Guest blog post by Katherine Arnup – life coach, speaker, and a retired Carleton University professor. Author of the award-winning book Education for Motherhood, a history of advice for mothers, she has pioneered studies on the diversity of family life. In her latest book, “I don’t have time for this!” A Compassionate Guide to Caring for Your Parents and Yourself, she tackles the last taboo—death itself.
Almost twenty years ago, my sister Carol died of cancer.
She was a gifted Special Education teacher, director of countless school musicals, and my big sister. In January 1997, 19 years after her first encounter with melanoma, her cancer returned with an unstoppable force. As part of a team of friends and family, I cared for her during her final six months: the saddest, most terrifying and most transformative experience of my life.
Shortly before her death, Carol quipped, “You’re going to be an expert at this by the time you’re done with me.”
“Maybe,” I protested, “but I don’t want to learn it from you!”
We both laughed, knowing that, of course, this was precisely what was happening. I had a lot of learning to do because, before my sister got sick, I was more terrified of death than you can imagine.
Caring for my sister as she was dying transformed me.
Four years after her death, I took the volunteer training course at a local residential hospice program. From the moment I entered the hospice, I knew that it was where I belonged. Week after week, I found myself talking to family members, caring for dying people, helping to teach others what my sister had taught me.
I was 47 when my sister died (she was 51). Though often scared that I might not be able to endure the situation, my love for her enabled me to face my own fear of cancer, illness – even death itself. In facing those fears which had both dominated and limited my life, I was able to bring comfort to hospice patients and their families, to friends and relatives facing their parents’ aging. And I was empowered to face my own parents’ final years when that time came.
Throughout my years of caregiving, including 14 years as a hospice volunteer, I have written about my experiences. That work culminated in the publication of my book on caring for our parents and ourselves.
The book provides a roadmap for the journey into aging, illness, and dying that we will all travel—ourselves and the people we love. With stories from my family, my coaching clients, and my years as a hospice volunteer, I encourage people to overcome their fears of aging and loss so they can show up for the challenges in their lives.
We will all go through this in our lives. Everyone has either already lost their parents or is going to at some point in their lives. That’s just a hard fact of life. And of course, each one of us will face our own death.
I want people to know that they’re not alone.
When you are faced with caring for someone you love, you feel as if you’re the only one. It’s a very difficult time, especially if you still have children at home. Hence the title of my book – “I don’t have time for this!” But you don’t have to do it all by yourself. Family members, friends, neighbours, and professionals are all able to ease our load if we are willing to reach out for help.
You can contact Katherine Arnup at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yvonne Heath is a wife, mother to three amazing children and a nurse since 1988. She has worked in ten different hospitals in Ontario, New York, Louisiana and Texas, and has nursed in the emergency room, long term care, medical and surgical units, intensive care in chemotherapy and hospice. Yvonne has witnessed a great deal of suffering, pain and death phobia, and felt it in her own life. She is the author of Love Your Life to Death.
To those who want to live well…and die well.
What if we planned our lives well instead of just going through the motions? What if we planned our end of life—long before a diagnosis, long before we were dying? What if we learned about grief before the grief so that we could be better prepared for it? Imagine…
We have come a long way with palliative care and hospice, but have a long way to go. Many still cling to quantity of life at the expense of quality of life. Over the years, I have had many patients tell me they are ready to die but their families are not ready to let them go.
Death phobia causes excessive suffering for the dying individual and for those who are left behind to pick up the broken pieces. Parents often do not want to expose their children to death, creating death phobic adults in the future. How then, can we build resilience? How can we learn that our broken hearts will heal?
While I love being a nurse, I have always felt I also had another purpose – to help more people than I could reach in my day-to-day work. My mission now is to bring death out of the darkness and into our conversations, to help eliminate excessive suffering when grief and death do arrive.
When we learn to talk about and plan our life and death, something amazing happens. We live more fully and suffer less at the end of our lives. And so do our loved ones.
I am devoted to helping people learn to live well and die well, and to create compassionate communities. It takes a village to care for the ill, the caregiver, the dying and the bereaved. We need to take good care of each other, but we must start with taking care of ourselves.
I have learned from those who have grieved deeply, care for the dying, from patients and those who have a story to share. As an author and speaker, I share these beautiful stories, as well as my own experience.