This post is more than one year old and may no longer be relevant. Please view this content with its age in mind.
Yvonne Heath is passionate about life and about the death that inevitably follows it. She translated 27 years of nursing experience into a book – Love Your Life To Death: How to plan and prepare for end of life so you can live fully now – which launched September 16 to a full house at the Active Living Centre in Huntsville. The launch followed filming of a Be My Guest episode with host Peter Jennings.
During her interview with Jennings, Heath stressed the importance of planning for your death, no matter where in your life you are. “The best time to plan for end of life is when you’re young and healthy; the next best time is now,” she said.
She never intended to write a book about death but as she considered what she wanted to do after her nursing career, Heath realized that she could combine something she loved – having deep, meaningful conversations with people – with a topic she was passionate about and Love Your Life To Death was born. The book is punctuated with stories from her career. Stories of people who lived and died well and others who didn’t. She spoke of some of them during her interview with Jennings, including a woman dying of cancer whose doctor hadn’t told her she was dying.
“I was enraged when I found out, actually,” she said. “I called the office and said ‘this woman doesn’t know she’s dying,’ and the nurse said ‘I know. He (the oncologist) isn’t very good at that kind of thing.’” It wasn’t the only time in her career that she encountered a health care professional who was uncomfortable with death.
Heath wants to create compassionate communities and normalize the topic of death and dying in what she views as a death-phobic society in North America. Death used to be a normal part of life, she said, with people dying at home, their bodies laid out in the parlour so that the family and friends could pay their respects. But now, with our elderly family members living in nursing homes or living out their final days in a hospital, we have become so removed from the process that we have become fearful of it.
“We can come together as a community and know that we don’t have to have the answers. We don’t have to be professionals to support people. We can’t fix grief but we can support people through it. So many are afraid to do or say the wrong thing. But all you have to do is just show up and put your heart first.”
Heath also filmed a 10-episode series for TVCOGECO, produced by Jennings, that will air beginning October 9. It features conversations on living and dying well. “I interviewed 17 people (for the series) including a funeral director, a retired police officer and a paramedic – many people who have to deal with death in their careers are ill-prepared for it personally. Everyone is just supposed to know how to do this, but it can creep up on you and professionals get burned out by it. Let’s give them some coping skills and strategies.”
The book includes advice for having ‘The Talk’ – a conversation first with yourself and then with your loved ones about each other’s end-of-life wishes.
“I want people to carve out time in their very busy lives for some introspection. Look at what you believe about death and dying and end of life and the afterlife. Grief is coming in one form or another – either you will have to grieve or someone will have to grieve you – so create a soft landing for yourself.”
It’s not just seniors and their families that Heath hopes to reach. “Isn’t it that much more difficult when young people die? People die at all ages. There has to be an acceptance that everyone is in our lives for however long they are in our lives – at some point you may have to face that your loved ones will die before you. We would love to not think about it, but I was at the flag-raising for childhood cancer awareness this week. One in four of (kids with cancer) won’t make it through their treatment. Preparation and strategies won’t lessen your grief but they will help see you through it.”
Now that the book has launched, Heath is turning her attention to normalizing death and dying, one person at a time. A documentary on how other cultures deal with death and dying may be in the future, as is another book. “So many people have shared their stories with me. I am in awe of all of the people who have moved through their grief. So often we want a quick fix. Grief is hard and all-consuming and as much as it can be excruciating, you never know what awaits on the other side of grief. Your heart may be battered and scarred, but it does heal and someday the memories of your loved ones will make you smile again – maybe not today but someday.”
Be My Guest will air on TVCOGECO on September 17 at 7:30 pm. The Love Your Life To Death book in both hard-copy and ebook formats will be available on Heath’s website of the same name: loveyourlifetodeath.com. Readers are also invited to leave a tribute to a loved one on the site.