traditional territory I’m on today.
And I want to acknowledge their unwavering role as keepers of this beautiful land that I get to live on, as a reminder to continue my efforts to support their leadership and to unlearn indigenous specific racism. So, today, we are here to talk about legacy.
I’m just going to share my screen with you. So, traditional concepts of legacy have us believe that it is found in our estate, in the physical items of value that we pass on to friends and family after our death. And in the money and property or the financial assets that we will to others.
But I’ve long pondered whether or not these objects, these dollars and assets are an accurate reflection of the richness of someone’s life. What about things like family values, your impact on others, being of service? Although, these factors are things that are harder to quantify, in my mind, this is what legacy is made of.
Legacy is also often thought of as something that we leave behind for our loved ones. But as many of us know, legacy is also about living. Because to create a legacy for the future, we have to take action right now. There’s a little quote here by Warren Buffett, he says it so perfectly, someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.
So, today we’re going to be reframing legacy. We’re going to change it from a noun to a verb and one that is synonymous with intention. And I’m going to do this by sharing some learnings and stories from my time accompanying my mom through her death, and also sharing some stories about how she lived.
My hope is really to inspire you in how you might start living your own legacy right now and just open a window to possibility. So, I’d like to introduce you to my mom, Merry. She was someone who lived her life and death with legacy in mind. My mom was a French language educator, a writer and a composer, among many other things.
Her four great loves were nature, music, language, and her grandchildren. My mom had a very poetic soul, as you will see through these stories I’m about to share, and she lived her life with complete intention. One of my mom’s chief legacies without as our family’s legacy keeper.
Over the years, my mom wove together a tapestry of events, writing meals and rituals that wove together the shared threads of my family’s past, our present and our future. She role model for us what it meant to learn from and honor our forbearers. And she also taught us how to pass wisdom down to future generations.
So, I’m going to share with you now a few examples of the ways that she created a living legacy that has persisted since her death. So, let’s start with family heirlooms as legacy. Typically, these are things like jewelry, furniture, artwork, photo albums, clothing like wedding dresses.
They might also be religious items like menorahs or Bibles, and also items of cultural significance like regalia. And these are things that are passed down from generation to generation. These items can be particularly poignant when they’re accompanied by a letter describing their importance, the ways that they were used, and also perhaps the wishes that they carry for the future.
I also like to view food as a family heirloom because it holds such visceral sense memories and it’s such a beautiful vehicle for legacy. One example is, a few years before my mom’s death, she created a cookbook for my sister with recipes from our Christmas open houses and our special family dinners.
You can see that she handwrote every recipe, and then also pasted in pictures from those events where we enjoyed that food together as a really special reminder of the times we shared around the kitchen table. For me, she did something a little bit different.
She created a sewing kit with buttons and threads and scissors that my granddad had actually used and that were passed down to me. And she stored these sewing pieces in an old cookie tin that we had used as children to put our homemade mincemeat tarts in at Christmas.
And so, whenever I open my sewing kit now, I can almost smell those spices and cloves and cinnamon and that candied fruit, a beautiful memory every time I use my sewing kits. Clothes can also be a really evocative piece of legacy. But we’re often stumped with what to do with them after our loved one dies.
We have a closet full and drawers full of these clothes that once belonged to them. And so, after my mom’s death, we chose some of her favorite pieces, her sweaters and blouses and scarves, and we repurposed them into handmade stuffies, this adorable little collection of owls here.
So, each grandchild has their own owl, and my sister and I also have one each as well. And the best part is that we didn’t wash her clothes before we made these stuffies. And so, they still smell like her. And there’s nothing better than seeing my children, especially when they’re feeling sad or lonely.
They deliberately seek out these owls and hold them and just inhale their nana’s scent, and it brings them comfort and a sense of connection. I also want to share a different take on family heirlooms. And I’d like to suggest something that belongs to everyone.
But it can all… considered a part of a family legacy, and that is nature. When my mom was dying, she really wanted to give a gift to her grandchildren, something that would persist, that would always be with them. So, she did share more traditional things like jewelry and books.
But this was something that they would always have access to with her love of nature. And my mom in particular, absolutely adored the night sky. And she spent hours learning the map of the stars, so that one day she could teach them to her grandchildren.
So, before her death, my mom chose a constellation, one for each grandchild. And she dictated to me a short sentence describing why she picked that constellation for each grandchild, what made it special for them, and how it reflected their unique qualities. And we also conveyed to my kids what her final message was about these stars.
And she wanted them to know that whenever they were feeling sad, or even happy or excited, any emotion that they could raise their gaze to the stars. Imagine that they were heading up to that constellation, and that she would be waiting there for them ready to have a chat, ready to listen, ready to offer some comfort that they can meet in the stars.
So, let’s talk about relationships as legacy. My mom really was a master at bringing people together, especially intergenerational gatherings, we brought all of the grandkids, the aunties, the uncles all together. And she always had a thoughtful icebreaker or a game to help people get to know each other.
