American writer Will Schwalbe discusses final days with his dying mother

Death is a difficult part of life, one that we all have to go deal with. For family and friends taking care of their loved ones who are facing their last few moments of life, waking up alive every morning becomes a precious gift. In the end, it is how we as a society take care of our Elders to ensure that their legacy will be passed on to the next generation.

Bringing up the subject of death can be futile as many want to focus on their life rather than prepare for a world without their loved ones. But by talking about this difficult subject when a critical situation occurs, you can better prepare yourself.

During National Palliative Care Week, McGill University’s Council of Palliative Care brought two New York Times bestselling authors together on May 7 for the 16th annual Sandra Goldberg Lecture series, titled Lessons in Living from the Dying.



At the start of the week, the Quebec government announced a $15 million investment to improve palliative home-care services in the province. “Palliative care is about pain and symptom control, which is an area where there have been many advances,” said Council of Palliative Care co-chair Kappy Flanders. “But I don’t think that palliative care has changed very much. People have always died. Some people know how to handle it and some people don’t. The only way it has changed is if we get more people involved and pass on the knowledge.”

For the first time in the history of the lecture series, a non-medical professional was invited to discuss the role of palliative care from his own experience with his mother. American writer Will Schwalbe, author of The End of Your Life Book Club, and Louise Penny, former CBC journalist and author of the Inspector Gamache novel series, discussed the contents of Schwalbe’s book about caring for his mother after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

“After writing the book people would come up to me and tell me how the book helped me bring closure to my mother’s death,” Schwalbe said. “But I didn’t want closure, I wanted to keep the conversation going and that’s what I feel the book helped me accomplish.”

The End of Your Life Book Club chronicles the two-person book club Schwalbe formed with his mother, Mary Anne Schwalbe, after she received her diagnosis.

The two would discuss the books they had read, but Schwalbe’s thoughtful and witty banter in his book underlines a story of discovery between a son and his mother as he finds out more about her as person and what motivated her throughout life.

“Losing the memory of a loved one is like losing them all over again,” Schwalbe said, explaining that the process of dealing with the passing is about the struggle to keep the memory alive.

The main lesson from Schwalbe’s book is to make sure to spend some time with your loved ones in their times of need and to let them open up when they are comfortable to talk about serious things, but also to laugh and converse as normal. “My advice is to engage with people on the subjects they love,” Schwalbe said. “For me the greatest gift was continuing to enjoy my mother’s life while she was still alive.”

Schwalbe praised the dedication and tenderness of the palliative-care professionals who helped both mother and son over the length of her end-of-life journey. The non-intrusive care they provide allows patients to die with dignity and, more importantly, to live to the best of their ability until the moment of their passing.

Schwalbe had some advice for younger members of the Cree communities who have access to their Elders. “Now is the time to ask questions. Ask questions about your Elders’ lives and their experiences. And try to get their stories inasmuch as they want to tell them. It’s a great opportunity to make sure these stories don’t die but really live on.”