By Leighann Chalykoff
Karen LaPrairie meets people in the last few days of their lives.
As a three-year veteran volunteer for Hospice Yukon, LaPrairie sits bedside with the dying.
Depending on the request, she’ll hold a hand, read a story or talk with the person, but it’s most important just to be there, says LaPrairie.
“Even if they’re sleeping or in a coma it’s just important be present,” she says.
“By that point, it’s often a surprisingly peaceful experience for the person, or it seems to be.”
Around the time her family’s Siberian husky died, LaPrairie put her name in to volunteer.
It was a Saturday and LaPrairie and her two children spent the day at home trying to make Mathilda as comfortable as they could.
“I felt so privileged to be there for the pup, but also to have my kids there to normalize the dying process and be able to say: wow, that was a good death, that’s how you want to die — surrounded by people who love you.”
The experience brought her family together and opened the door to discuss death with her son and daughter.
“I guess I thought about death a lot at that time and I realized so many people are afraid of dying and, for whatever reason, I was in a place where I wasn’t, although I had been when I was younger,” said LaPrairie.
“I’ve had some loss in my life for sure, I think every Hospice volunteer has had a significant loss.”
At the time her dog died, she was also training in healing touch — a therapy that uses the hands to clear, energize and balance a person’s energy field and create a space for healing or deep relaxation.
She’s part of a trained group in Whitehorse who give healing touch treatments by request — sometimes in the hospital, sometimes at Macaulay Lodge or in peoples’ homes.
“I knew people benefited from healing touch; I’d been able to offer it to people, some of whom were facing death,” says LaPrairie.
All of these things led her to join Hospice about three years ago.
And last week, she was named the organization’s volunteer of the year.
Hospice gets on-going requests for vigiling — some from people with illnesses, some from family members and some from the hospital.
So LaPrairie and about 30 other volunteers trade off — each sitting one- or two-hour bedside shifts.
“Some people will express a desire to be read to, to have their hand held, to just have someone there with them. Some have requested healing touch.”
It’s a job some see as difficult and others shy away from, but LaPrairie sees it as a privilege.
“After I’ve vigiled with someone or offered healing touch, often I leave feeling full,” she says. “If we didn’t get something out of it, we wouldn’t volunteer.”
On top of the bedside sitting, LaPrairie co-ordinates volunteers, does administrative duties and promotion for the Lights of Life, a Hospice campaign that encourages Yukoners to remember the loved ones they’ve lost.
For the first time, last December, LaPrairie visited the young offenders facility to tell the residents about the campaign.
“It’s a tough time of year to be incarcerated,” she says.
She offered the young men the chance to remember loved ones — be it a parent or a pet — and decorate a Christmas tree with notes or remembrances.
“People write all kinds of things, like a little note saying: ‘Here it is, Christmas, and I’m missing you’ — lots of little endearments,” says LaPrairie.
Hospice Yukon opened its doors to the community 17 years ago.
Today it boasts five part-time paid staff and a raft of nearly 70 volunteers — some vigil with clients and others serve on other projects.
Volunteers go through a screening and about 30 hours of workshops and preparation, then they’ll buddy with an experienced volunteer before they begin working with clients.
May 1 to 7 is National Hospice Palliative Care Week. This year’s theme, My living, My Dying: Informed, Involved And In Charge … Right To The End, captures the pressing need for Canadians to discuss their end-of-life wishes with their loved ones, friends, family and doctor, says Trish Eccles, Hospice Yukon project co-ordinator.
The organization, located at 409 Jarvis Street, maintains a library with books, videos and cassettes about dying and grieving. It’s open Monday to Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.