What is it like to die?
Nobody really knows – not even Eve Joseph, who worked as a counsellor with patients in palliative care for decades and wrote a book about her experiences.
The Canadian author and award-winning poet is coming to Whitehorse on Thursday to read from her book, In the Slender Margin, featured in the Globe & Mail top 100 books of the year, and host a workshop on writing about death.
“I guess what I learned is how much I don’t know,” Joseph said in an interview.
“When you’re around the dying, you’re at the heart of mystery and a kind of grace.”
As a counsellor, Joseph was available for patients to talk about anything they wanted to talk about.
On one occasion, Joseph recalls being asked by a nurse to see a patient who wanted to know what it was like to die.
“So I told him you would come and tell him,” the nurse told Joseph.
“Oh great! I have don’t a clue what to say,” Joseph thought at the time.
When she entered the room, the patient was half-asleep, with a glass of scotch beside him.
“So you’re going to tell me what’s it’s like to die?” he asked.
“No, I don’t know, you have to tell me,” Joseph replied.
For the following two hours, he talked.
As a religious person, he was afraid he hadn’t been as good a man as he wanted to be in his life and that he was going to be judged for that.
That’s exactly what Joseph liked about her job: it was never the same, and there were no pretenses.
“There is nothing superficial, it’s authentic and rewarding,” she said.
Her time was split between the Victoria Hospice and in communities, accompanying people who wanted to die at home.
Despite the true passion she had for her work, it took its toll on her personal life.
“At the end of the work I was sadder than I was now,” she said.
“I had accumulated sadness.”
The fact she was able to work for 20 years in that field is also due to the fact she had found a community in which she could talk about death.
Her husband at the time was of First Nation descent, which brought her close to a culture that deals with dying more openly.
“What really helped me do that work and stay in that job for so long was being involved in a culture that had a language and a belief about what death was,” she said.
It’s something our Western society lacks today.
“As we become a more secular society, we no longer have those things,” she said.
Advances in medicine also contributed to that culture change.
“Now that medicine can keep people alive for longer, people go to hospital to die,” she said.
Elders are sent to retirement homes, instead of staying with the family.
“We’ve lost what held us together and what allowed us to look after our people as they were dying,” she said.
Case in point, the last person people usually encounter are strangers: nurses, doctors and home retirement staff.
Joseph decided to write about her experience after a conversation she had with the late Canadian poet P.K. Page.
“Metaphor is the language of poetry, (but) it’s also the language of dying,” Joseph told her at the time.
“Did you write about it?” asked Page. The question prompted Joseph to write her book.
Even as people get closer to death, metaphors are still used to talk about it, said Joseph, citing people she accompanied.
“Nobody said to me ‘I’m gonna die right now’,” she said.
She recalls being with a dying man, lying in his bed. He told her a taxi had pulled up at his house. It had the wrong address, but he was going anyway.
“He wasn’t making that up, that was the world he was in,” she said.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t through poetry that Joseph was best able to convey her experience.
“One of the real risks of writing about death in poetry is sentimentality,” she said.
“The challenge is taking something that is memory and making it art.”
Through her reading and workshop, Joseph wants to explore loss with the participants.
“I’m not there to supply answers, I’m there to explore with people,” she said.
Joseph has had to deal with her own loss – her brother died in a car accident when she was 11.
She doesn’t have a lot of memories of him, but she does remember how tremendously difficult it was for her mother.
“It was so difficult (that) death came in and settled in,” she said. His story is the backbone of the book, and after the book hit the stands, something truly amazing happened: she rediscovered her brother.
“It was crazy, people I didn’t know came and talked about him,” she said.
“So many pieces of him came back to be,” she said, citing how she found the thesis he had written while he was studying at the university.
Her brother’s death led her to working in palliative care, indirectly.
“It wasn’t until I got to hospice that I realized my brother had led me there,” she said.
Now Joseph works for a Victoria trauma hospital as a social worker, on top of her writing.
The workshop will be the occasion for her to reconnect with Whitehorse – she worked for a summer when she was 19, shifting between the daycare and the Edgewater pub.
The workshop will take place on June 25 at Hospice Yukon, at 409 Jarvis Street. The workshop starts at 5 p.m. and the reading at 7:30 p.m. Registration is required for the workshop. For more information, go to
Contact Pierre Chauvin at