Alberta Cancer Foundation

Finding The Words To Talk About Death

Illustration by Glenn Harvey.

Knowing you’re going to die means having a lot of conversations. At least, that’s been Calgarian Jeannie Finch’s experience as she grapples with the surreal knowledge that the glioblastoma (GBM), or tumour in her brain, will gradually steal her away within the next two years or so.

She talks with her husband of 40 years, David Finch, about what she’s experiencing. She chats with her daughter — sometimes about dying, sometimes about eyeliner, because that’s easier by comparison. And she chats with her six-year-old grandson, gently mentioning she may not be able to attend his future birthday parties.

“I’m trying to do things that have an eternal aspect to them, and I think relationships are that,” says Jeannie, who was handed her life-limiting cancer diagnosis in June 2018.

“Almost all of my bucket list stuff is people.”

To that end, as a couple, Jeannie and David host a regular gathering at their local neighbourhood pub in Calgary’s northeast, where more talking happens, between friends, colleagues and family.

“One woman called pub night a ‘love fest,’” says David. “We don’t talk about Jeannie’s death, it’s just a place for some people to come and see her.”

Despite dealing with the unthinkable, both David and Jeannie have actions they take that help them cope, beyond conversation. These include smaller things, like keeping the house tidy, reading books on the dying process and reconciliation, and choosing to laugh together. And larger things, like leaning on their community of friends and family for support, and visiting their counsellor, Kathy Bach Paterson.

“In 43 years of knowing each other, there’s been things that we can’t really agree on that [in the past] we’ve just swept under the rug,” says David. “We’ve been able to have those fights in the presence of Kathy and that’s been a gift.”

Bach Paterson is a counsellor with Hospice Calgary. The organization runs two centres of care in Calgary: Rosedale Hospice, which is a 24-hour end-of-life care facility for adults with cancer, and Sage Centre, which offers individual and family counselling services for people living with advanced illness and grief, like the Finches. The latter also provides grief counselling for children, teens and families after any cause of death. Its educational offerings and online resources are for anyone who would like to broaden their understanding of palliative care and grief.

“My goal is to be of service and to be fully present with my clients,” says Bach Paterson, who brings several years of experience working as a nurse in palliative care to her role. “I can’t fix [their situation], but if my presence and my facilitation of conversation might help support [them] in some way, for me, it’s a privilege.”

Conversations with loved ones are important, but they’re not everything, says Jeannie. Practical matters like palliative care options and end-of-life paperwork must also be considered.

In Jeannie’s case, David will help to communicate her wishes once her ability to speak is diminished.

“At times, I really don’t want to be in this situation, but I’m not going to abandon her. I’m not going to run away,” says David. “Death is hard, but also beautiful and full of joy and grace.”

Additional Support

The Sage Centre’s Living with Cancer Program is another service of support. It is a weekly drop-in program for adults with advanced cancer and their caregivers. It runs 50 weeks of the year and features expert speakers on relevant topics, from cancer to end-of-life and everything in between. After a hot-cooked lunch is served, participants enjoy entertainment, such as music, belly dancing, comedy and pet therapy. The program offers peer connections and a strong sense of community.