And she really loved hosting family reunions. So, one year, she hosted a party that she called, calling all cousins. And to help us understand our place in the family tree. She taught us all the difference between first cousins and second cousins and first cousins once removed.
I did manage to learn those definitions at the time, but they’ve since flown from my mind, so please don’t quiz me on it in the Q&A, I still find it to be quite complex, despite her best efforts to teach us those relationships. But what my mom really understood about these gatherings was the magic that can happen when we put effort into really getting to know our loved ones.
In one of my mom’s pieces of writing, she implored us to keep on discovering the people you love as long as you have them. They all have surprising and unknown depths. My mom really was the tie that bound our extended family together, but the efforts that she made to help us form our own bonds is a gift that keeps on giving now that she has died.
So, when my children were two and five, my mom hosted another family reunion. This one was at our family graveyard for an event she called, the Four Bears Teddy Bear Picnic. So, this of course was a pun on the word forbearers. My mom was really big on puns. And she had a knack for making even events about death fun and child friendly.
So, I always like to say I really come by being a part of this death caring profession quite honestly because I learned it from my mom. So, on this day, she brought four of the kids’ teddy bears, her grandkids’ teddy bears along to the graveyard and set them up next to the headstones with hats and sunglasses and scarves.
And they each had their own little teacup so that they could join in our family picnic as well. So, that day, as the family began to arrive, we gathered at the gates to the cemetery waiting for everyone to show up before we would process together over to our family plots, which were all the way over on the other side of the graveyard.
My husband was holding my youngest daughter who was two at the time. And this was her very first visit to this graveyard and she was starting to get a bit squirmy as two-year-olds do. I think getting a bit restless waiting for everyone to show up. So, my husband decided to just put her down and she took off like a shot.
With my husband trailing behind, my two-year-old daughter walked with intention all the way across the graveyard in the most direct route possible to the foot of our loved one’s graves where she promptly sat down. As you can imagine, all of our jaws dropped open because there was no way that she could have known which of the graves belonged to her family, but something in her knew.
People who believe in ancestral lineage might say that that knowledge was just inherently in her soul or maybe even somewhere in her DNA. But we followed my daughter and with her gathered around our loved one’s graves, and we ate raspberries from canes that my gran had planted in the 1960s in her backyard, which are now growing in my backyard.
We listened to music and shared stories about our loved ones. And we tended to their graves together, teaching my children how to remember and honor their ancestors. My mom is now also buried there. And if you ask my daughter, that little two-year-old that scurried across the graveyard, she will tell you that nana’s graveyard is her absolute favorite place in the world.
I think it might have a little bit to do with the fact that she can catch lizards there. But my mom would be so proud knowing that she had a hand in teaching her granddaughter to play with ease and with joy around her grave. So, I want to share a recap, a couple of these ideas around legacy and how to create and honor it.
The first is to create a family tree or a family map. And absolutely, this could be with chosen family as well. Grave gardening and decorating is a really beautiful way to connect with your loved ones and to care for them. Cemetery picnics to honor your forbearers, bring your favorite stuffies, and a cup of tea.
And then, also, taking some tree clippings or seeds from fruits or vegetables and planting them. And this is especially important when we sell our deceased loved one’s properties after their death. So, I took these raspberry canes from my grandma’s backyard when she died.
And then, I’ve also since taken bulbs like from daffodils and tulips from my mom’s backyard that are now living in mine, so that we don’t have to lose those completely once that property moves out of our family. It’s a nice way to maintain that connection.
So, let’s explore words, music and movies as a part of legacy. So, over several decades, my mom created what she called her distillation book. And it contained quotes from philosophers and poets, the majority of which were about death and legacy.
In this book, she even picked out the quote that she wanted on her gravestone, and it’s by Rabindranath Tagore and it says, death is not extinguishing the light, it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come. One of her instructions after her death was for this book to be passed around to family members.
My mom felt this collection of quotes was a manifesto for living, and she wanted it to guide us and how we lived our lives because it expressed the things that were most important to her. One of her favorite quotes in this distillation book was by Ralph Waldo Emerson and it says, to laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children.
To leave the world a better place. To know even one person has breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have succeeded. And for my mom, that quote was the very definition of legacy. Sharing your life stories is the legacy as growing in popularity.
Many hospices now have legacy recording programs that are facilitated by volunteers. Capturing your story is something that you can do at any stage of life. And in fact, you may already be doing it by writing in a diary. And I want to make a little here that be sure to create some plans around what you want done with those diaries after you die.
Because there might be some details in there that you don’t want certain people getting their hands on. So, it can be wise to create some instructions either in your will or just express them informally to your executor or to a close friend, who will be able to manage what to do with those diaries after your death.
So, recording your stories, it can be as simple as writing a letter, and as complex as recording your full auto biography. And I also urge you to consider other creative ways to record your stories. If writing is not something that really speaks to you, try things like collaging, or creating scenes, maybe even scrapbooking to tell your life stories.
So, over the years, my mom wrote what she called legacy stories. And these were narratives about her own life or about those of our ancestors with information that she had carefully pulled together through her extensive genealogy research.
