Stephen Jenkinson wants to teach us how to die well. It’s a skill he believes we have forgotten in our culture. Though not a physician — he has master’s degrees in theological studies and social work — he served for years as program director of a palliative-care center at a major Toronto teaching hospital, where he provided counseling at hundreds of deathbeds. In his job he heard over and over from colleagues that “everyone has their own way of dying,” but he says he rarely saw any evidence of this. The default manner of death was for the dying person to endure — to not die — for as long as possible.
The other mantra he heard is “Everyone knows they are going to die,” but in Jenkinson’s experience the opposite is true: the vast majority of people are caught off guard, unprepared even after having been given a terminal diagnosis. Doctors are so accustomed to holding out the chance of survival, Jenkinson says, that they often encourage hope where there is none — and thus discourage patients from dealing with the difficult business of death. It’s an approach that arises from compassion, but for Jenkinson it doesn’t allow the end of life to be what it should be: an important event, like being born or getting married. “We end without any ending,” he writes. “We are gone without any leaving.”
In his most recent book, Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, Jenkinson describes a visit with a minister who has terminal lung cancer and is still preaching sermons every week. “Are you talking about your illness in your sermons?” Jenkinson asks. “Oh, no,” the minister replies. “Too depressing.” Jenkinson points out that when Jesus knew his death was approaching, he didn’t keep going about his days as if nothing were wrong. He gathered his apostles for the Last Supper. He fed them. He told them he was about to die. It’s a defining moment in Christianity — and a stark contrast to the modern expectation that dying patients should ignore the inevitable, stay positive, and, as Jenkinson puts it, “not let them see you sweat.”
The documentary Griefwalker, produced in 2008 by the National Film Board of Canada, accompanies Jenkinson on visits with the terminally ill and also shows him paddling his canoe and working with his wife, Nathalie, on their Orphan Wisdom Farm in Canada’s Ottawa Valley. In the film Jenkinson talks about the truism that patients fear pain most of all. Even in the absence of pain, however, Jenkinson has witnessed a deeper fear: the fear of dying. We might think that everyone’s scared to die, but Jenkinson believes this anxiety is not universal. He says it’s far more prevalent in our culture, which persuades people to resist and deny the inevitability of their own death. In one scene he talks to a woman with terminal cancer who has had a hospital bed delivered to her home but hides it away rather than use it. When he asks why, she says she doesn’t want to be reminded of what’s to come. Jenkinson advises her not to “put away” her dying for some future date but to treat it as a “prized possession,” because it’s the awareness of death — and not happiness or positivity or stoicism — that allows us to live fully in the time we have. If we think there will always be more time down the road, we put off both our dreams and our obligations.
Born in 1954, Jenkinson grew up in a suburb of Toronto. As a young man he traveled the U.S. with street preacher and storyteller Brother Blue. The two had met while Jenkinson was attending Harvard Divinity School, where Brother Blue — whose real name was Hugh Morgan Hill — taught a class on preaching from the pulpit. Hill was also a familiar sight on the streets of Cambridge, where he improvised stories and verses for passersby. Jenkinson began to accompany the older man on harmonica, and they took their act on the road, performing in bars and jails as well as on sidewalks. It was an apprenticeship that helped Jenkinson develop the calm yet powerful speaking style he has today.
On his farm Jenkinson operates the Orphan Wisdom School, where he teaches his concept of living and dying well. In addition to Die Wise, he is the author of How It All Could Be: A Work Book for Dying People and Those Who Love Them and Money and the Soul’s Desires: A Meditation. A quietly charismatic man who wears his long gray hair in braids, Jenkinson often travels for speaking engagements that coincide with screenings of Griefwalker. I met him for this interview on a sunny afternoon in 2014 in a hotel room near Worcester, Massachusetts. The film had been shown the night before, and he was scheduled to give a talk titled “Grief, Then Gratitude.” Gratitude, for Jenkinson, is not just being grateful for what we have. It’s how we should approach all of life, giving thanks for the good and the bad, the beginnings and the endings.