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The Grief House


In a little cottage in downtown Whitehorse, talking about death brings people back to life.

It’s a house for the dying and their families and friends. It’s for people who feel lost because they’ve lost someone. But you’d never know it from the outside. Sandwiched between a downtown motel and a government parking lot, it’s a cozy little white and green cottage, with a neatly kept yard, potted flowers lining the walkway and a fresh beige picket fence trimming the sidewalk. A couple of big spruce trees grow in the yard, hiding the house from the street. A small sign on the fence reads, “Hospice Yukon,” bordered by a painted sunflower. An even smaller notice board, also adorned with cheerful sunflowers, announces upcoming “Living With Loss” workshops, and the daily hours.

I stood outside the fence with my wife, Angela. She saw the hesitation in my eyes, and grabbed my hand – either to keep me from running away, or to comfort me, or both.

We’d come to Hospice Yukon on the recommendation of our friend Mai, who had told us how much the organization had helped her when her father died. I remembered seeing a Hospice volunteer at her father’s funeral, comforting Mai and her family as they paid their respects, chanting in Vietnamese and bowing. I’d chanted and bowed for my father, too, at a Japanese Buddhist ceremony in Lethbridge, Alberta. But that was five months earlier. I should’ve been over it by now. I shouldn’t have been yelling at Angela over a pile of receipts, or losing my patience constantly with my kids. I shouldn’t have been spending so much time staring at the wall. But just because I needed to talk to someone about my grief didn’t make it any easier to walk into this house, and admit to a stranger that I felt like I was going crazy.

I took a deep breath. We followed the walkway to the house, ducking under the branch of a poplar tree. I opened the front door. Inside was a little boot room, a snow shovel to the side. I opened the second door, and crossed the threshold.

A woman sat at a desk beside the door. She had long graying hair, and wore a brown scarf around her neck. She smiled, and said, “I’m Carlotta.”

A pink and purple quilt hung on the wall by Carlotta’s desk. Bookshelves lined the walls behind her with little category labels that read, “Guided Meditations,” “Men and Grief,” and “Spiritual Healing.” There was a mound of red felt hearts in a basket on one of the shelves. I wanted to turn around and leave. Instead, Angela and I sat down in two wicker chairs beside the bookshelves.

“What can I do for you?” asked Carlotta. I told her I’d lost my Dad, and I was having a hard time getting over it.

She said, “You never get over it.” She paused, then added, “Sometimes they become more alive to us than they were before. We have to find a new relationship with them, even though they’re gone.”

Something small lifted off my shoulders. It was a start.

Hospice Yukon is more a house of life than of death. Although there’s much talk about comfort and healing, they also talk about the long road to awakening to one’s life, and how a loved one’s passing can put us on that road.

They’re the only hospice organization North of Sixty. Most Yukoners know about them through their public and workplace grief education programs or have seen the annual Lights of Life event at Christmas – where, for over 21 years, people hang memorial ornaments for lost loved ones on trees publicly displayed throughout Whitehorse. People in the Yukon – many travel or call from the communities for help – know there’s somewhere to go when they lose someone close, even a dog. Hospice is a symbol of what’s most loved about the territory and its people; it’s informal, open, and focused less on appearances and more on what’s on the inside.

Five women work at Hospice Yukon, tucked into a converted one-story, two-bedroom house, a “Yukon Special” 1950s add-a-shack, maybe a thousand square feet. Carlotta Smith works in the reception in the front. She became friends with a group of Hospice Yukon volunteers and staff at an Integrated Healing workshop in Vancouver, and signed up for the Hospice Yukon volunteer training last fall. She liked it here so much she stayed, taking over the office coordinator position.

Beside the reception is a kitchen with a computer desk along one wall. Trish Eccles runs the Palliative Care and Healing Touch program from there. The master bedroom is now executive director Cathy Routledge’s office. Cathy started in Carlotta’s job, and has been with Hospice about 10 years. Anne Macaire and Barb Evans-Ehricht also did Carlotta’s job in the past; now they share the other, smaller bedroom. Anne, the lay counsellor, has a tiny desk and love seat for her clients. Barb, the program coordinator, has her “closet” – a little pine hide-a-desk that barely contains her papers and pictures.

Beside the reception is a kitchen with a computer desk along one wall. Trish Eccles runs the Palliative Care and Healing Touch program from there. The master bedroom is now executive director Cathy Routledge’s office. Cathy started in Carlotta’s job, and has been with Hospice about 10 years. Anne Macaire and Barb Evans-Ehricht also did Carlotta’s job in the past; now they share the other, smaller bedroom. Anne, the lay counsellor, has a tiny desk and love seat for her clients. Barb, the program coordinator, has her “closet” – a little pine hide-a-desk that barely contains her papers and pictures.