In one of these stories, my mom reminisced about her childhood memories with friends, Anne, Rose and Dolor. She described what they had in common, listing their vivid imaginations and kind hearts and understanding of fairness and justice.
And also, that none of them were afraid to speak their minds. But where they differed was that Anne, Rose and Dolor all had been orphaned and adopted by loving families. Anne by a lonely… and her brother, Rose by her uncle and has many siblings and cousins, and Dolor by his godmother.
So, you may have guessed by now that my mom was describing Anne from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s, Anne of Green Gables, Rose from Louisa May Alcott’s, Rose in Bloom and Eight Peasants, and Dolor from Dinah Maria Mulock’s, The Little Lame Prince.
Her affection for these characters and the lessons that she learned from them, created an indelible mark on her life, one that she wanted to share with me. Because to know these books was to know my mom. I now have all of these books, the very ones that she read as a child on my bookshelf. And I started to create my own little library for my children.
My hope is that one day they will read my books and feel like they’re uncovering some hidden depth to me in the same way that I did with my mom. The books that we choose to read, the songs that make up the soundtrack of our life, and the movies that anchored our childhood speak volumes about who we are and what’s important to us.
Some ideas for legacy could include creating your own little library of books that shaped you, and creating a top 10 movie list or a playlist that represents who you are and the special moments in your life. Book songs and movies have the power to summon memories, and also reflect our values, our fears, and our dreams.
And I really encourage you to take the time to record why these books and songs and movies are important to you and why they touched you. So, by now, I’m sure that you can see some key messages or themes emerging from these stories, and one of the most salient ones and I can almost hear my mom saying it in my ear right now is that in order to know ourselves, we must know our past.
We must honor and learn from our forebears and we must embrace and prepare for the impermanence of life. I want to shift gears now and talk about the end of my mom’s life and how her death was a part of her legacy. When my mom was diagnosed with a terminal glioblastoma brain tumor in the spring of 2019, we knew immediately that tending to her legacy was going to play a big part in her final months and moments.
Strangely, my dad had also died of a glioblastoma brain tumor 23 years before. So, we had a sense of what to expect as my mom’s illness progressed. That experience along with having had many conversations with her about illness and death and mortality over the years, allowed us to accept that my mum was not long for this world.
For myself and my sister, our acceptance brought the opportunity for total and complete presence. And to not fight her impending death. Accepting the reality of her mortality transformed our lives as she was dying, and it opened up space for us to consider legacy almost immediately.
Tending to her legacy, it wasn’t about envisioning a future without her. It was about forming a new relationship with her, one that would continue beyond her physical absence. One afternoon, as I visited my mom in the hospital with legacy in mind, I asked her what she needed to begin, and to let go of this life, what felt unfinished.
And she immediately replied that she wanted to see her poem Seagull Games, illustrated as a children’s book. My mom had written this poem over a decade ago, as she sat on the porch of her seaside summer cottage. Though she didn’t have any grandchildren at the time that she wrote the poem.
She knew that the poetry that was flowing through her was intended for her grandkids. Years later, she set her poem to music, and taught the song to her young grandchildren who would gleefully sing along, copying all of the different hand gestures that she had created to go along with the music.
My mom was clear that she wanted her illustrated song to be a part of her legacy for her grandchildren, who by the time of her diagnosis, numbered in four. The youngest, little Luca, was born just three weeks after my mom’s diagnosis, and we’re thankful every day that he was born in time to meet his nana.
And a part of me really wonders if her drive to see her song illustrated as a book was so that Luca, especially the grandchild who would not have the opportunity to sing Seagull Games with his nana would have a piece of something special of hers to hold on to.
So, for anyone who has dabbled in self-publishing, you know that creating a book is no small feat. And we managed to do it in less than three months. Thanks mostly to my mom’s incredible and talented community of friends. We reached out to our family friend Iris Moore. There she is. She is an award-winning artist and animator.
And she was the perfect fit to illustrate my mom’s poem, because she was already a part of our grief journey. Much of Iris’ work focuses on the… of grief and death. And I have just shown her latest film, Why Must the Sun Go Down and the Evening Thread to my eldest daughter to help her understand her nana’s coming death.
I highly recommend an Evening Thread. In this film, an old woman prepares to die. Accompanied by her granddaughter, she reflects on the memories of her life and all the profound experience of being human before taking the next step into the unknown. It’s a beautiful meditation on death and legacy.
And I also want to mention, Why Must the Sun Go Down. It is a beautifully whimsical story to illustrate the cycle of life, one that I use often with my children and also recommend to my client families who have young kids that are just starting to learn about that cycle of life.
So, Iris got to work on the illustrations. And the one note that my mom gave her was that she wanted the seagulls to look like they were smiling. And within a few weeks, Iris presented my mom with the illustrations and she could not have been happier. During this time, we also reached out to another family friend, Madeleine Humer, who was the director of the Victoria Children’s Choir.
