Let’s Talk About Death

In my experience, we don’t like to talk about death. This is understandable given that dying holds a lot of mystery and is something we would like to avoid. It is scary and sad. The grief it brings can catch us by surprise, so much so that we might try to tuck it away. But here’s the thing: death is desperately and devastatingly real. We cannot hide from it. I think there is something very important about sharing our sorrow and creating space to explore it together. While this won’t change the undeniable power of death, it can influence how we view death and the way we live.

I am no stranger to death. I have been with people when they took their last breath. I have identified people in the basement morgues of hospitals. It is not uncommon for me to lead funerals. Rarely would I describe a death as coming at what might be considered an appropriate time. No matter how frequently I see death, I am always struck by how obvious it is that the person is gone. This is true even when I can briefly imagine them getting up, probably because I cannot compute that they won’t.

In Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking, she says “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death.” For me, the days between death and the funeral feel like a liminal space. It’s almost as though the person who has died remains very close, especially in the making of arrangements, sharing the news, and gathering with friends and family. Then the reality of loss settles in.

Today is known as Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter. Jesus is dead, his body placed in a tomb. For those of us who follow Jesus, we believe that by tomorrow this story changes. He will be alive. Because we know this, it is easy to rush to Easter. I find it helpful, however hard it might be, to sit in the grief of this day. In a sense it is another liminal space, where I can reflect on the hopes which linger and the prayers which are yet to be answered. It forces me to consider who I am and what is important, propelling me to live (however much I may stumble) as authentically and faithfully as possible.

My faith tells me that the death we know now is not the end. I cling to this. In the meantime, death continues to be a thing. It would be false to say it does not scare me at all, because though I have been close to it, I still have no idea what it is actually like. What I do know is that death brings grief and mourning, which together are usually described as bereavement, meaning to rob. Death does that- it robs us of what we love, while also providing the opportunity for us to express that love. And love generates love. On this Holy Saturday I am going to think about that.

Death, Grief, and Hearts that Rave On

Back before I was a mother (my daughter is now 17) I worked at Sanctuary, a place that I often refer to as a sibling of The Dale. Sanctuary was formative for me, its fingerprints all over my life in ministry. It was the place that had me committing to community where people who are typically marginalized are instead placed at the core.

Over this Easter weekend Sanctuary had three of its people die, two of whom I knew. This on the heel of multiple other deaths. Over at The Dale we held five memorials from December until just mid-January, almost all of which were on Wednesdays at 1 pm. Near the end of that stretch I almost couldn’t bear the thought of leading another service. Our friends working in Harm Reduction see an astonishing loss of life all the time. Oh death, where is your sting? Well, one of the places is the street.

The sorrow is heavy. The scary thing is that there is very little room for the processing of grief. There is no space for a breath between bereavements. On top of it all is what I would call anticipatory grief, the kind that exists when we come to expect and brace for the next tragedy. I worry for our communities (and myself) in this. In fact, it’s something I think about a lot.

My most recent work in therapy has been largely related to the death of my mother. Without even realizing it, I was living in quiet protest of her being gone. Her absence felt so unreal that I was allowing myself to be numbed by it. Slowly I have been emerging from that, a process that is enabling me to sit in the sadness AND celebrate what an amazing mom I had. Elaine will never not be my mother. This is true too of my dad. Similarly, the friends that I have lost over the years will never stop being important pieces of my life.

Talking about death can be very uncomfortable. It often brings up the reality of our own mortality. It is confusing and, until it happens to us, impossible to understand. My mother taught me a lot about clinging to hope in both life and death. It wasn’t that she lived without any fear of death, it was that she never let it control her. Instead, she readied herself to be free.

I believe that our friends are now free. Do I wish there were still here? Yes. Can I wait for the day that death is put to death? I will, but it can hurry up already. Somehow, I am not devoid of hope, in fact I remain resolute in my belief that light will overcome the darkness. And, I stand in solidarity with Sanctuary and other front-line communities in collective grief and lament.

From the complications of loving you
I think there is no end or return.
No answer, no coming out of it.

Which is the only way to love, isn’t it?
This isn’t a playground, this is
earth, our heaven, for a while.

Therefore I have given precedence
to all my sudden, sullen, dark moods
that hold you in the center of my world.

And I say to my body: grow thinner still.
And I say to my fingers, type me a pretty song,
And I say to my heart: rave on.

-Mary Oliver

A Life That Was Good

My mom died on Monday night. This is the first time since then that I’ve been compelled to write something here. I know that many of you met my mom Elaine on the pages of this blog. She has always, and will continue to be, one of my primary sources of inspiration. She was an incredible woman.

