One thing is guaranteed whenever I have a conversation with Kathleen Horsdal. Whether we’re talking about books, a musical event that may or may not involve her husband Valdy or her decades of experience as a hospice volunteer, I know there will be laughter.
Horsdal has a silly, wicked sense of humour and her radar for life’s blips of irony is keen. She can mimic almost anyone and loves to make fun of herself.
I am definitely booking her to help me leave this planet with a smile on my face, if it turns out I have some time to plan the ultimate exit. I also want to help her set up the Salt Spring Rock ‘n’ Roll Rest Home we joked about in a recent interview.
“One of my quotes about hospice is that ‘it’s not grim business,’” she said that day. “And it’s honestly not grim business. I would say that being with people who are on that part of the journey is more about life than it is about death.”
Some people have told Horsdal that they and their families have “never felt more alive” than at the end of a lifetime, or that they had never had an opportunity to talk to loved ones with such depth and meaning.
“It’s a really incredible time,” she said.
Hospice volunteers help “normalize” the process of dying and make it as pleasant as possible for all concerned.
They don’t arrive with how-to manuals tucked under their arms or a checklist of procedures to be followed.
“There are no right things to do and no wrong things to do . . . it will unfold exactly as it should,” said Horsdal.
One of the many things she has observed after 30 years as a Salt Spring Hospice volunteer is that “People tend to die the way they have lived.” Just as each lifetime is unique, so is the end of each person’s life.
Training new volunteers is one of Horsdal’s favourite parts of hospice involvement.
“Something about these people is calling them to this work,” she notes.
“It boils down to love. I think a lot of volunteers are participating in an act of love, and that is where the quality comes from. When you experience it it transforms you.”
Two characteristics of hospice volunteers that make them invaluable are their ability to listen deeply and the fact they have no “agenda” or attachment to the process.
The extensive Salt Spring Hospice training teaches volunteers how to listen with quiet attention in full presence.
“What a gift that is, giving someone our present-moment full focus in listening deeply to their story,” said Horsdal. “We don’t often experience that in our busy daily lives, the gift of ‘being truly heard.’”
At times, hospice volunteers are simply “there,” sitting next to the dying person so that they are not alone.
Some Salt Spring Hospice volunteers in fact relish the quietest middle-of-the-night shifts. One individual told Horsdal “it was the most peaceful, amazing thing he has ever done in his whole life.”
Horsdal’s academic background is in psychology. She did her thesis on the counselling of the dying, reviewing the available literature of the time. It was therefore a natural step to join the Bessie Dane Foundation and Hospice, which was formed in 1984 and named in honour of a Fulford-area nurse who was legendary for her caring of sick and dying islanders beginning in the 1950s and up until her death in 1984.
But Horsdal’s comfort with end-of-life issues originated on a farm in Ilderton, Ont., outside of London, where she grew up with her seven brothers and sisters. Animals were always dying on the farm, of course.
Another significant factor was her grandmother, who Horsdal was very close to. When she was diagnosed with brain cancer, the family kept her comfortable at home for as long as possible, letting her enjoy a view of the garden and the daily companionship of family members.
She recalls how even after her grandmother was hospitalized she lived much longer than expected. Horsdal speculates that was because the wedding day for a grandchild named Lana was coming up, and she wanted to see her in her wedding dress. Horsdal, as a bridesmaid, and her cousin Lana made a special trip to the hospital on the big day. Grandma died two days later.
“She was damn well going to see that.”
Horsdal has since experienced countless special moments at the end of people’s lives, and been so impressed with the strength and dignity of the human spirit.
She has also been involved in the “political” side of things, such as the successful push to get more formal recognition for hospice services from the provincial government.
“We’ve come a long way from just being on the end of a phone and meeting in each other’s houses.”
Horsdal’s contributions to palliative care on Salt Spring and province wide have been recognized by the B.C. Hospice and Palliative Care Association when she was a “volunteer of the year” nominee.
She was also recognized for her 30 years of Salt Spring Hospice service at the organization’s AGM on April 27, where you can be assured there was laughter.
In addition to providing free comfort, care and support to people suffering a life-threatening illness and their families, Salt Spring Hospice offers the following services:
• Grief support for families, either one-on-one or through grief support group programs.
• Mintos Program. Volunteers visit people in Lady Minto Hospital on a casual basis.
• Advance Care Plan assistance.
• Lending library.
• Public education programs.
Salt Spring Hospice can be reached at 250-537-2770 or email@example.com.
Christy Linder is the organization’s executive director. Rob Lowrie is the office administrator.
Donations to the registered non-profit charity are always gratefully received.
May is Hospice Month in B.C. and Salt Spring Hospice has partnered with the Salt Spring library for an “End of the Reel” Wednesday night film series.