They’re all somewhere north of forty years old. They all work part-time. They have to take care of themselves and make sure they don’t burn out, because they call this holy work. A privilege. A calling.

Ask any of the women about their work with the dying and bereaved, and they will lean forward. Their eyes will light up. And they will talk and talk about it. They will talk about our culture’s denial of death and how healthy it is to know life is finite. They will talk about how our grief over big losses – death, dying, abandonment – has a way of tying itself to our ordinary, everyday grief – unfulfilled ambitions, difficult relationships, aging – which tightens around our hearts.

They’ll talk about death, the Big One, what none of us want to think about or discuss, and they’ll smile. They’ll laugh. They’re at ease with the topic. Not to say they take it lightly, but that they’re open to it, and see it as their mission to open others to it, too. And after they’ve talked awhile, they will say, “Sometimes you have to tell me to stop.”

The house belongs to Gordie Ryder, a long-time Yukoner who owns Builders Supplyland, a little hardware store under the shadow of the clay cliffs. Gordie used to rent the house to an old woman, who wagged her finger one day at her landlord, and said, “When I’m gone, you rent this house to Hospice Yukon.” And he did, for a price that would barely get a small room in any office building in town. When there’s more than three rent cheques that Gordie hasn’t collected, Cathy tracks him down and hands them over.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they push the furniture against the wall and set up massage tables for the Healing Touch program. On Art/Journalling Workshop days, they fold out chairs, spread newspaper on tables, get out paints and little margarine containers full of water. They serve upwards of 200 clients a year, and have around 100 volunteers. The volunteers do Healing Touch, they help out with Lights of Life, and they vigil with the dying and their families at the hospital, in homes or here at the office.

The women of Hospice cram all their programs into this cottage, their library of well-thumbed wisdom, and yes, their cut-out, felt “feelie hearts,” which they give out to clients to put in their pockets as tangible permission to grieve and remember. They’ve been offered bigger office space by the Yukon government, which funds all of Hospice’s programs, and they’ve come close to moving a few times, but none of them want to lose the energy that’s here, which you feel when you cross the threshold of the front door. It’s welcoming and open. The dying and the grievers, they’ve seen so much of hospitals, so much of cancer clinics and funeral chapels. They want to feel at home. So Hospice Yukon stays here. There’s still room, the women will tell you. Where there’s this kind of energy, there’s always more room.

It was May. I was turning 40 in a week. We were planning a big Mexican-themed party. A friend playfully printed out a giant Day of the Dead skull poster for our wall. All I wanted to do was lock the doors and watch TV.

I met with Anne Macaire, Hospice’s lay counselor. From inside her cozy office, I could hear a kettle boiling and a spoon clinking on the other side of the door. Carlotta brought in tea for me and a glass of water for Anne, and quietly left.

“So why are we here today?” Anne asked me, and waited. I waited too, for her to ask me something more. Wasn’t she supposed to be fixing me? Guiding me? Where were the magic words to make me feel better?

The silence stretched for several seconds. Anne out-waited me, and I found myself talking. Talking about who Dad was. I’d loved my Dad, but always defined myself emphatically as his opposite. He’d been so passive and indecisive, always going with the flow, then erratically questioning the flow. Choosing a restaurant with him had been a painful exercise.

I wasn’t passive. I was a go-getter. But now that he was gone, I no longer had that wall to push off against.

I talked to Anne about the eulogy I’d delivered at his funeral. In the speech, I’d spoken about the way Bob Miyagawa had connected with people and accepted them completely. To the hundreds gathered there to celebrate his life, I summed it up, saying, “He had such … Bobness.”

Through the stories told by Dad’s friends that afternoon, I had glimpsed his giving spirit, as if for the first time. I had never realized how much my parents informed everything about me, the way I related to my wife, raised my kids, and, well, chose restaurants. Now that Dad was gone, it wasn’t just that there was a hole in my life, a tear in the fabric that had to be sewn, but that the clothes I wore didn’t seem to fit any more.

A hospice, in ancient times, was a refuge for wayfarers and pilgrims, the poor and the down-and-out. It wasn’t a place for physical healing, but solace, a bit of food and rest – some hospitality, in other words. The words “hospitality” and “hospice” have the same root.

Modern hospices started as a reaction to the medicalization of death during the 20th century. The old rituals of dying were disappearing. Families spread out geographically, less able to take care of their own. The church lost much of its influence on a person’s life, including how to die. The physical aspects of dying became more important than the spiritual or the community, and for the first time, people began to die in hospitals and care facilities instead of at home. But the whole point of hospitals was to heal and make people live. If there was no cure, if death was inevitable, our medical system fell short.

Modern hospices sprang up in the 1960s and 70s, starting in England and spreading to North America. Most focused on finding ways to make dying more comfortable and meaningful, and raised funds for their own facilities, where they could assemble the kind of round-the-clock, specialized care that dying people need. That’s still the main focus of most hospice organizations in Canada and the US.