Last Friday night (technically very early Saturday morning), I was woken by a call from my brother Logan. The hospital needed us to know that mom had taken a sudden turn for the worse and we should come. I got dressed and walked to meet Logan, because we amazingly live just one block away from each other on the same street, and just minutes from the hospital. Having received calls such as this before, we could imagine what to expect, and that proved true again: mom had an infection that was causing a high fever, her blood pressure was dangerously low, and she was non-responsive.

Mid-morning Saturday Logan and I spoke with a doctor who advised us that mom had pneumonia and likely an empyema, a serious accumulation of infection that would require more than antibiotics to deal with. Mom however was too weak to manage any invasive procedure, and so we were gently, and very compassionately advised to call together family and close friends.

What ensued over the course of the weekend was what I would describe as beautiful, precious, and deeply sacred. Mom’s grandchildren Cate, Oliver, Harrison and Teagan came, along with Dion and Amanda. My mom’s sisters, brothers-in-law, many nieces and nephews and long-time friends joined us so that we could all be together. We filled mom’s room, flowed out into the hall, and spilled into the nearby sitting room. Hospital staff commented repeatedly at our presence, moved that mom had so many people who loved her. The doctor came to me later saying, “you were right when you said people would come. This is amazing”.

Cate brought her ukulele and sang song after song for her Gran. My cousin Kate sang A Life That’s Good…”at the end of the day, Lord I pray I have a life that’s good. Two arms around me, heaven to ground me. And a family that always calls me home”. Teagan and Roy, the two babies of the family got passed from person to person, offering sweet distraction from the sadness. Joanna was always nearby. We held times of prayer around mom’s bedside, including a late night vigil where we sang songs and hymns. We told stories, laughed, and wept, sometimes all at the same time.

I slept beside my mom on Sunday night. Though she lived in a hospital room, mom managed to make it a home, something I was again struck by as I lay there looking at pictures and her collection of sentimental things. When I woke up in the morning I decided to play mom’s playlist of favourite songs from her iPad. As I listened to the words of the top song, “Hold on, if you need to hold on, you can hold on to me. What ever road you’ve chosen shouldn’t be walked alone. Hold on”, I thought about how she had done just that for so many years. Mom clung to Christ though the road was hard.

Monday evening I decided to go home for a brief break. I ate a bit of food that a friend had generously dropped off and got changed. As I was finishing up, my phone rang. It was my aunt saying death was suddenly close. I ran all the way to the hospital, praying that I would make it. As I got closer, Victoria Day fire works started to shoot off in front of me, and I became even more overwhelmed. I did make it. At approximately 10:25 pm, surrounded by family, mom breathed her last breath. We remained with her for a while, even toasting her with wine served in styrofoam cups (all we had) and eating chips, two things that she loved, and always together.

We had a funeral and burial yesterday. As a group we hovered around her grave for a significant amount of time, her grandchildren and grand-nieces and nephews playing with each other. I kept imagining her sitting there, happily tucked in to her wheelchair with a huge smile on her face. She loved being with her family and so this felt like an appropriate book-end to the last week, one that started and ended together.

Mom, I know you are no longer bound to a bed or wheelchair, a truth that makes me smile. And I can’t believe you are gone. I began to miss you the moment you left. I took the photo below of the view outside your window on Monday. You would have loved the sunset. I know life was hard, but at the end of the day you always thought it was good. I love you, always.




I knew Robert Wilson as Cowboy. I met Cowboy outside of the library at the corner of Queen Street West and Cowan Avenue, where he was hanging out with a crew of people I knew from The Dale drop-in. He finished that first conversation with a certain hand gesture: one where he would wiggle his fingers and bring his arm back to signify that things were “groovy”. From that time on we used it to greet one another hello, though our goodbye would inevitably include a hug.

I learned quickly that Cowboy lived life hard. He was an admitted alcoholic who I got used to seeing inebriated. Drunk or sober, Cowboy could articulate that he was numbing difficult things and wanted to be able to stop. It was not uncommon for him to attend our little Sunday afternoon church service where he would pray aloud for healing. In some of his worst moments he would sit atop the small flight of stairs into the space away from the service, close enough to be safe, far enough to be entrenched in his own thoughts.

Cowboy became a good friend. He would always say, “girl, how ARE you today?” I knew he really wanted to know and would call me out if I didn’t give an honest answer. When I needed to share hard things he would look at me with compassion, nod his head and say, “in the end, in the end, in the end…things will be okay”. Coming from Cowboy, this sentiment was the opposite of trite. I knew that he understood the challenge of life and was pointing to our future hope.