We asked if she would help in completing the arrangement for the song. And then, Madeleine also offered to record her choir singing Seagull Games. This was amazing. I remember the day that we played this recording for my mom, it’s going to live in our hearts forever.
But this time my mom was already in hospice. And I just remember the look on her face as she heard her song sung by this internationally renowned choir. And she said that it was one of the deepest honors of her life. So, I’d like to play and show you Seagull Games now. And it’s just going to take me a moment to get it up on the screen for you.
We were deeply honored to have Madeleine and her choir perform Seagull Games at my mom’s memorial service. By that time, Seagull Games had been published by a book and we were able to share this beautiful piece of legacy with the people who attended her service.
So, as you can see, there are incredible benefits of legacy to both the person who was dying and for their loved ones. For the dying, mindfully engaging in legacy making can help bring physical and emotional and spiritual comfort and reduce stress. It can also improve a sense of connection and social engagement with their loved ones.
And there’s a special piece of research here that talks about an increase in talkativeness through legacy making. There’s something about this reminiscing and memory making that increases. But person who is dying, they’re likelihood to talk and engage in conversation which we know can sometimes slow down towards the end of life.
So, it brings a real gift of connection. Legacy can also enhance living while dying by making positive activities and interactions and memories. And it can help the dying person prepare for death by knowing that they will be remembered. For loved ones supporting legacy making can also enhance their comfort and decrease caregiver stress.
And it can help them experience their anticipatory grief in a supportive way. It can also improve communication with their loved one, and create opportunities to make positive memories through the dying process. And finally, it can create something really beautiful and tangible to hold on to, something that can bring comfort through their loved one’s end of life and beyond.
For me, the greatest benefit of legacy making is the power it has to transform our relationship with death, and the opportunity to refashion our relationship with the deceased. Legacy, it transcends death. It’s not just about remembering the past. It’s a tool to continue our bond with our loved one. Legacy allows us to see that love connection, even presence persists and that maybe death isn’t the end. I know that little Luca, who’s now two and a half.
He doesn’t see death as the end. For him, legacy is a continuing bond. It’s the beginning of his relationship with his nana, one that is very real where he talks about her and to her as if she were right there. And when you see him singing Seagull Games, who’s to say that she’s not. I’d like to share this video of Luca singing Seagull Games with you.
Okay, he’s objectively cute right? It just warms my heart every time I see him sing that song and do the little actions. Well, my mom, she certainly succeeded in her legacy making efforts. I see her success in the performances of the choir that she devoted 25 years of service to, and her colleagues who say that they still use her one-of-a-kind teaching tools.
And I see it in the relationship that my sister and I have with death, and the way that we honor our mom every day by telling her story and showing up in this world with love and curiosity. I also see her legacy in the way that she died. And in this death caring field as a death doula, we often talk about creating a good death or a fitting death, one that reflects our values and the way that we lived.
And I’d like to tell you now a bit about my mom’s death as a reflection of how she lived, and also to illustrate the opportunities that MAiD brought to live her legacy. So, I want to start by telling you about how we told my daughter about her nana’s decision to have MAiD.
And I’m starting here because I know that panic that many adults feel when they think about having to talk with their children about death, let alone a medically assisted death. And certainly, our greatest challenge was, what do we tell the kids. At that time, in the spring of 2019, there were no books, there were very few resources about how to talk with children about MAiD.
Fortunately, I received some really great information from the pediatric counselor at hospice. But really, I felt I was not as prepared as I wanted to be for this conversation. I had lots of experience talking with my kids about natural deaths, but I really had no idea about how to frame MAiD and I didn’t want to cause any further harm to them.
So, one night, I just took a deep breath. And I spoke with my eldest daughter, who was seven years old at the time. She already knew that nana was dying, and she knew what cancer was. And so, that night, I told her that her nana could wait for the cancer in her brain to make her so sick that would cause her body to die.
Or, she could ask a doctor to help her die when she feels ready. And that nana was choosing to ask the doctor to help her die, and that it was going to be happening in five days. My daughter was honestly confused and quite incredulous. And she said, why does nana want to die?
She just couldn’t understand this. And so, I explained that the cancer was making nana die. And that MAiD gave nana a choice of when and how to die. And that that choice brought her comfort. So, my daughter and I talked for a long time that night with lots of silence as well, and then many times over the next few days.
I knew that I’d done a good job when I heard from the mom of one of my daughter’s best friends at school. So, that day apparently on the playground, my daughter had talked with her bestie about nana’s decision to have MAiD. She’d explained to her friend that her nana was dying of cancer, and that nana loved being with us but that she wasn’t afraid to die, and she wasn’t feeling very well.
She said that nana was sad that she couldn’t do the things that she loved anymore, like go for walks in the forest and sing in her choir and make us pancakes. She said that nana was sad to be leaving us but that she wasn’t afraid. And apparently, her best friend thought that this was totally reasonable.
They agreed that nana’s MAiD was the right thing given that she was already dying, and who really wants to live if you can’t do the stuff that you love to do anymore. It was quite simple in their seven-year-old minds and hearts. So, the success of my conversation with my daughter is really rooted in my mom’s legacy.
