In the fall of 2020, one of our board members, Dr. Jonathan Reggler, shared an article from Powell River Living Magazine with Dying With Dignity Canada. It was a story about Mark Huddleston, a gentleman from British Columbia who chose medical assistance in dying (MAID) and his very inclusive, outdoor end-of-life ceremony. We were blown away by the story, the community involved and the many opportunities it offered to initiate more conversations about life and death, and help Canadians better understand MAID. We collaborated with several folks featured in the story to create a series of blog posts, we hope people will find inspirational and will share the story far and wide.
Mark and Jacqueline met on E-Harmony in 2007. She lived in Florida and he in Washington State; about as far apart as you can be in the U.S. Jacqueline reminisces, “Right away, I knew, this is the guy.” Their courtship was rather old-fashioned through letters and writing until Jacqueline decided to jump on a plane to go meet Mark, and they started planning their life together.
Mark had always wanted to live in BC, Canada – he loved hiking, the mountains and lakes here, so when he was offered two positions in BC, he and Jacqueline visited both places but fell in love with Powell River. “It had to do with the feeling of the community. It’s a small, very close-knit place that’s hard to get to. People really support each other. It’s an incredible community of friendly Canadians who are used to having each other’s back,” Jacqueline shared.
Not too long after moving to Powell River, Mark and Jacqueline met a group of people interested in creating an intentional community. They would meet twice a month, often over a potluck, doing workshops, reading books about communal living and taking trips to similar communities to learn what works and what to avoid, in order to create a successful cohousing community. Cohousing started in Denmark in the mid 1960’s. Residents in a cohousing community live in their private individual homes which are clustered around a common house with shared spaces. It’s about sharing resources, material things as well as knowledge base and expertise.
After a long search, they found 40 acres of land that would work, incorporated as a cooperative and Hearthstone Village was established. There are currently five families living at the cooperative with the capacity of sixteen. Jacqueline is proud that the members are multi-generational: “We have a newborn and kids whose ages range from six to 12. The adults are in their 30’s to 70’s, it’s a unique setting for children growing up to know people from all walks of life and ages.”
In 2012, Mark was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer. Jacqueline is a retired nurse and found out Mark had about two years to live. She said, “From the start Mark did really well, he was always hopeful and embraced all forms of medicine. Everything he tried played a role in prolonging his life although many treatments had side effects creating new problems. Through it all he rarely despaired and was almost always his cheerful self. He never lost hope that they might find a cure.” They explored many different treatments, both things within Western medicine and alternative therapies.
Mark lived six years past the two-year prognosis, but after multiple rounds of chemo and radiation, a broken hip from osteoporosis and pain medication that was no longer working, he began to look into MAID more seriously. Jacqueline remembers, “Mark’s cancer was moving quickly so he said, ‘It’s time. Let’s get the process started.’”
Mark had his first MAID assessment with his palliative care physician and then his second assessment with Dr. Jonathan Reggler, a family physician with a MAID provision practice on Vancouver Island. This was happening during the COVID-19 pandemic, so it was Dr. Reggler who suggested that Mark and Jacqueline consider having the provision outside. In the spirit of their cooperative life, Mark and Jacqueline wanted to have people from their community present at Mark’s death. With this idea in mind, the restrictions from COVID-19 went from 10 people to 50, and Mark and Jacqueline embraced it.
Jacqueline explains, “We invited everyone we knew, because Mark felt very strongly that the people that showed up for this would be the people who needed to. He felt this was an opportunity for healing; he knew that many of his friends had had traumatic experiences around death. He felt as North Americans, we have lost old traditions around death and dying. We basically ignore it until the very end. We act as if we’re going to live forever and we don’t have traditions and rituals to help us cope. For Mark, it seemed fairly clear that dying publicly, having witnesses, inviting people to come at the end made perfect sense. It was a way to take a very different road and that’s what he wanted.”
They invited everyone and, in the end, 50 people responded that they wanted to be there. What occurred next was an end-of-life ceremony that reflected Mark and Jacqueline’s values, pushed the boundaries of celebrations of life and, in true cohousing cooperative spirit, was coordinated by the whole community.