Dying and the Medicine of Healing Relationships

by , , | Jul 07, 2017

Can we heal the dying?

How to heal the dying was a question that weaved through many sessions at the recent BC Hospice and Palliative Care Association (BCHPCA) Conference that Michelle and I attended.

The conference shined a light on the incredible work that so many people do as their vocation, as volunteers, and as family caregivers. Elder Shane Point, a respected Musqueam community member, ceremonial traditional speaker and cultural educator, set the tone in his opening welcome by acknowledging that human beings are all medicine for each other. While that is the end point and meta truth of the matter, he went on to say that people active in this field, extend their love and compassion beyond their everyday intimate circles to touch and be touched by the very personal experience of dying.

Extending the Circle of Compassion

The theme of the conference was “Extending the Circle of Compassion” and one of the many highlights was the keynote address by Michelle O’Rourke, Registered Nurse, Author and Program Coordinator for the Chatham-Kent Hospice and the Oncology and Palliative Care Programs, Chatham-Kent Health Alliance, Ontario. She conveyed the importance of being a “care partner” rather than a “caregiver” and encouraged us to meet others in their pain before journeying together towards their healing and wholeness.

Her presentation included a pair-sharing exercise. I shared with a partner about when my father was dying from prostate cancer. In the last few months of his life, he didn’t talk much. I remember one afternoon sitting at his bedside and just holding his hand in silence for three hours. I tried to let go a few times, thinking he must be sleeping, but he held tightly each time and I was happy to stay. Those silent, undistracted hours together were probably the most focussed, present time we ever shared.

We don’t always need special skills to be a healer. We just need to “be” with each other.

My relationship with my father was not always easy. I grew up feeling undervalued by this man I adored. Over the years he reminded me both outrightly and subtly that he wished he had more sons. As a result, I decided at an early age that I would not love him. When I sat with my vulnerable dad that afternoon, I softened into the act of fully letting go and being the love I always wanted to get and always wanted to give. I’ll never know what impact those three hours had on him, but almost fifteen years later, I hold onto that memory as a beacon of what true love feels like.

Healing is being the love you want to get and the love you want to give.

Just like Michelle Pante wrote in To Serve and Be Served, healing and transformation are available to all parties. Michelle O’Rourke reminded us that the word “care” means to lament, grieve, and experience sorrow with someone else’s pain. She noted that caring is a partnership where one person brings their pain, brokenness and vulnerability to another. Through a relationship of trust we work together towards healing and wholeness.

I loved the quote she shared by Massachusetts-based, Saki Santorelli, Professor of Medicine, Director of the Stress Reduction Clinic, and Executive Director of the Centre for Mindfulness, Health Care and Society, reminding us that, “For too long care has been conceived of as either practitioner-centered or patient-centered. In actuality, the healing relationship has always been a crucible for mutual transformation.”

Healing happens when we treat dying as a natural process and a personal experience.

Michelle O’Rourke also reminded us that dying in our culture is usually seen as a failure rather than a natural process. In reality, however, it’s fundamentally a personal experience—as it was with my dad and I—rather than a set of medical issues to be solved.

What about you?

How have you helped heal the dying, and yourself in the process?


  • My adult daughter and I just spent a week visiting my brother whom is dying and attending an event with two of our remaining siblings to ‘celebrate the life’ of our sister who died nearly a year ago. My slightly older brother, who was lost to us and to himself for many years, is currently happier and more settled than ever before, and he is dying very soon. Our much older sister died last fall after nearly two decades of active dying, having forgotten how to live.

    The visit with my brother was sweet and so fulfilling. He is well cared for by his daughter (who was lost to him as a child) and has his young grandson to liven things up. He worries that this smart and engaging little boy, whom is so like him, will also slip through the cracks, so we talked a lot about how we won’t allow that to happen. We did simple activities like going for coffee and grocery shopping, having a family picnic where we reminisced about evening picnics at the river during our childhoods. My brother and his daughter are consciously living his last days in connection.

    Contrast this to the next family event that had been delayed for 9 months since my sister’s death, which had not been marked by an ritual during that time. The proceedings were marred by alcohol-enhanced fear from a fractured family concerning how grief and truth can be expressed. The delay in the proceedings meant I had not expressed any emotion but disinterest and anger concerning this sister for her behaviour when alive and at the other siblings who use her illness as an excuse for her lifelong record of bullying.

    I look forward to going to my brother’s memorial, as the memory of his life will not be whitewashed. His hardwon reconnection with the parts of his family who not only preach, but practice forgiveness will bring a sweetness to his dying that his daughter and grandson will take into the rest of their lives. I have that in my own life, stemming from a mother who strove to make dying a natural part of my life. Her death 34 years ago has not marred but enhanced who I am. I could not be me had she not died when she did, even though it was way too soon and I still miss her every day.

    My daughter and I talk about death all the time and have made plans around it for us both. She has friends whose parents are dying or have been near death recently and we have close friends who are living with cancer or have have been badly injured. My eldest sister and I are becoming closer as a consequence of these events in the family, which is a sweet by-product of the deep fear that characterized our last visit in the family group. I did not expect this fear to take over the family when the siblings began to die, given the lessons our mother shared. But like all classrooms, the students take from it what they want, and family is no different.

    • Cheri, your post is bursting with love and learning – with LIFE. Thank you so much for sharing it and in doing so, know that you’re making our WILLOW dreams come true. It’s our deep hope that the comments section of our blog posts will facilitate collective transformation.

  • Love the focus on shared transformation between care partners.

  • I was raised by my paternal grandparents in Brooklyn, New York. Unfortunately, although I visited almost annually when I moved to Canada, I was not there when either of them died.

    I have their ashes with me and my hope for my final resting place is to be interred with them. I haven’t decided whether mine is going to be a green burial or cremation. If a green burial, I want their ashes buried with me. If I’m cremated, I want our ashes buried together.

    Grandmother left North Carolina in search of a better life. Granddad, left Borneo with the British Merchant Marines for a better life and jumped ship in New York and stayed. I left New York for Canada in search of a less racist society and stayed. Each of us wound up far away from our places of birth to call somewhere else home. In our final resting place, we will be home as a family together and absorbed back into our Mother Earth.

  • for me, healing came to both myself and my dying mother by allowing myself just to “be” and to be as present as I could, to let go of the need to make things different.
    Be rather than Do”

    • Dear Shane, Thank you for sharing these words of wisdom. What a gift to both of you to grant yourselves permission to just be. As with so many matters around death and dying, this learning is so applicable to our living now, isn’t it?

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