In the lessons I had learned from my mom about death in the Four Bears Picnic my children had experienced and in the ways they already knew about their ancestors and the impermanence of life. These conversations with my daughter reflect one of my mom’s most impactful legacy gifts, and that is normalizing talking about death and grief.
So, let’s explore the day of my mom’s death. I had slept over at her hospice room the night before. But before I left my house, I’d asked my daughters if there was anything they wanted me to say or bring to nana as part of their final goodbye. And they didn’t really have any ideas, but they really wanted something to do.
So, I suggested that they offer nana one of their teddy bears for comfort. And they love that idea, scurried around and picked out the right teddy bear. And I presented it to my mom when I arrived at the hospice saying that it was a gift from the girls.
And she immediately took it and tucked it right up under her chin, and it stayed there all through that night and through her death the next day. My mom and I woke up early the next morning around 6:00 a.m. And I immediately went to her bedside and asked if she remembered what was happening that day.
Because I was concerned that she wouldn’t have the capacity to consent at the final moment. This was before the legislation change. But thankfully, my mom just calmly said, yes. My sister and three other family members arrived around 7:30. These were the people that my mom had chosen to be with her as she died.
We all enjoyed breakfast together in her room, talking and laughing just like we would around her kitchen table at home. At around 8:30, the nurses came to give my mom a quick tidy up and to change her into a night gown have they chosen especially for her.
Around that time, a few chosen people began to arrive at the solarium in the hospice lounge. These were people in my mom wanted nearby but not actually with her when she died. These were also people that we thought needed a role to play and to have some engagement and extra support.
And we asked the hospice spiritual advisor to sit with them and to hold space through that time. This was also when my eldest daughter and my husband arrived at the hospice grounds. The night before, we’d given my daughter a few choices about where she could be when her nana died.
And she chose to go get a smoothie and a croissant from the Tim Hortons Hospital restaurant, one of her favorite places, and to play in the gardens that surrounded the hospital chapel. She wanted to be close, but not too close to her nana. And my other daughter that day was playing with her friends at daycare.
At the same time, my mom’s larger circle of friends was gathering at a friend’s house close by. We’d invited a family friend who was also a counselor to hold space for about 10 people. They sat in circle. They shared their favorite memories of my mom. And at 9:00 a.m., the time the MAiD was going to start.
They visualize my mom transitioning to her next form gently, peacefully, ushering her on her way. You can see that we took great care to find a role for everyone who needed one, offering different kinds of support. Knowing that many people were invested in this day and in loving my mom.
We recognize that my mom’s life was lived in community and deep relationship with her friends and her family. And so, her death should be as well. The MAiD doctor arrived just before 9:00 a.m., and she spoke with my mom and then with those of us who would be witnessing explaining the procedure.
My mom had asked that for those of us that were attending with her that will not say any final words of eye or offer last emotional declarations of love. Everything that needed to be said had been said. So, I help those of us who would be with my mom to ground ourselves and stabilize our energy and to become as present as possible.
And then, we accompanied my mom up to the rooftop garden where she had chosen to die. We settled in to a sunny spot, and a friend joined us to perform reiki on my mom to help soothe and calm her. My sister and I sat on either side of her bed holding her hand.
And when the reiki was done, my mom opened her eyes and looked at each of us with love. And she cried for a moment. The doctor asked if she was ready to begin. And my mom said, yes. With one final look to the sky, and a deep breath as if she was drinking and all of that beauty that surrounded her, my mom closed her eyes.
And within moments, she was slipping away. My sister and I both envisioned our ancestors at the head of my mom’s bed, waiting to receive her a sense of profound joy and even [inaudible] flooded through me at the prospect of this reunion, and I was happy for my mom.
After a few minutes, the doctor confirmed that my mom had died. The volunteer coordinator, a woman we’ve become good friends with during our time at hospice, joined us outside and stood at the height of my mom’s bed and read, Death Is Nothing at All, by Henry Scott Holland.
We spent some time quietly sitting with my mom’s body, and then my eldest daughter arrived. I’d asked her the day before if she would like to visit with nana’s body. And without hesitation, she said, yes. I reminded her what to expect how nana’s body would look and what it would feel like if we chose to touch it.
And she sat on my lap next to her nana’s body silent, looking for many minutes. I asked her if she would like to touch the body. And she said no, but she seemed curious and she leaned in towards her nana. And so, I suggested that I would place my hand on nana’s arm, and she could put her hand on top of mine.
And so, we did that for many minutes. Eventually, she said she was ready to go. And I gave her a hug and walked her back to my husband and off she went to go play in a park as kids do. Others from the solarium came to sit with my mom’s body, and then her body was returned to her hospital room to await the funeral home.
Later that afternoon, we all returned to my house for some sandwiches and some Prosecco. And together, we created an altar. We invited everyone including the kids to pick an item that reminded them of nana, and to place it on the sideboard in the dining room.
