In a room just off Barnet Highway we talk about kindness amid grief and a Christmas gala amid a pandemic. The conversation is pleasant, cheerful even – and then someone states the obvious.

“Guess what?” Jaimie Jeon asks.

Without leaving much time for a response, the Crossroads Hospice special events coordinator answers her own question.

“You’re going to die.”

Events coordinator Jaimie Jeon. photo Jeremy Shepherd

It’s not exactly a joke even though Jeon, like everyone at the hospice society, is funny. It’s not a threat either, merely a statement of fact. Something that can’t be escaped. However, it can be acted upon.

This Saturday, Crossroads Hospice Society is holding a virtual fundraising gala called: I’ll Be Home for Christmas…Again?

It’s one of the events that drives the care they provide. And for the second year in a row they’re planning to do it virtually as COVID-19 – as it has with so many things – upended operations at Crossroads.

Janice: ‘Some kind of new normal’

It was sometime after the lockdowns but before the vaccines that Janice Boyle decided to make a switch.

After decades working in poverty reduction Boyle opted to do something a little different and accepted a job as executive director of Crossroads Hospice Society.

“I’m not sure quite what possessed me,” she says with a grin.

It was her third day on the job that she attended her first board meeting. That’s where she got a glimpse of the hole the society was falling into.

The Crossroads Thrift Store had been closed for three months. Both their Christmas gala and their Hike for Hospice fundraisers needed to become virtual.

“We had no experience at virtual events,” Boyle notes. “All of our traditional ways of raising revenue had disappeared on us.”

All told, the projection was for a deficit ranging from $200,000 to $250,000.

“It’s a huge portion of our budget so it was scary,” Boyle says.

Besides their newly virtual events the society tried to bolster the thrift store with online sales and Jeon, working off her iPhone, became special events manager/in-house videographer.

But amid the push to upgrade and modernize, their bricks and mortar store started generating record sales and so, by the end of the year, they were just shy of break even.

But while they solved one problem, another was burgeoning.

“And then in our hospice . . . that was a bit of a nightmare, to be honest,” Boyle says.

Grief in the age of social distancing

In previous years, the society’s Christmas fundraiser was a jam-packed affair. photo supplied

Many of the things that make the hospice special: musicians, flower delivery, the small comforts for patients – are the work of volunteers.

“The moment you get out of the elevator there’s that warmth that you feel,” Jeon notes.

But – due to the risk of COVID-19 transmission – the volunteers weren’t allowed into hospice. Cooks and cleaners, some of whom worked at multiple institutions, were also restricted.

“All of a sudden we had huge staffing issues,” Boyle says, recalling the period when administrators and managers were left to handle the cooking, cleaning, serving and laundry.

Before the pandemic, the hospice was a place where patients with a week to live would end up staying months, Jeon says.

During the pandemic, those stays got shorter.

“People were putting off coming to hospice as long as possible,” Boyle says.

Before COVID-19, family members would get two key fobs and visit their loved ones any time of night or day. Now visits are restricted to certain hours and limited to two people at a time.

The families have been understanding, Jeon and Boyle say. Still, it’s heartbreaking, Jeon says.

“We’re doing the best that we can but it’s just not the same,” Jeon says.

They used to offer specialty meals on short notice or arrange wine tastings or trips to the movies. And they still can, to an extent. But more often the gatherings are smaller, re-creations of the desired experience.

It’s been a hard period, Boyle acknowledges.

“We kind of ran in a survival mode until – we’re still a little bit in it,” she notes. “We’re all looking forward to when there’s some kind of new normal.”

Amelie: ‘We suck’

There were customs and rituals. Little things around death that allowed, if not comfort, then at least something comprehensible. And then, the pandemic hit.

“All those rituals that we developed over the years to try to make us honour the person just went out the window,” explains adult bereavement services coordinator Amelie Lambert. “We went 150 years back in terms of communication in healthcare.”

Besides being forced to absent yourself from a loved one’s bedside, there was also the loss of certain traditions, Lambert notes, referring to COVID patients who were cremated in hospital gowns.

Between the pandemic and the opioid crisis, Lambert has seen loss. She’s also seen how we deal with that loss and she seems to feel we could possibly be slightly better.

“We suck at grieving,” she says. “I think we don’t talk about it.”

We suffer from an inclination to fix things or to alter our focus to something more positive. But part of grieving is facing our limitations.

“I cannot make you feel better,” Lambert says, her eyes wide. “There is nothing I can do except holding this space. . . . That is the thing with emotions: they need to be felt, to be acknowledged in order to be processed.”

There’s a temptation – and sometimes even an obligation – to confine your grieving to the funeral or to the three-to-five business days allocated to bereavement. But the buy now/pay later approach to grieving can result in “tsunami waves” of depression, anxiety and sudden physical aches in a few years time, Lambert says.

“For some cultures, showing emotion and showing that you’re absolutely broken is a sign of weakness,” she says. “The thing is, when you allow yourself to feel that way, you’re so friggin’ strong because you’re not shoving it behind a door. You’re not shelving it somewhere.”

Brittany: the longest conversation

Bereavement services coordinators Amelie Lambert and Brittany Borean. photo Jeremy Shepherd

Once the eulogy’s been delivered there’s sometimes a sense that there’s nothing more to say about the departed or about how much we miss them.

You’re still talking about that?

“Yeah, we’re still talking about that,” Brittany Borean responds. “We’re going to talk about it for the rest of your life. You’re always going to miss your mom. It’s not like you’re done with that.”

Borean, the society’s youth and young adults bereavement service coordinator, offers free grief support to Tri-Cities residents from 13 to 29.

Borean goes to high schools throughout the Tri-Cities to try to help young people, many of whom have lost a parent. One of the things she tries to impress on youth as they try to navigate past empty chairs and incomplete milestones is that grief is lifelong.

But while grief personal and individual, it’s also communal.

During the pandemic, Borean started organizing grief groups. Some of the groups focus on creative writing, photography and yoga in order to allow a direct line to loss. We can write about loss and visualize emptiness and feel emotions in how we move. But other groups, like ceramics, horseback riding and rock climbing, are about bringing grieving peers togethers.

“Even if we’re not talking about grief all the time, that’s the thread that runs through them,” Borean says.

Grief, Boyle says, is: “One size fits one.”

It’s completely universal. Absolutely individual.

Guess what? You’re going to die.

“That is the only certainty we have, Lambert says.

But we can talk about it, she emphasizes.

“I’ve been drawn to talk about stuff that people don’t want to talk about,” she says. “And having those awkward uncomfortable conversations, I love.”