This is the last part of a three-part series on visiting the ill or dying.
BURNABY—When six family members died within 18 months, Burnaby resident Jacqueline Merandi was devastated.
“For a long time, it was difficult for me to say I had six loved ones pass away,” said Merandi. Among those she lost in that short time were her mother and her father-in law.
Now 10 years past, Merandi has let those six personal tragedies lead her to her calling as a supporter and promoter of palliative and hospice care.
“We are all going to pass away. What we want for ourselves and our loved ones is to be met with compassionate care in palliative and hospice care.”
It worries her that only about 30 per cent of Canadians have access to that type of service. “If you’ve been able to witness it, as I have, you want to make sure it’s for anybody who needs it.”
Merandi’s father-in-law was cared for at St. Michael’s Hospice and that made a huge difference for him and for the grieving family. “It was my husband’s first time losing somebody. They guided us through each step we were going to take,” she said.
They were so compassionate.
“His family was scared. They didn’t know what to expect. (Hospice staff) showed us what to expect. They were so compassionate.”
After Merandi lost six loved ones and began the grieving process, she decided to volunteer at the Burnaby Hospice Society thrift store. She is now a society board member and its ambassador for improving the availability of end-of-life care.
“The nurses were not preparing my father-in-law to die, but to live until he was done,” said Merandi, who recently gave talks about palliative care at Holy Cross, Our Lady of Sorrows, St. Mary’s, and St. Helen’s parishes.
They managed his pain and symptoms, invited family to visit as often as they wished, and contacted the family anytime his situation changed. “We knew he would be taken care of.”
Fellow board member Gay Klietzke also sees her work as a personal calling. “I’ve always had an interest in death. I don’t know why but it always struck me as something I wanted to know more about and how people dealt with it.”
Klietzke immigrated from England and was running a family business with her husband in Kamloops when she heard about a training program for visiting the sick and dying. She signed up. “It really brought a peace to me and I started to realize that this was my calling.”
She then spent hours visiting the private homes (there were no hospices in the area) of neighbours on their deathbeds.
“That led to bigger things. I’m the kind of person who isn’t content to sit there!” She got a team together, started fundraising, and built two hospices in Kamloops. When she moved to the Lower Mainland, she built Vancouver Hospice, too.
It’s been my life’s work.
“Since then, we sold our business and it’s been my life’s work.”
Klietzke considers it a privilege to spend time with the dying. “They have this huge life without us and we come in the last few weeks. I feel so humbled I can share that moment with them.”
In the decades she’s worked in hospice care, Klietzke has seen many patients find emotional or spiritual healing at the ends of their lives.
“I’ve heard people say to me that in their last weeks, they did more living than they had done in their whole lives because they did all that reflecting and made amends” with family members.
In the Kamloops hospices, grieving First Nations family members can perform traditional rites. (At times, a deer or eagle will suddenly pass by the windows, which the family takes as a sign or blessing.)
“That’s what we strive for. Wherever you’re comfortable with and wherever you’re going to die, that’s up to you, but the hospital is not for you unless they have a palliative ward set up for that. You don’t want all these tubes and (announcements) on the intercom. You want to have peace and you want to reflect, and you certainly can’t do that in a hospital setting.”
The best volunteer is one who listens, added David Chapin, president of the Burnaby society’s board of directors. The former marketer started visiting the ill and dying as a volunteer 12 years ago.
Sometimes, there is sadness that can be so easily dealt with.
“Listening and allowing them to tell their story does two things. First, it helps them clarify very important things in their lives. Sometimes, there is sadness that can be so easily dealt with,” he said.
“The other important thing is sometimes it’s a rehearsal for what they want to tell their family. They want an opportunity to try out their life story on someone else.”
BHS teaches its volunteers to listen, hold a hand, serve a cup of tea, read a book aloud, and to simply be there for a person in their last days. They also help patients connect to counsellors, social workers, or spiritual guidance if they ask for it.
Chapin believes if more Canadians had access to hospice care, far fewer would advocate for physician-assisted suicide.
“Hospice is the antithesis of medical aid in dying. Why do people choose assisted suicide? Because they are afraid, because they can’t manage the pain, because they don’t want to burden their families,” he said.
“All those things, a hospice will take care of. You’re not a burden to your family because we’ll take care of you. You don’t have to be afraid of pain because our doctors can manage pain. You don’t have to suffer. It’s an alternative that should be available to everybody.”
Chapin still visits hospitals and hospices as a volunteer; currently, he spends some of his off hours at the intensive care unit at Burnaby Hospital. “We get way more out of this than what we give.”
LifeCanada has recently launched a program to build a network of volunteers trained to visit people in care homes and hospices. For more information about the Make Time for Life program, visit https://lifecollective.io/mtfl