Here in the Yukon, however, the physical care of the dying is left to the Yukon’s home care workers and Yukon Health’s new Palliative Care Program. There’s no dedicated palliative facility, and that’s a sore point for Cathy Routledge, though she sees the bright side of it, too. With no palliative beds, resources aren’t tied to a physical space.

So Hospice Yukon has evolved into an organization that’s not just unique to the Yukon, but to the whole country. Most of Hospice Yukon’s work is with the families who are grieving, not the dying. The rule of thumb is six bereaved for every death; but Cathy figures the degree of social connectivity here, especially among the First Nations, gives the Yukon a much higher ratio, something more like 10 to 1. The Yukon also has a higher percentage of “distance grievers” – people who live far away from their families of origin, like me.

For families and friends, the grieving is often more difficult than the dying, when the whole world tells those that are left behind to get over it, go back to work, and to just be “normal” again – even when they have no idea what it means to be normal anymore.

Judi Urquhart, the Healing Touch volunteer, rested her right hand on my chest. I felt the pulse in her fingers mixing with the beat of my heart. The palm of her left hand was on my belly.

I lay on a massage table in the reception, beside the front desk. Judi explained that we all have energy fields that surround our body, and centers that control the flow of energy from these fields to our bodies. Healing Touch practitioners use their hands, gently resting them on people’s bodies or above them, to clear these fields, reconnect the centers, and balance the whole person. Hospice Yukon volunteers had been offering Healing Touch to their clients for a few years now.

I thought of my eccentric aunt, who claimed she could see auras and angels. I thought of the goofy little sayings on the fancy herbal teas that my wife bought (“Happiness Radiates Happiness!” or, “It’s not what you can see, but what you can’t see that matters.”) I had always thought energy work was for quacks and flakes. But I was willing to give it a try. Outside, the trees were finally budding, but I felt like a zombie, so distant from myself.

Judi started at my feet. She touched my ankles and my knees, simply resting her hands there. She moved up to my arms. I felt the blood flowing through my limbs. I imagined little strings vibrating around me. I thought of my laundry in the washer at home. I thought of the ramshackle cabin my Dad owned at Buffalo Lake, and the old push mower he tried vainly to use on the thick weeds on the property. When Judi got to my heart, I felt a surge. I became bigger somehow. Dad was there, in the new space. The Bobness.

It had been nine months since Dad died, and four months since I’d first visited Hospice Yukon, when I rode my bike to Hospice to borrow some books. Carlotta told me about two visitors they’d had the day before. One young man was biking from Anchorage to Victoria to raise money for Victoria Hospice. Another was biking from Florida to Alaska to raise money for Hospice of the Florida Suncoast. They connected on the Internet, and ended up in Whitehorse on the same midsummer day.

“What are the chances of three young biking dudes who support Hospice coming here the same week?” Carlotta said. She had a twinkle in her eye. I looked at her blankly, then realized the third “biking dude” was me, though I’d only come eight blocks; and that somewhere along the way I’d become more than a Hospice client.

Cathy came in and asked if I could help with their Facebook page and website. A few days earlier, Judi emailed me to ask if I was interested in taking the Healing Touch training in the fall.

I’m not over my grief. I’m not through it, but I’m not lost in it. I’m not a zombie any more. In the Living With Loss workshop I attended, Anne the counsellor talked about grief as a wheel that spins around from life as usual, to loss, shock, chaos and new beginnings. Sometimes the wheel spins forward, sometimes backward, and we're always trying to get traction before the next loss sends us round again.

The phone rang on Carlotta’s desk. It was a young woman whose mother-in-law recently found out she had a brain tumour. She was very sick. The daughter-in-law didn’t know what to do.

Carlotta listened. She made understanding noises. She didn’t rush the caller. Finally she said, “This must be terrible for your mother-in-law, and it must also be so hard on you. Sometimes we forget about the caregivers.”

What was it like to answer calls like that, to never know who would walk through your door, dying, or grieving, or both? What was it like to have to be totally present for someone you didn’t know?

I walked quietly to the door, and left Carlotta to her work.

“We are part of a worldwide community of loss,” writes pioneering grief counsellor Stephen Levine in one of the books I borrowed from the Hospice library. “If that unattended sorrow made a sound, the atmosphere would be humming all the time.” They weren’t pressuring me to get involved, but I think Carlotta and Cathy could tell I wanted to give something back. That’s what happens when you step into the white and green house on Jarvis Street, with the painted sunflowers out front. You’re never the same. You start to talk about death the same way those five ladies do. I know I have. Sometimes you have to ask me to stop.

By Mitch Miyagawa
Photography by Cathie Archbould.

This story was first published in Up Here Magazine, October/November 2011, and is reprinted with permission.

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