Carleton prof helps Canadians cope with death

Katherine Arnup
Prof. Katherine Arnup has been doing research about the experiences of palliative care volunteers.

Carleton Prof. Katherine Arnup says she had always been afraid of death. But when her sister became terminally ill more than a decade ago, she realized she could no longer avoid it.

“I couldn’t pretend it wasn’t there anymore,” says Arnup. “She was dying and I needed to help her.”

Over the next six months, Arnup took care of her sister as both her primary caregiver and, just as importantly, a friend.

“It was hard, but she taught me,” says Arnup. “She taught me a lot about dying.

Wanting to continue helping people find comfort and peace at the end of their lives, Arnup took a hospice training course. Soon after her sister’s death, she began as a palliative care volunteer at the Hospice of Maycourt, where she has been for nine years.

She presented a paper on the experiences of palliative care volunteers to the International Council for Canadian Studies at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Concordia in May.

As part of her research, she conducted extensive interviews with 14 volunteers at the Hospice, focusing on their motivation for volunteering and the effect it had on them and the people around them.

“The vast majority of them had in fact had somebody close to them die in their lives,” she says. “For most of them, it had changed them.”

The fear of death contributes to people believing they are unable to deal with it, Arnup says, but many volunteers find joy in supporting the people who are sick and their families.

“People often say that they could never do it, that we must be saints,” she says. “But we’re not. We’re good people but we’re not saints.”

With Canada’s population rapidly aging, Arnup says it’s more important than ever to open up a public discussion on death.

“We don’t come to terms with it, we don’t talk about where we want to die, we don’t have enough facilities to help people die,” she says. “These are things we need to change.”

Arnup hopes her research shows that through discussion, ordinary people can start to come to terms with death and find it less frightening.

“If I could learn to do it through caring for my sister,” she says, “that means anybody can.”

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Tayleigh Armstrong

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