We added flowers and cards, photos and items. You can see my daughter there adding a flashlight trick with her nana. This altar was a gathering point for our grief, an external symbol of our love and sadness, and a reminder to mourn together. This altar evolved over the next days, weeks, even months.
And now, years. A new item will occasionally appear put there by one of my kids as they feel moved to remember their nana. And it offers beautiful insight into their grief and their healing. And I want to share this picture. This was taken a week after my mom’s death at her interment. And I invite you to look at our faces and sense the energy.
For me, I’m still amazed at the deep sense of presence that we all felt. I really feel it just emanates from this picture. And I want to emphasize that my mom’s illness and her death were incredibly difficult, deep, deep sadness and grief bursts of emotions that I still feel an exhaustion that I’m recovering from even two years later.
But that sadness comes from feeling her absence, not from the way that she died. And I don’t believe that that is by chance. This is what’s possible when you have a family that feels prepared, when a legacy bridge to their loved one has already been built.
When you have access to safe quality end of life care. When you have consistent guidance from a death doula or from someone who has walked this path before, and when you also have the autonomy to decide when and how to die. And of course, a little bit of luck.
Our knowing how to care for each other through this difficult time, it was only possible because of the lessons my mom had imparted to us while she was alive. And in our minds, her fitting death was the pinnacle of her legacy. My mom’s legacy building didn’t start with her terminal diagnosis.
It started years before with her legacy writing, her family graveyard gatherings and in her willingness to have sensitive conversations with kids. I remember back in the 1980s, sitting around my kitchen table with my mom talking about Sue Rodriguez.
This was when medically assisted death was pushed into the public consciousness through students’ courageous activism and death. I know that talking about assisted death with a 12-year-old might seem an unusual parenting choice. But that was my mom.
She always held us as capable of conversation and affirming our own opinion. And she made it safe to have conversations about complicated and emotional topics. In fact, my mom had conversations about MAiD death, legacy, mortality, and other complex and sensitive topics with just about everyone in her life.
So, when the time came for her death, when she decided to choose MAiD, we were as ready as we could be. Or, at least we understood why my mom was choosing MAiD, why it was the right choice for her. And really, can you imagine any better legacy for your loved ones than the gift of your mindful death?
So, I asked, what does legacy mean to you now that we’ve reframed it? As you consider this question, I invite you to consider how your dying might be a part of your legacy, and how your death will reflect your values, how you lived your life, and the comfort that you want to bring to your loved ones.
And I ask you to think about how you can start living your legacy right now. To help with this, I want to share a few resources. So, the first is, Willow End of Life Education and Resources. So, they have an incredible suite of workbooks and workshops, to help ground you and your values and to help you make sense of life and death.
My favorite of their resources is their five-minute legacy love letter, and also a tool around how to write your heart will. These tools are perfect for capturing your legacy and the messages you want to leave for your loved ones. And they’re also available as free downloads on their website.
I want to mention that there is a legacy love letter workshop coming up with Death Doula Network BC on November 11th, there’s still time to register. So, they are certified Willow educators and I highly recommend their workshops with Karen and Joanne.
They are always fun and supportive and a really lovely creative space to safely explore your life and death. I’m just going to pop the registration link here in the chat for you. Okay. Hopefully, that link works. You can always google them as well. I also want to mention a book that I’ve just come across and I’ve just ordered it and it’s called, Legacies of the Heart by Meg Newhouse.
And it has some really beautiful examples, really tangible, concrete ideas for how you can start enacting your legacy right now. So, I also want to stay connected and let you know that I have many resources on my website to help with end-of-life planning and navigating the end-of-life journey, including my flagship resource, my personal comfort plan.
So, this is a guide and a checklist to help people find physical, emotional and spiritual comfort through illness and their end of life. You can also sign up for my newsletter on my website and learn more about how death doulas can help during this time.
Just a quick note, I’m not producing a lot of newsletters or web content at this time because I’ve just started an MA in clinical counseling. And so, that’s taking a lot of my focus right now. But my aim is to create private practice that will support children’s grief and their bereavement.
So, you can reach me at circlespace.ca if you’d like to stay in touch. And finally, I just want to thank you for allowing me to share my mom’s story. And I hope that you’ve been inspired by it. And I’d like to close with a poem by her favorite poet, John O’Donoghue, in hopes that it will offer you encouragement to start living your legacy right now.
So, this is called, For Death, from To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings. From the moment you were born, your death has walked beside you. So, it seldom shows its face, you still feel its empty touch where fear invades your life, or what you lost, love is lost, or inner damages incurred.
Yet, when destiny draws you into these spaces of poverty, and your heart stays generous until some door opens into the light, you are quietly befriending your death. So, that you will have no need to fear when your time comes to turn and leave. That the silent presence of your death would call your life to attention.
Wake you up to how scarce Your time is, and to the urgency to become free and equal to the call of your destiny. That you would gather yourself and decide carefully how you can live the life you would love to look back on from your deathbed. Thank you.
