This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Present at the end

Nobody should die alone. That’s the commitment made by Donwood Manor Personal Care Home in Winnipeg.


Donwood, which is owned by eight Mennonite Brethren churches in the city, made that commitment after chaplain Wanda Derksen noticed that some residents had nobody to stay with them as they passed from this life to the next.

Staff do what they can for residents who have nobody to be with them when they are dying, she says, “but they are so busy.”

What she needed was a way for people in the community to help by spending time with dying residents. So she created Nobody Dies Alone.

Donwood’s program is based on the very first Nobody Dies Alone, started in 2001 in Oregon. Since that time, the idea of making sure dying people aren’t alone has spread across North America.

For Derksen, the program fits well at Donwood Manor, a faith-based organization.

“Nobody Dies Alone fits with our mission to be compassionate, loving and focused on the needs of residents,” she says. “It’s also a practical expression of Christ’s love.”

Of the nine volunteers who signed up for the program, four are on staff at Donwood.

“The staff members are really motivated to do this,” says Derksen. “They have seen the need, and they love the residents.”

One of the volunteers is Tina Duerksen, 65, who is retired from Donwood Manor. She volunteered because “it’s sad when someone doesn’t have anyone to be with them when they are dying.”

For her, sitting with someone who is dying is more than just being in the room.

“If they want, I pray with them, sing with them, hold their hands,” she says. “It really helps them if they know someone is there, that they are not alone.”

Her most recent experience was a few weeks ago, when she sat with a man whose only son was in British Columbia. His older sister wasn’t well enough to spend the long hours in his room.

“I was happy to come and sit with him,” she says.

Duerksen says she volunteers with the program “for the Lord, and because I love older people . . . it’s a blessing for me, and I hope it can be a blessing to others.”

Many of us can’t imagine our loved ones dying alone. But it is more common today as many children live far from their parents, or families are broken.

I know that when my dad was dying in 2009, it was important for me that he not be alone.

I was one of those children who lived far from their parents. They were in Ontario, I was in Manitoba. Although my mother passed away suddenly four years earlier from a heart attack, my dad was declining slowly.

I made regular trips out to see him and was with him two weeks before he died. But then came the call that he was dying. I grabbed the first flight I could and headed east.

When I arrived, he was in a coma. I don’t know if he knew I was there. But whether he knew or not, I knew I wanted — I needed — to be there.

As I slept in his room that night, I heard the medical staff come and go. I listened to his labored breathing.

About 9 the next morning, his breathing began to slow. I got up and went over to his bedside, holding his hand and cradling his head as he quietly slipped away.

It was sad when he died. But I was comforted by being there.
And maybe he was comforted, too, knowing that he wasn’t alone.

John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

John Longhurst

John Longhurst was formerly Communications Manager at MDS Canada.

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