‘Befriending death’ at the ‘death café

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Ministering at the end of life

February 7, 2017 | Web First
Dave Rogalsky, Eastern Canada Correspondent

Michelle O’Rourke never expected that within months of having a lead role in designing and building the 10-bed Chatham-Kent Hospice, which opened in April 2016, that she would be moving her own father into the hospice on Fathers’ Day.

O’Rourke, a registered nurse and the integrated program coordinator for both the hospice and the palliative care and oncology departments at the Chatham-Kent Health Alliance, was the keynote speaker at Mennonite Church Eastern Canada’s annual seminar for pastors, chaplains and congregational leaders, held Jan. 21, 2017, at Steinmann Mennonite Church in Baden.

Surrounded by simple and poignant worship of read words, songs and images from the cradle to the grave prepared by Ingrid Loepp-Thiessen, O’Rourke noted that Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen believed that people belong to God in eternity before birth and again after death. “Life is just an interruption of eternity, just a little opportunity for a few years to say, ‘I love you, too,’” he said.

O’Rourke’s teaching centred on facing death as a normal phase of life that everyone will pass through. “Palliative care is not about dying,” she said. “It is about living” to the end. If one has the time, then “dying well” includes “coming to terms with the diagnosis” and all that entails.

With legislation allowing for medical assistance in dying (MAID), she addressed the need for more palliative and hospice care, pain control and helping the patient live until the end. She told stories of beer fridges in hospice rooms, weddings within hours of death, of hobbies continued, and of lives that stretched out longer than expected, allowing for good work to be done in the work of dying.

Workshops in the afternoon included “Medical assistance in dying” (MAID) facilitated by Steven Janzen, a psycho-social spiritual care coordinator of the Central West Local Health Integration Network, and a taste of a “Death Café” facilitated by Matthew Bailey-Dick, coordinator of the Anabaptist Learning Workshop. This movement (deathcafe.com) began in 2004 in Switzerland, and involves complete strangers coming together for the sole purpose of talking about death and dying while eating cake.

Some consternation was expressed by participants in the MAID seminar. Although Janzen noted that he would be coming to the subject from his multi-faith position as a spiritual care coordinator and not from his Christian faith position, some thought that his nuanced discussion of doctor-assisted death meant a tacit approval of it. But his balanced approach spoke of the reasons people choose assisted death, the damage it has done to some doctors who thought they were okay with it, and the fact that many who apply for it never carry it out, even those who have obtained the necessary drugs.

See also:
The right to die and the art of suffering
Loving life, befriending death

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