The last time I had a conversation with Cowboy was near the beginning of June after a little memorial service we did for a community member’s father, a man none of us had met. It was a beautiful time, full of love and support for the bereaved. I sang ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ at the request of Cowboy. Afterwards he sang a couple of lines to me, unashamed of the tears that accompanied them. He spoke of how much he loved his friends and family, gave me a hug and left.

That night (I will spare the details of how) Cowboy ended up in hospital, unconscious and on full life support. Upon hearing the news the following day, I went to the hospital and met the family that surrounded him. Over the course of the next month and a half Cowboy was well cared for until his body couldn’t do it anymore. It is hard to believe he is gone.

I think about Cowboy a lot. I miss him. The Dale misses him, as do so many people in Parkdale. My prayer is that in the end, in the end, things have been made right for him. I live in hope that our goodbye is actually a groovy ‘see you later’, finger wiggling and all.

Toronto Star notice: Robert “Cowboy” Wilson Obituary


The Mash-Up of Life

For a whole host of reasons these last few weeks have been challenging. We are experiencing what I can only describe as a wave of illness and death in our community. People are worried, mad and sad. Some, in an effort to numb the pain, are being self-destructive. It is difficult.

After a particularly troubling pastoral visit to the hospital, I found myself at a loss for what to say, do or even think. The awareness that there was nothing I could do to fix anything was palpable. Just that morning I had been in a church surrounded by people singing about God’s grace being enough. I confess that it was hard for me to sing the happy tune. My longing for grace was real, but welling up from a deep, deep place, one marked with despair. I desperately wanted God to show up.

Since then I have been aware that God is indeed showing up. For months we have been praying that one person’s estranged family would take time to visit. They finally did. A friend who has long desired to contribute financially to The Dale (though they already give in many other ways) proudly handed me three dollars in change, everything that was in their pocket. On a Wednesday when I had to be at the hospital leaving Joanna at the drop-in, a community member showed up with breakfast food they had already prepared for everyone. The nurses and doctors caring for our loved ones are kind and compassionate.

I am coming to understand that hard times always intermingle with good times. Our lives are a mash-up of good and bad, challenging and easy, grief and celebration, sorrow and joy. The most brutal things can also expose the most beauty. I still don’t understand the last few weeks. I do see though that grace is weaving its way through it.

Though I Walk Through the Valley

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”

These were the words spoken by a beloved Parkdale friend as we sat side-by-side on his hospital bed this week, both of our eyes dripping with tears.

These were the words I thought on my way to a funeral of another friend.

These were the words I recited again as I was told about and went to visit yet another Parkdale friend who is in critical condition.

I will never get used to the feeling of death drawing near or of its actual arrival. Though it sometimes takes time to sink in, the eventual reality of it is stark and FULL. What I long for is death to be put to death.

Granted, living in this broken world leaves some people eager for the relief that death will provide. Too many people seem to have the odds stacked against them from the very beginning. On Sunday our service was tangibly marked with the lament of people’s pain. A regular cry was, “Hell is here. I’m living it. Where is hope?” To say my heart was heavy is a blatant understatement.

Dwelling in the valley with my friends deepens my longing for the resurrection of life. I desperately want people who know primarily darkness at the hands of others and/or their own, to see life marked with light. I want the same for me, for all of us.

Through a veil of tears I finish the 23rd Psalm: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Goodness and mercy, please come.

“Kiss the World Beautiful”

Last night Dion and I joined friends at a concert. We were introduced to the music of Martyn Joseph many years ago and felt pleased to hear him live. The last song of the evening was “Kiss the World Beautiful”.

I have been thinking of the lyrics as I recall a conversation I had with a longtime friend yesterday at the drop-in who talked about how his desire to stop drinking can’t compete with his need to numb the pain. While I know I can’t, all I want to do is make it better.

I sang the song in my head this morning as I somehow managed to be present while someone died. I’m grateful to have been there, mindful of those who couldn’t be and quite honestly feeling as though I didn’t deserve the opportunity and experience. Gregory “Iggy” Spoon was absolutely surrounded by family and friends as he peacefully breathed his last breath.

