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Tag Archives: dying with assistance

The Unknown Companion

JanieBrownby Janie Brown, RN, MSN, MA (Psych.) Executive Director Callanish Society, Clinical Nurse Specialist: Oncology

 

“There is a presence who walks the road of life with you. This presence accompanies your every moment. It shadows your every thought and feeling. On your own, or with others, it is always there with you. When you were born it came out of the womb with you, but with the excitement at your arrival, nobody noticed it. Though this presence surrounds you, you may still be blind to its companionship. The name of this presence is death.”

(From: Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’Donohue, p. 199)

 

For many years, I have been intrigued by this passage by John O’Donohue. I find it comforting to think that life and death are deeply entwined with one another, surrounding me, and inside me. I have used the passage frequently as a prompt for writing, with people who are interested in exploring their personal relationship with their own deaths.

 

In January 2017, the Callanish team was invited to lead a workshop for forty-five people at Commonweal in Bolinas, California, (www.commonweal.org), the home of the Cancer Help Program under the leadership of Michael Lerner. The topic for exploration was for each of us to more deeply understand our lifelong companionship with death. The first part of the exploration was to write a letter to death.

 

Dear Death….this is what I want to say to you….Dear Death….this is how I feel about you…Dear Death…this is what I have held against you……Dear Death.

 

Participants were encouraged to write freely without pause.

 

Terri Mason who attended a cancer retreat at Commonweal after she was diagnosed with cancer ten years ago came to our death and dying workshop in January. She told me that she has been afraid of death since she was a young child.

 

I was deeply touched by the intimacy in the ‘Dear Death’ letter that Terri wrote and then read aloud to the group, and I asked her if I could share her writing in my blog. She told me that during the writing process she had struggled to articulate what she wanted to write in her letter to death, until a voice inside her told her that death wanted to write the letter to her. This is what she wrote:

 

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Janie Brown is the Executive Director of the Callanish Society, a nonprofit organization she co-founded in 1995 for people who are irrevocably changed by cancer, and who want to heal, whether it be into life, or death. She is currently working on her first book.

 


 

 

Dying with Assistance, Part 2

JanieBrownby Janie Brown, RN, MSN, MA (Psych.) Executive Director Callanish Society, Clinical Nurse Specialist: Oncology

As a child, I could always tell which adults genuinely liked children, and which ones just put up with us. I knew by the tone of their voices and how long they waited for my reply to their questions. Sometimes they rushed in and answered the question themselves.

Grandpa George liked us four grandkids. He read us Russian fairytales about the mean old Tsars in their golden palaces, conquering faraway lands and marrying beautiful princesses. He strictly rationed his Callard and Bowser toffees to one a day, and never forgot. We needed a lot of courage to creep into the living room early in the morning, and stand on tiptoes to open the faded Quality Street tin high on the mantelpiece, to steal one more. I was terrified he would find out and give us a prickly tickle with his bushy white beard. At breakfast, he would open the glass patio door and let the robins hop around and eat crumbs off the carpet. He was soft and scary all at the same time.

My grandfather, George Hunter, was a biochemistry professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and Mary Wylie, my grandmother, was one of the first female physicians to graduate from Glasgow University at the end of the First World War. They were Fabians, armchair socialists, when they lived in Scotland before emigrating to Canada. In Edmonton, George became an active member of the Communist Party of Canada and in 1949, during McCarthyism, he was fired from the university for using his professorial role as a platform for political rhetoric. He has been cited in several books on communism in Canada as a victim ofacademic mobbing. In many universities during the late forties and early fifties professors were forced out of tenured jobs for their political leanings. The family moved back to the UK under a blanket of shame, relying on George’s strength of character to find its dignity again.

I learned the full story of my grandfather’s death in my twenties when I asked my mother how he had died…… Read More


 

 

Janie Brown is the Executive Director of the Callanish Society, a nonprofit organization she co-founded in 1995 for people who are irrevocably changed by cancer, and who want to heal, whether it be into life, or death. She is currently working on her first book.

 


 

 

Dying with Assistance

JanieBrownby Janie Brown, RN, MSN, MA (Psych.) Executive Director Callanish Society, Clinical Nurse Specialist: Oncology

 

Dr. Shona MacKenzie took a deep breath before she entered Bill’s bedroom. She had met the family just five days earlier and had found herself waking up each night since, worrying about them. This was her second visit to see Bill at home.

The diagnosis of ALS (a fatal progressive neuromuscular illness, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) struck Bill three years before he planned to retire from the company he founded right out of high school. His daughter Elizabeth had joined him in the business after doing her MBA, and the family business succession plan had been well underway.

Bill’s disease had progressed rapidly over eighteen months and by the time the hospice home care team was consulted, he was almost completely paralyzed and had chosen not to be artificially fed or ventilated.  His swallowing reflex was weak and his affected vocal cords reduced his voice to a whisper.

“Good morning Bill,” Shona said, in a cheerier voice than she had intended. Anxiety had a way of lifting up her voice.

“There’s no point dragging this out, Dr. MacKenzie. I want to die,” Bill whispered, holding the hospice doctor’s gaze with a command that required an immediate response. Before Shona had the chance to respond, Bill’s daughter Elizabeth jumped out of the armchair next to the bed and leaned over the bedrail.  “I’m not ready, Dad. I need you here. I’ve too many questions still about the business.” Her voice was tinged in panic.

Shona leaned in close from the opposite side of the bed. “You are dying, Bill, and because you are not eating or drinking any more, it won’t be long—likely a week or two at the most.”

“That’s too long. I’ve had enough. Give me something to take me out of this misery. Please,” Bill pleaded.

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Janie Brown is the Executive Director of the Callanish Society, a nonprofit organization she co-founded in 1995 for people who are irrevocably changed by cancer, and who want to heal, whether it be into life, or death. She is currently working on her first book.