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Verna Pickett placed an ornament on the tree at the Fort St. John & District's Celebrate a Life service at the Peace Lutheran Church.

An assembly of Fort St. John residents confronted Thursday what is often in Western society the unmentionable - death.

The service was hosted by a group of people that face death every day: the members of the Fort St. John & District Palliative Care Society.

Held at the Peace Lutheran Church, the ceremony dealt with the often ignored, if not repressed, reality that everyone must deal with death, including one's own.

The non-denominational service was a way for residents to celebrate the lives of people they hold dear, whether alive, dying or already gone.

One of the readings was a sermon by Henry Scott Holland written in 1910. It was titled 'Death is Nothing at All.'

"Death is nothing at all. It doesn't count, I've only entered the next roomWhatever we were to each other, we still areLet my name be the household name that it always was."

After the ceremony, participants filed to the front of the church where there was a tree that they decorated with ornaments in memory of loved ones that have died.

The society was founded 13 years ago in 1997, said one of the founders and current volunteers Pat Albrecht.

Had she known about palliative care when her father got sick she said she would have tried to keep him in his home as long as possible and that is why she helped found the palliative care society here.

Albrecht said that years ago, death wasn't such a foreign and uncomfortable thing.

"Babies were born in the home, grandparents would end up moving in and the children were exposed to death, it was real," said Albrecht.

Now she said elderly people move from their homes, then to condos, then to long-term care facilities and no one has to actually see death.

Volunteers for the society, who range in age from 20 to 80, go through a rigorous training process that forces them first and foremost to look at their own deaths and be comfortable dealing with it.

Albrecht said that it is a rewarding experience for everyone involved and that they get more out of it than they put in.

"It changes you," she said.

She said it gives you a sense of peace and the good feelings from being able to help somebody in a difficult time.

The society cares for around 18 people a year in either their homes or the hospital's two palliative rooms.

Sometimes though, they visit patients in general admission when there aren't enough palliative rooms to go around.

"Dying is a lonely thing," Albrecht said.

She added that often times, people pull away when they find out that someone is dying, even if they are good friends.

When volunteers from the palliative care society spend time with people Albrecht said they take the place of those friends.

They don't foist themselves upon the dying.

"If they want to talk we'll talk, if not then I have a book to read," said Albrecht.

While the group is totally independent in terms of their training and mandate, they are affiliated with the provincial and national palliative care organizations.

What Fort St. John needs most, according to Albrecht, is a hospice separate from the hospital because it creates a totally different environment.

"It's a much quieter, calmer place. There aren't any bells and whistles like there are at the hospital. It's more like a home," said Albrecht.

Instead of focusing on curing, a hospice is a place that concentrates on comfort and caring.

Palliative care's important role in the health system is growing, especially considering that a demographic bulge will push the number of Canadians over the age of 65 to record levels.

Statistics Canada predicts that by the year 2026, 8 million Canadians will be over the age of 65 or 20 per cent of the forecasted population.

Because seniors account for 75 per cent of deaths each year, the sheer fact that their demographic will swell as the baby boomers age guarantees the fact that death will become a more prominent part of Canadian life.

By the year 2036 death statistics will be approximately 450,000 people a year, up from the current rate of 235,000.

Manitoba Liberal Senator Sharon Carstairs has been pushing the federal government to adopt a national palliative healthcare strategy since 1995. The issue was prompted by the case of Sue Rodriguez who in 1993 requested assisted suicide after suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease for years.

A 1994 Supreme Court Case denied her the right to choose her own death.

Before the country ever contemplates the issue of assisted suicide and euthanasia, Carstairs argued that it should first create a comprehensive and nationally consistent palliative care strategy that would address the underlying stress of living with a life-threatening illness.

In the 15 years since Carstairs wrote her report only 15 per cent of Canadians, and 3 per cent of Canadian children have access to a palliative care services.

PHOTO AND ARTICLE COURTESY: Ryan Lux, Alaska Highway News

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