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30 years of helping Yukoners navigate their grief

Hospice Yukon commemorates its 30th anniversary
“Feelie Hearts” sit on a desktop at Hospice Yukon’s house in Whitehorse on Oct.31. The hearts are made by volunteers and donated to the house for patrons to use or take. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

It’s a Wednesday afternoon at Hospice House on Jarvis Street.

Inside, staff answer questions about the long list of services Hospice Yukon offers, show off the former downtown home that is now Hospice House, and offer up catered snacks in the kitchen.

Minus the catered goodies and the unusually large crowd gathered, things are pretty typical. Staff are readily available to chat with visitors who drop by about how Hospice can offer compassionate support to those nearing the end of life as well as those who are grieving a loss.

“It’s such a warm, kind, welcoming place,” says Mary Sloan, one of the 30 volunteers who help deliver Hospice’s many programs, in an Oct. 30 interview.

On this day Hospice Yukon is hosting an open house to commemorate 30 years of supporting Yukoners at end of life and through their grief.

Much has changed for the organization, but the role of Hospice Yukon in providing support to Yukoners at end of life and in dealing with grief has remained the same, Hospice’s communications coordinator Deb Higgins said in an interview at the open house.

It was back in 1989 Hospice Yukon got its start with one part-time staffer and a handful of volunteers trained by Sandy Baran and Jackie McLaren, who had received funding through the territory’s health investment fund to mentor with Hospice Victoria so that Hospice Yukon could begin.

Following the training, those first volunteers were paired with palliative and bereaved clients to offer support.

As the organization grew so did the programming with 30 volunteers and six (soon to be seven) staff now providing counselling, support groups, workshops, community events and more, Higgins said.

That includes programs like the Living With Loss presentation; walking, journaling and other groups; and the annual Lights of Life ceremony in December to help Yukoners deal with grief.

A crew of eight new volunteers who have gone through the screening process recently started the lengthy training program which includes both individual and group study before they begin shadowing other volunteers and working with clients.

“Volunteers are a huge part of our program,” Higgins said.

Sloan is one of Hospice’s volunteers.

It was in 2006 she was in a performance at the Guild Hall, playing a cancer patient who was at the end of her life.

Shaving her head for the role, Sloan also saw the opportunity to raise money for a worthy cause. She got sponsors for the head shaving and donated the money to Hospice, knowing the organization helps those nearing the end of their life or who are dealing with grief.

What was supposed to be a simple matter of dropping off a cheque for the organization turned into years of involvement which have come to mean so much to her, she said.

“Everyone was so warm and welcoming,” she said.

It was that atmosphere that made her want to volunteer.

There’s many roles a volunteer can have with Hospice Yukon — some help deliver programs, others sit vigil with those in their final days or assist in other ways.

Sloan said she went into the training believing that sitting with those who were dying would not be for her, but wanting to help in other ways.

By the time she finished training, sitting vigil was the role she was ready to take on.

It was a nerve-wracking experience the first couple of times, she acknowledged, adding she soon realized she was providing a presence needed.

Sometimes you’re just there, as a quiet presence for someone in their last days and other times family and friends want to talk.

That experience made her more open to people, Sloan said.

Sloan has moved on to other roles with Hospice — helping with the annual Lights of Life ceremony in early December when the community gathers to remember those who have passed and hang tags on Christmas trees to remember loved ones; and most recently leading Kids Create — Healing A Loss Through Creativity.

“I love working with the kids,” she said.

The afternoon sessions allow children (and their caregivers) to explore a loss through crafts. Children bring pictures of their loved ones, including pets, and create crafts of their choice incorporating the photos. An optional show and tell at the end allows kids to talk about their loved ones and share their memories.

It’s always interesting to see what they create and provide a program that helps them deal with grief in a healthy way, Sloan said.

Memory boxes, candles, bracelets, drawings and other works are among the many creations produced during the sessions.

Some of the kids “really get into it” creating multiple works commemorating their loved ones, Sloan said.

“It’s very low key,” she said, emphasizing the effort to provide an accepting atmosphere where kids can create as they choose.

Sloan said it’s the people involved with Hospice that keep her involved.

“It’s such a warm, kind, welcoming place,” she emphasized again, adding the opportunity to volunteer in various capacities has also been a factor for her in staying with the organization for so long.

Hospice program coordinator Carlie Graef said for many volunteers she’s worked with, it’s the connection to the community that keeps them involved.

There’s a lot who begin volunteering as a way of giving back to their community.

Volunteers are provided with ongoing training opportunities and are encouraged to use the services of Hospice — healing touch sessions, counselling and so on — as needed to help them process their own experiences.

While Hospice Yukon officials commemorate a successful first 30 years, they are also looking to the future with goals of expanding their services further to better serve communities beyond Whitehorse and continuing to adapt to meet Yukoners’ needs.

Executive director Stacey Jones said there’s also a discussion to happen with the Yukon government over the role Hospice may have in the palliative care unit at the Whistle Bend Place continuing care facility.

The unit is not set to open until 2020 and the conversation about Hospice’s role has yet to happen, she said, but Hospice is continuing to deliver its services to residents at Whistle Bend Place as it does throughout the greater community.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at

Mary Sloan, a Hospice House volunteer, works in one of the house’s private rooms in Whitehorse on Oct. 31. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Hospice Yukon’s front yard on Jarvis Street in Whitehorse on Oct. 31. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Hospice Yukon’s front yard healing garden in Whitehorse on Oct. 31. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Stephanie Waddell

About the Author: Stephanie Waddell

I joined Black Press in 2019 as a reporter for the Yukon News, becoming editor in February 2023.
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