Students explore dying in Canada for CBC series

Lauren Pelley admits the excitement of her journalism elective course quickly turned to trepidation when she found what she would be tackling. “Let’s face it, a class solely focused on death and dying is surely going to be an emotional rollercoaster. And it really was,” says the graduate student.

Developed out of a groundbreaking course on dying in the graduate journalism program at The University of Western Ontario – and led by Faculty of Information & Media Studies faculty member Meredith Levine – A Good Death gave 16 students an opportunity to explore end-of-life journeys, the evolution of dying and what changes need to be made to put palliative care onto the public agenda.

LEVINE

LEVINE

The series of stories seeks to engage the public in a conversation about the state of dying in Canada, discovering along the way how access to quality end-of-life care depends on a variety of factors. It explores those factors – community, class, culture, ethnicity, faith, family – at a level of oftentimes uncomfortable detail for even veteran reporters.

“This assignment was not easy for the young journalists pursuing these stories,” says Levine, who has been teaching the Health and Medical Journalism course at Western for a number of years. “Many logged long hours with the dying, their families, and those who care for them on palliative care wards, homes and hospices in London and surrounding areas. They asked the questions about death and dying that so many of us want to avoid.

“But the ultimate lesson of A Good Death for all those involved is just how rich and textured and beautiful the end of life journey can be.”

Levine, who knows of no other journalism course quite like this, wanted her students to focus on doing journalism that matters. And few things matter more in life than how we die, she says.

“It was a chance to allow the students to dig deep into their stories,” she says. “It was an experiment and I felt a lot of responsibility to the students. I gave them the option, for those that hit the wall, to do a policy story. But no one did, although some did have a challenging time.”

Throughout the process, Levine ensured the students had access to her, a chaplain or Student Health Services if needed. Students, while working on their own stories, were also paired up to have someone to talk to about their experiences.

“Some of these stories are very powerful. I’m sure for many of the students, at some point, there were second thoughts about what they had gotten into. But I would be very surprised if there was any student at the end of the course who didn’t feel it was really worth it to them,” Levine says.

And the students agree.

Pelley’s experience awoke tremendous emotions in her, while at the same time she found it extremely rewarding. Most telling was an interview she did with a woman whose husband, terminally ill and slowly slipping away, was just a few doors down the hall.

“She eventually broke down and cried during the interview and I couldn’t help but shed a tear as well, listening to her story and fears, while trying to remain professional at the same time,” Pelley says. “We all pushed ourselves to explore sensitive topics and tell powerful stories that needed to be told.”

Fellow student Alexander Ballingall, who looked at health-care workers who work every day with dying people, never had that anticipated deathbed interview, but he was still filled with a combination of nervousness and excitement in beginning his piece.

“It was still a deeply interesting experience. I became very interested in this idea that being close with death on a regular basis – being comfortable with death and dying and imminent mortality – can enrich one’s life,” Ballingall says. “That has been the experience of a lot of these palliative care and hospice workers. They love their jobs, because not only do they find it satisfying and meaningful, it also brings them an enriched perspective on their own lives.”

Balingall adds he has grown much more comfortable with the topic of death, learning a “good relationship with death, respecting it and knowing it can come get you whenever it sees fit, is an important part of a healthy life.”

Levine, a former CBC journalist, contacted CBC online executive producer Mary Sheppard to recruit the new organization in presenting the final work. Sheppard, who has taught journalism herself, understands the value to the students of getting a byline in professional media. More than that, she was sold on the idea.

“The topic is one that is under-reported and while we live in a culture that avoids talk of death, I felt a project where we could come at it from a number of directions, would work. I wasn’t disappointed,” says Sheppard, noting the topic of death and dying has almost become taboo.

She continues, “The goal today is to live longer and somehow we lose sight of the fact we all have to die. But this project reminds us there are people out there who care enough to fight for a ‘good death.’ The students used a great deal of discretion, time and their own emotional energy, to get close to the doctors and patients to tell their stories with insight and grace. I doubt the CBC would have had the resources to have over 15 reporters following a story like this for more than three months. It was an excellent partnership.”

Even for a long-time journalist like Levine, she admits the lessons were not limited to the students.

“It was a great experience for me and I think a powerful experience for all of us. I felt an awful lot of responsibility than I ever felt for any other course because I was aware of the potential emotional impact and toll on the students. I was quite vigilant in keeping in contact with them and ensuring they were okay,” Levine says.

She was moved by a number of the stories, recalling one moment in particular while listening to a student’s audio session with a 48-year-old woman.

“The student brought the audio in after each session, and I still get chills thinking about what it was like hearing that dying women’s voice. Her hopes. Her fear. Her agony. It was all there.”

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About the series

A Good Death, the CBC online series produced by students from the Graduate Program in Journalism at The University of Western Ontario, launches online at cbc.ca/health. The students and the stories they share stories are as follows:

  • Children are among the most underserved in end-of-life care as our health-care system is not organized to provide for their needs. Reported by Adela Talbot and Sean Leathong.
  • Why do doctors have such a hard time talking about dying with their terminal patients, and what kinds of problems does this create? Reported by Nicole Case.
  • What issues surround access to adult end-of-life care across the country? Reported by Jared Lindzon
  • Why do most Canadians want to die at home, but few actually do? Reported by Bethany Cairns and Mariam Ahmad.   
  • Spend time with the health care workers specializing in palliative care to see how they cope with the impact of their job. Reported by Alex Ballingall.
  • Meet music therapist Jill Kennedy-Tufts, who records the thoughts, songs and prayers of the dying to leave as final gifts to loved ones. Reported by Angela Richardson.
  • Explore the physiological and psychological relationship between love and death. Reported by Lauren Pelley.
  • Examining Chinese Canadian conceptions of a good death. Reported by Fan-Yee Suen.
  • What are the needs dying of Muslim Canadians? Reported by Alineh Haidery.
  • Look at the legal debates about ‘pulling the plug’ and who gets to decide. Reported by Brian Moskowitz.
  • Discover a variety of definitions of dying and why these definitions can make a difference in terms of accessing palliative care. Reported by Heather Young.
  • Looking back at a fascinating snapshot of how dying has changed in Canada over the past century. Reported by Edward von Aderkas.
  • How does social media influence how we die today? Reported by Trevor Melanson and Stefanie Masotti.