Comox Valley Hospice Society Founder's Story

Shirley Wade-Linton was the catalyst behind the formation of the Comox Valley Hospice Society in 1983 (then called the Valley Hospice Society). In October of 1982, Shirley’s mom died of cancer in Victoria. There was a hospice in Victoria at the time but no room for her mom. It was a grim and painful death.

Shirley returned to Courtenay convinced “we can do better”. She got together with two friends Bob Laval and Gail Pratt to start exploring how to bring hospice palliative care to the Comox Valley. At the time, Shirley was a dietitian at St. Joseph’s hospital and knew doctors and medical staff who had an interest in end of life care.

A small group started meeting monthly in Shirley’s living room. It was a wonderful group of people who practiced meditation and had reflected deeply on their own lives. It was a privilege to be in the room with people oriented toward profound discussion. They consumed books on death and dying by Stephen Levine and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and a children’s book on death by Nancy Reeves.

As they continued meeting in Shirley’s living room, they gathered more and more reading materials. They decided they needed more formal training on working with the dying so they could sit with people who were dying in their homes or the hospital. The purpose of the training was to learn to get out of the way so they could focus on the person who was dying. Group members learned they had to do their own work to do so.

They engaged with Sister Mary Carmen from St. Joseph’s to do that initial training. The first training was through a series of evening workshops. Presenters included a doctor, a nurse and a local undertaker. The training complete, Sister Mary Carmen gave the thumbs up that the team was ready to sit with people as they died.

Shortly after, Shirley started doing workshops on grief and loss. Shirley was well known in the valley for her work on eating disorders and had facilitated workshops both in the community and for teachers and counsellors in the schools.

Shirley was invited to do a 10-week program on grief and loss at Georges P. Vanier high school in Courtenay. Students met for one hour a week. Shirley thought most would be talking about the death of grandparents but that was not the case. One of the students had been in a boating accident. He and his brother were hanging onto an overturned boat and his brother slipped off and drowned. One of the girls had a best friend who had hung herself. Another boy’s mother was dying in hospital.

Shirley just let the students take the conversation where it had to go. During one particularly impactful session, the boy whose mother was dying said he didn’t want to go back to the hospital. The girl whose friend had died by suicide and didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to her friend told the boy to go to his mom and to say goodbye. He did so. His mom died that day.

For Shirley, this group was one of the most profound experiences of her life. Still vivid and meaningful after all these years.

Another situation involved a family that she had been supporting where the dad was dying. Shirley was called by the family in the middle of the night after the man died. The mother and extended family were in a panic about how to tell the kids. Shirley understood that it wasn’t appropriate for her to tell the kids so she made suggestions and provided them with language they could use to talk to the children.

From this experience, Shirley was conscious that being called out and making a visit in the middle of the night crossed a boundary. She needed to put limits on when she would be available.

Another highlight of these early formative years was a trip to Seattle to attend a 3-day workshop put on by Stephen Levine. Not only did that training change how the team approached working with the dying and the bereaved, but it changed Shirley’s approach to her work with people with disordered eating. She learned to be with her clients with more mindfulness and to give them lots of space just to talk. Palliative work and training had a deep impact on her approach to working with her clients.

One of the benefits of working with people at the end of life is that people often become very honest as they near death. To be with people as quietly as possible through to the end is an honour. People die very much how they live.

In addition to the sitting with the dying and facilitating workshops, the group developed resources to help people understand grief and the process of grieving.

The ultimate goal of the group was to have a stand alone hospice in the Comox Valley. They had their eyes on the nuns’ cottage on the St. Joseph’s campus but that was not to be. Having a stand alone hospice building was a long term dream of the group that was never realized.

Shirley stayed intimately involved in the early development of the Society for three years. With a young family and after three intense years, it was time for her to move on. She felt overwhelmed and afraid to quit, worried about whether the work would carry on. She is grateful that others were there to carry on and further develop hospice palliative care in the valley.

Shirley continues to be interested in hospice palliative care and is always happy when she hears about Hospice. What she hears is always good and sometimes personal. A friend of hers whose husband died suddenly and unexpectedly attended a grief group at Comox Valley Hospice that was very helpful.

Shirley sees that palliative care has changed and come a long way since those early days. She had a friend die in early February 2021 after being diagnosed with cancer in November of 2020. In the 80’s there was resistance to thinking in palliative terms. Doctors focused on treating and curing, not on death. And because of that people often died in pain but there has been a dramatic improvement in the approach to and ability to manage pain. With her friend the focus was on palliative care and support. We have come a long way from the 1980’s.