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Her Best Friend’s Wake

July 5th, Monday. I was finishing work at the office when a text came from iris*. She just got a call from Dr. J about her best friend, Neil. 

Her text message said: “Neil decided that the event will be tomorrow at 4 pm at the hospice.” 

I texted back: “Holy schmoly, iris! You thought it would come quickly once he decided, and here we are. Big hug to you. Call me when you’re able. Even if it’s late.”

The inconspicuous word “event” that iris referred to is her best friend Neil’s medically-assisted death. 

Neil’s first day at the hospice

Early this year, Neil was diagnosed with lung cancer. This was a big shock to all. He wasn’t a smoker. The chemotherapy didn’t work for him. His health has been declining rapidly in the past two months. 

At 81, Neil thought that he had lived a good life and felt fortunate with the outcomes of his life before his diagnosis. He didn’t feel a sense of being cut off in the prime of life with goals still to achieve. 

Ever the pragmatist, he applied for Medical Assistance in Dying. (Since Neil’s death was reasonably foreseeable, the waiting period was waived.) He has met all the requirements and wanted the procedure the next day.

Neil and iris called each other “KS” – shorthand for Kindred Spirit. He was a dear friend to iris and Richard, her better half. Neil was “adopted” lolo (grandfather) when their daughter, Malaya, was born. Neil and Malaya shared a special bond. 

Richard (partner of iris), Neil and Malaya

Since Neil’s family members lived far, it was natural for iris to accompany Neil in his end-of-life journey. During the meetings with his doctors, she was there. She talked with community nurses and helped him find a hospice that he would like. 

It also felt natural for iris’ family to hold a wake for Neil at their home. Emily and I guided iris and another friend in washing and anointing part of Neil’s body with lavender oil. We packed some ice gels on Neil’s body to keep him cool and slow down the decomposition process. 

A cozy blanket covered the table we laid the body on. A soft, sheer, beautiful fabric covered most of Neil’s body. Iris placed the “hug” made by Malaya before Neil’s “event” at the hospice. 

The brown fabric with part of an arm is the “hug”
that iris and Malaya made.

Neil’s son and sister from Vancouver Island were there. Mindful of the health guidelines, select friends took turns in paying their respects. 

There were flowers, stories, tears and laughter. There was tenderness and grief and love. 

A loving sister tends to her brother.

Earlier on Tuesday, I brought an eco pine cremation tray to Vancouver Cohousing, where iris and her family live. Those who were at the wake wrote messages for Neil. Neighbours, both the young ones and the young once, offered loving notes and drawings, too. Many of the residents in the cohousing complex were familiar with Neil, who often visited iris’ home.

Messages of love in words and images

The next day, Wednesday at noon, Emily and I came back to bring Neil’s body to a temporary shelter before the cremation on Friday. We shrouded the body before transferring it to the cremation tray. 

“Do you want to put something with Neil, iris?” I asked. Iris thought for a moment, ran back inside her apartment and came back with some flowers. She arranged the flowers around his body, kissed his forehead and said, “Bye, ks Neil.”

From right: Emily, Richard (iris’ partner) and me

After we’ve transferred the body to the back of the van in the parkade, Emily and I started to go back upstairs to get the rest of our things. I looked back and noticed iris just standing by the van. 

She hesitated for a second, then said: “Take my key and use it. I’ll stay here and guard Neil.” Then she added jokingly: “He’s all packed and ready to go. I don’t want anyone whisking him away now.” 

Iris cackled as she sat crossed-legged at the back of the van, accompanying her best friend. 

One quality that both Neil and iris shared was their sense of humour which ran the gamut from the dry and black to the pun-tastic, from the prurient to the scatological.

If you are interested to learn more about family-led funerals and vigils like the story above, visit this page. Please feel free to also contact us. Email us [email protected] or call us at 604-324-8285.

If you’d like to know more about Medical Assistance in Dying, these two websites are great starting points:

* My friend, iris, is also Koru’s Community Engagement Coordinator. Curious about iris? You can check out Koru’s Team here.

This is the fourth in the “Ngaio’s Stories” series.

With close to 20 years of experience, there is very little Ngaio Davis, KORU founder and managing director, hasn’t seen or dealt with around diverse mourning rituals, family dynamics or unusual circumstances. Ngaio shares her stories to offer you a glimpse of her own life and her role as a funeral director.

Photo credits: iris

Ngaio’s photo: Jessica Jacobsen Photography

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