Psalm 85 promises that one day “love and faithfulness [will] meet together; righteousness and peace [will] kiss each other”. I wait in hopeful expectation for things to be made right. I also acknowledge the beauty that was born yesterday and today: my friend chose detox and Iggy left this world loved and is now whole. Almost inaudibly i sing:

I want to kiss the world beautiful
I want to kiss the world fine
Shoulder to shoulder, cheek to cheek
That don’t sound much like a crime
I want to kiss the world beautiful
I have no name for this desire
I believe in light, but don’t know what to write
With the darkness drawing near
I want to kiss the world beautiful
Lay down this life I think I would
Give up my shoes and all of my views
Don’t know why just think I should
I want to kiss the world beautiful
Under the weight of all this earth
Sometimes it takes someone else’s life
To make us see what we are worth
I want to kiss the world beautiful
Dream but never fall asleep
Go up to God and say, do you have plans today?
Are you walking down my street?
I want to kiss the world beautiful
And not forget from where we came
There are losers and winners, saints and sinners
I hope we all end up the same
I want to kiss the world beautiful
I want to kiss your lips tonight
Sometimes it’s just more important to love

A Weary Prayer

I’m sitting in a Tim Horton’s in the far east end of the city because I was on to drive Cate and three friends to a choir rehearsal and need to hang out until it’s over. Having conceded that my coffee quotient is in fact up for the day (I won’t tell you how large it actually is) I am drinking peppermint tea, listening to music on my computer and trying to drown out what seems to be a never-ending day.

I feel like a walking mixed bag of emotions. Dion is snow birding for February, a decision that we both came to and I continue to support. Admittedly it is not easy to have him away though. I got a terrible cold this past week that seems to be hanging on by one last thread. The drop-in today was not the smoothest one in history. It’s February which means it is almost March, which means it is getting closer to the anniversary of my Dad’s death.

I suppose I am writing because I find it therapeutic. It’s kind of like how I write lists when things are busy: it helps put things in perspective. While I feel weary, I am also aware of the flip side of all those things I just listed. Dion is skipping a Canadian February winter that always makes him feel terrible, plus Cate and I will join him later in the month for a bit. That last thread of a cold is going to let go, I can feel it. The drop-in is rarely as challenging as it was today and some of the situations that could have spiralled even more, didn’t. And while it completely stinks that my Dad is gone, I know that my grief is different now than it was on March 3rd, 2008.

Joanna texted me a little portion of a prayer today that spoke to my heart: “Lord, when we are weary of the journey, strengthen us by Your Spirit to imagine new heavens and a new earth”. As I sit waiting to pick up Cate, thoughts swirling about everything that is going on, that is my prayer.

Remembering, Undisguised

Death has been touching the PNC community this latter part of the year. It has also been touching other communities we are close to. During this time I have been finding it very helpful to tell stories of the ones we have lost. There is something healing about remembering. And remembering need not be about sanitizing the past; it’s not about only remembering the good. In fact, I would argue that the important thing is to remember the entire person, faults and all. “John” (not his real name, in this case out of respect for his family) was a gregarious guy. He had a big personality and a great laugh. John also lived life pretty hard. He was broken. The truth is, I am broken too.  So are you. We are ALL broken. That is our shared humanity. It is when we acknowledge this that we learn we are not alone.

Once we discover we are not alone, we can go about the business of creating community. It is in the context of community that we can learn we are loved, we are valued, and we are accepted no matter what happened to us in our childhoods or our marriages or on the streets. We are accepted whether we consume alcohol, drugs or too much food. If we begin to get this, then it becomes easier to lean on one another, enabling us to begin taking even the baby-est of steps toward healing and wholeness.

The good news is that we are invited to come as we are. God invites us to show up in all our brokenness and receive His full grace and mercy. We are not required to have it all together, in fact it is precisely when we realize we do not have it all together that we can fully experience the presence of God in our lives. In my own darkest moments I have met God. I don’t know why He seemingly didn’t show up until I was at the end of myself.  Or maybe, it wasn’t that He didn’t show up, it’s that I was getting in the way. All of my own junk was blocking the doorway. I’m not writing this claiming to have all the answers; I am here to attest to the power of love and forgiveness in my own life.

God has spoken His love to me through my community in Parkdale. I see God in the faces of the people. I saw God in John. When PNC had to leave our building at the beginning of the summer it was the people who made me believe we could keep going without it. On the day we had to be out of the basement I still had no way to move our industrial fridge and freezer (some of the only things we still count as belongings). A mover wanted over $600 to move them one block to the building we are in right now. I was stressed. Then along came four guys who lifted those suckers up a flight of stairs, stuck them on dollies and wheeled them to the new space. One of them was John. John helped without a second thought.

Now John is gone. I know for me John’s death has stirred up the grief associated with people we have already said goodbye to. Death does that. It also reminds us of our own mortality. Let us think too of the ultimate hope that we have. Our hope is that God met John somewhere along the way and is loving him into a life free of pain and guilt and loneliness.  Our hope is that He is doing that with every single one of us.