Christmas celebration honours life on palliative unit

Every December, staff and volunteers on the palliative care unit at the Edmonton General Continuing Care Centre transform the space into a festive oasis. Complete with live music, holiday food and hot drinks, the annual Christmas tea invites residents and their families to celebrate what is often their final Christmas together.

Anne Graff says her mother, Margaret Stevenson, cherished the celebration while she was in palliative care over the holidays in 2017. To Margaret, Christmas was about spending time with family and friends, and this didn’t change when she was admitted to the palliative unit.

“My mother loved it and was so impressed by the lengths to which they went to create such a loving, joyful event, especially knowing it was most likely her last Christmas,” Anne recalls. 

“My experience of having a loved one on 9Y is that every aspect of the excellent care contributes to honouring that person's life. The 9Y Christmas tea is a wonderful example of honouring their lives in a joyful, loving and generous manner.”

The Edmonton General’s palliative care unit has hosted the special Christmas tea for more than 10 years, and often sees between 50 and 75 people attend. A festive version of the unit’s weekly tea tradition on Tuesday afternoons, the Christmas tea is a time for residents and families to connect and honour traditions during a challenging time. The Christmas tea is supported by the Covenant Foundation, which covers the cost of hot holiday food for residents and families.

Chaplains Wenda Salomons and Art Peterson say when a loved one is in palliative care during holidays like Christmas, there are often conflicting emotions including grief, gratitude, sadness and joy. Art and Wenda say there is no right or wrong way to celebrate in a palliative setting, but they encourage residents and families to do what feels meaningful for them during the holiday season.

“What they’re experiencing is contrary to the joy and effervescence around them,” says Wenda. “One thing I love about the Christmas tea is the generosity expressed by everyone present, even amongst the grief—there is a special kind of tenderness there.”

Art adds that it’s completely normal to feel different emotions at once in these situations.

“The loss, grief and joy are all real, and it’s OK to embrace and acknowledge that,” Art says.

The Christmas tea is also a time for residents and families to take a break and interact with people who understand what they are going through, says Lisa Shirley, palliative care unit manager. The celebration takes place in the common area of the unit and tends to spark conversations, laughter and hugs between staff, volunteers, residents and family members.

Norma Johnston, a volunteer who has helped organize the weekly teas on the unit for nearly 12 years, says the celebrations are therapeutic for residents and families and often leave a lasting impression. 

“I think a lot of people enjoy the opportunity to step away and talk with others,” Lisa says. “It allows you to have a moment when you’re not always thinking about things.”

Residents and family members enjoy live entertainment during the Christmas tea celebration.

“Even after their loved ones pass away, people will often come back for the Christmas tea or at other times during the year to visit,” Norma says. “This tells us that it touches people’s hearts.”

Anne has returned for the Christmas tea for the past two years since her mother’s death and says the support and kindness she felt from staff, volunteers and family members of other residents is unforgettable.    

“There is a sense of empathy and support from other family members there,” she says. “It’s something that could only come from an environment like that, where others are also feeling the delicacy and tenderness of precious time with a loved one.”

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