Wow. Thank you so much. That was incredibly beautiful and emotional. And just the way that your mom lived her whole life so creatively is so clearly shown through her life, and then in her death. And I feel that is just so beautiful. And I’m really truly grateful for you sharing this with us. We have so many amazing comments that have come in.
I can’t even read all of them, there are so many, but we’ll get them to you for sure. A few of them say your mom was so creative, bless her soul. But a lovely story about your two-year-old’s journey to the family grave and your mother sounds like a wonderful soul. Just to note to say how greatly I appreciate sharing your story of your mom’s legacy with us, it must be incredibly emotional.
The song is so beautiful, and the illustrations are amazing. Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece of your mother. She had an amazing soul. Illustrations are beautiful. The seagulls are definitely smiling and so many more things and gratitude for your sharing all of this really, really so special. So, thank you.
And so, we do also have a few questions that have come in. So, let’s see where should we start? So, actually, first, a few folks were wondering if there’s anywhere where they can get a copy of the song, even the sheet music or the poems illustrations, if you have that available?
Yes, of Seagull Games, we’ve been slowly working on figuring out how to get it into our local bookstores. And we do have plans to get it up on Amazon at some point or some online bookseller. But the wheels are turning slowly with that. So, what I might do after conversation with my family is actually put it up on my website as one of the resources there. So, just check back at circlespace.ca over the coming weeks to see. Thank you so much for your interest.
Yeah. A few people were asking that. So, that’s great news that that’ll be hopefully in the future. So, another question is, do you know of any resources for children, specifically who have a loved one going through the MAiD process?
That’s still a challenging question. We’re very fortunate that Canadian Virtual Hospice has just released a whole suite of resources around MAiD. And my understanding is that there are some coming, if not, already released for children, I think older children.
But really, this is an area that is still significantly lacking for kids. When I was having these conversations with my children, there were some really great online articles with some good information. There’s some web videos at Canadian Virtual Hospice role model how that conversation might go, all intended for adults to look at them, and then share it with their kids.
And one of the things that I really wanted was a resource that I could use with my kids something to engage them, something that was child friendly. And so, I went to my library like I do, if my kids have to go to the dentist, you go get a book about going to the dentist. Or, they break their arm, you get a book about getting cast made, or strangers and all of that.
I went to my library to try and find something around MAiD, and there was not a single children’s book about MAiD. And so, a few months after my mom died, I sat down and this book that I call, Pancakes with Nana just flowed through me in the same way that Seagull Games like they did for my mom.
And so, I have drafted a children’s book, a manuscript, two now. In fact, one for older children and one for kids that are around four or five, to help explain MAiD in a child friendly way that really role models ways that we can engage children and meet them where they’re at, and help them be a part of the MAiD process through ritual and belonging, and empathy.
And so, it’s been a long journey getting these books done. I’m about to go into another round of edits. And I’m hoping that a publisher will want to pick it up. But if not, I’ll be looking for support to self-publish, because I know that there’s many, many families out there, and hospice counselors and people that need this resource for their children.
Yeah. That is so incredibly important. And even like your daughter’s friend, for example, who wasn’t having someone directly in her own family or her own life in that way going through MAiD, it would still be amazing to have that resource to share amongst friends.
And to know maybe what your friend is perhaps going through, ways that you can be together in that process. So, oh, so many of our supporters are going to be so excited to buy a copy of your book, including myself. So, I’m really glad that you’re doing that.
Okay, here. So, someone’s asking about death doulas, what do they do? What type of work is common for someone who is a death doula?
Yeah. So, death doulas are a non-clinical, non-medical end of life support role. So, we offer emotional and physical and spiritual comfort. And really, death doulas are available for help at any time in your life. A lot of death doula support advanced care planning and helping to get your affairs in order.
And to really explore that reality of your mortality offering a safe and constructive space to look at your values and your fears, and your hopes and wishes around life and death. And then, certainly, when a family is experiencing a terminal diagnosis or they’re nearing end of life, a death doula can offer a number of different supports. And what’s so fabulous about death doulas is that each one is different.
They bring a different skill set to that role. So, for me, in my practice, what I specialize in is one, excuse me, system navigation. So, we know that when you’re ill and when your family is so focused on caring for you, you’re suddenly having to adapt and learn this new environment, all these different medical systems, the legal system for your will, homecare.
And it can be really overwhelming and to slip through the cracks or not know what benefits and supports are available. And so, my role is to really help people we’d like to see a seamless circle of support around themselves and their loved ones during that time. That doulas can help facilitate legacy making, help with that reflection and writing.
And we can also help to support family caregivers in their roles, and just how to engage children. And then, also, with vigilating and comfort measures through the act of dying process, and then support afterwards through preparing plans for your service or ceremony or final disposition, there’s lots of different incredible roles.
Yeah. It’s such a special person to have, be alongside others, just someone who’s removed but also really personally involved to be that grounding presence when things may feel not so grounded necessarily. Someone else asked, I’m wondering if you found it difficult to be both a daughter and a doula at the same time?
