A four-foot-something tree, adorned with angels, captures my attention as I enter Hospice Yukon. The lighting is soft and I am greeted warmly as I step through the door.
Evelyn Kaltenbach, a volunteer who is finishing her training in Compassionate End of Life Care and Bereavement Support, smiles as she offers her hand, then leads the way to
her office and offers a cup of coffee. Kaltenbach co-ordinates tree sitters for Lights of Life.
“It is for everybody—absolutely everybody,” she says, her eyes smiling warmly as she continues: “Adults … children.”
It is a way of honouring loved ones, including pets, that we want to remember and treasure. Last year, about 1,500 memorial red tags decorated the Lights of Life trees.
And, Kaltenbach says, “There are people that are coming back every year.”
Christmas is a hard time for many: “The days are short and Christmas is a time for family,” Kaltenbach says in a soft, compassionate voice. She, herself, has found comfort at this time of year and has helped others, children included, to find that comfort.
“I find it very touching when there is a mother who comes in with a child or two … and they get to write on their own tags.”
Kaltenbach says it is an important thing to make grieving “an OK thing from early childhood on”. “When you incorporate it as something that happens to everyone … then it is not as scary … and tears are OK.
“It makes life more precious, too,” she says with a revelatory smile, adding that she believes it makes us feel more alive and more thankful for what we have.
And now there are three mugs of coffee as Cathy Routledge, another Hospice Yukon worker, joins the conversation.
Of Lights of Life, she says, “It’s just one of those rituals that are really accessible for people.” She adds that the communities have their own way of doing this: “Old Crow does it in conjunction with their Christmas concert; Mayo does it in their post office …
“The pet trees are a new thing,” Routledge says enthusiastically.
“Pets are just as important,” Kaltenbach agrees.
Pet tree tags are in the shape of dog biscuits and cat ornaments. People bring photos of their pets to honour them and decorate the trees.
People also bring in photographs of loved ones for the Lights of Life trees, and some make their own tags.
What happens when all of the trees have been decorated? When the memory of those loved has been expressed, remembered and treasured? When the Christmas season comes to a close and it is time for the trees to be taken down?
Routledge explains a ritual that is special, in a sacred way, to Hospice Yukon staff and volunteers: “We do a lovely ritual with the tags after Christmas. We read all of the tags. And they all get burned together in a thoughtful ceremony.” One year, they were burned and then released into the Stewart River.
The river, with its freeze-up and spring breakup, she says, is a powerful metaphor for living and dying. The shared ritual is also a way for Hospice Yukon caregivers to honour families and to release their own caring.
Barb Evans-Ehricht, another Hospice Yukon staff, enters the office with her lunch. She tells a bit about the feeling of Lights of Life. “It’s a very relaxed atmosphere. At the Elijah Smith Building, we always have a way of honouring and remembering loved ones.”
Evans-Ehricht explains that certain individuals are asked to bring in “Treasured Keepsakes” in order to make a display—a display to inspire others to express their memories and to honour loved ones in their own unique way, with their own treasured keepsakes.
“You know … I think one of the myths is that if we don’t bring it [grieving] up or don’t focus on it, that it won’t hurt,” Evans-Ehricht says, making eye contact in a way that seems to gently ask, Understand? while, at the same time, saying that she does.
“Lights of Life provides a healing, healthy way of honouring. Christmas is a bittersweet time – bitter because loved ones are no longer with you; sweet because of happy memories …”
She gives a poignant example: “Maybe honouring a grandfather by putting his tools under the Christmas tree, a way of saying, ‘You’re still alive in us, Grandpa’.”
“It’s an ‘allowing,’ Kaltenbach adds.
What a fitting way to end: an “allowing”. Lights of Life trees offer their branches to remember and honour loved ones no longer with us and to allow an opportunity for expressing that and releasing that – and for feeling their lingering presence, the spirit of loved ones still with us in so many ways.
On Dec. 17 from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m., the Lights of Life Opening Ceremony will be held in the Elijah Smith Atrium. Trees will be available until Dec. 23. For more information and for the location of Lights of Life trees, please call Hospice Yukon at 667-7429.