Yeah, absolutely. I’ve reflected on that since then. And I am just so deeply, deeply grateful that I had these death carrying skills before my mom got sick. And at the time, I tried to delegate certain roles. I did bring in a friend who’s starting work as a doula to help have some conversations.
But for me, I really felt that being a doula and a daughter, it was the only way that I could have that experience with my mom. But it was something that I needed to do. And I’m just so deeply grateful that I was there to be able to support my family. And I feel like having a doula, both myself and then also the resources that I had, through my death care and community really helped make this fitting death possible.
And help to soften and ease the grief that we’re still managing two and a half years later. It really is a skill and a knowledge that’s ancient that we’ve lost over time. And so, if we don’t innately have it within our family, this is where bringing in an outside doula to help remind you of those skills that we have, and to help with the education piece. And to take some of that burden off of your plate is just so powerful.
Yes, absolutely. What was the reaction of your immediate community knowing of your mother’s choice, and especially for your children’s circle of friends and community?
Mm-hmm (affirmative). We were very fortunate that everyone responded with support and understanding. And there’s a couple factors that supported that. One, the amount of work that my mom had done through her love life and communicating what her values are. And surrounding herself with people who were compassionate and understanding, even if they would not choose MAiD for themselves.
We had a community of people around us who respected that choice. And my kids, they didn’t know any different, right? So, because I normalized it and my family normalized it, it was no different than how we would have presented a natural death or not an assisted death.
And this is the power that we have in shaping our family culture, especially with kids, they don’t have the same sense of stigma that a lot of adults do. So, if we’re okay with it, then they’re going to be okay with it.
Yeah, absolutely. So, I guess on that note, this is in a similar vein, how would you know if a child is ready for a MAiD conversation? Can this talk be really challenging or traumatic for a child as well? It’s what the comment said.
Absolutely. And the thing I always like to say is that, you know your kids best. You are talking with them in the context of your own family culture. And so, that’s the first thing to think about. But when we’re talking about in particular, there’s some foundational pieces that kids need to know.
So, the younger the kid is the less able they are, because of their brain development, and their social emotional development, the less able they are to understand the permanence of death. And so, there’s some foundational pieces of education that you need to do first that comes before the MAiD conversation.
So, talking about, excuse me, naming the particular illness that the person has, and describing what that is and child friendly language, how that affects their body. Also, establishing that they really understand what death is. So, what happens to the body when you die.
And understanding that your body and your head stops working, your heart stops beating… your lung… you can’t see, taste, you don’t eat, you don’t play and that your body doesn’t start working again. So, establishing some foundational stuff around the permanence of death.
So, once you’ve done that, then talking about MAiD, if the family culture is that it’s on par with a natural death, there’s no difference. It’s just one way of dying, right? The illness is what’s causing the person to die. The MAiD is the choice about how and when.
And so, using some of the language that I shared in my presentation, what… it’s going to be my children’s book, what’s on Canadian Virtual Hospice. Talking about MAiD in a very fact-based way is a really solid approach for talking with children. And then, you can get into the more philosophical stuff. Let their questions guide you for what they want to know and what to introduce next.
Yeah. And you know that having those conversations about death and dying as a foundation is such an important point. Because even as adults, people can be so resistant. And, understandably, why talking about death can feel really challenging or hard to know how to approach it.
So, I think that point about having that baseline is crucial. So, yeah, thank you. So, we have time for just one more question. I know, there are so many questions that have come in. All right, let’s see. So, this one question is asking, what do you do with someone who is perhaps resistant to the idea of a legacy? Or, isn’t necessarily creative in that capacity?
Yeah. I think people get caught up on what these traditional definitions of legacy is. It can feel really overwhelming, so they’re like, well, what are my biggest life lessons that I want to impart? That can seem like how do I summarize my entire life?
But I think starting really small is key. And so, this is where those Willow end of life tools are so fantastic. So, within, I think, it’s either the heart will or the five-minute legacy letter, there’s a series of questions of prompts that you can explore over a cup of tea like don’t get the pen and paper out right away, but just have a conversation.
Start talking about what were your favorite books. What music were you listening to when you had your first kiss? Think about little sweet moments in life and start there. Almost like you’re interviewing yourself or interviewing someone, but doing it through conversation, where you’re curious about your life and the meaning that you make of it. And not slapping big labels like I’m making my legacy on it, can be a gentle entry point.
Yeah. That feels very accessible for people who perhaps feel overwhelmed by creativity or an artistic expression, whatever that looks like for people, so I love that just combination. And when you had talked as well about ancestral connection or relationship as part of legacy, that’s also something I think, as well, that isn’t typically creative in that way, but it is in in different ways that the word exists.
So, again, thank you so much. I know personally, I have a lot to think about. And I feel really inspired with all the ideas that you’ve shared, and just all the personal experiences as well. So, yeah, thank you so, so, so much for this.
Thank you. Thanks so much for the opportunity.
Sure. And thank you everyone for joining us. We’ve left the link in the comments in the chat for the next sessions, for the conference. And we hope to see you there. Thank you so much.