Grieving and Homelessness – Social Issues Discussion Recap

This post was written by Heather Samarron, former volunteer at the Women’s Centre

What does a good death look like?

This can be a hard question to answer for many people. For most of us, it would mean being in our own home, not suffering in pain, friends and family (biological or otherwise) by our side, and being treated with dignity before and after our death. Unfortunately, for many of the nearly 3,500 people living in homelessness in Calgary, some or all of the elements of what most of us consider to be a “good death” are out of reach. This can be especially hard for the person’s “street family,” close friends and partners, who are often left with few answers and fewer ways to grieve.

In October, the Women’s Centre held a Social Issues Discussion on the topic of homelessness and grieving. We came together for a conversation led by Diane Gauthier, member of the Calgary Homeless Foundation’s Client Action Committee. 

Diane shared a number of challenges for those supporting people living in homelessness at the end of life. For example, many people who live in homelessness do not have access to identification, which can mean that no one is notified of their death, and they are buried without a name. If the person can be identified, Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy policies often means that it is impossible for non-biological family members to receive information about their loved one, or to visit them in the hospital or hospice. After a person has died, it is typically only the biological family who are contacted – in some cases these are individuals who have been out of touch for long periods of time. Family members may not know how to reach out to the chosen-family of the deceased, or may not feel compelled to do so at all. This can mean that a person’s “street family,” spends days, weeks, or years not knowing what happened to their loved one, if they learn at all.

Currently, Calgary has one event meant to support those grieving in homelessness. The Longest Night of the Year is a memorial service, held annually on the winter solstice (December 21st) to remember those who died in homelessness the previous year. The Longest Night of The Year is an important and powerful event, but its format leaves those in grief with no permanent place to gather and mourn. The Client Action Committee (CAC), a committee of 15 people who have current or past lived-experience with homelessness, have spent years calling for the creation of a designated space in Calgary to honour, celebrate, and remember those who have died while experiencing homelessness.

In 2017 Dr. Jessica Shaw, a professor and researcher from the University of Calgary Faculty of Social Work, connected with the CAC to discuss end of life care for those living in homelessness. Dr. Shaw’s work further supported the existing call for a space to remember and grieve for those lost in homelessness, leading to the current collaboration with the CAC. From this, the City of Calgary Homeless Memorial Project was born.

The project plans to create a permanent memorial in Calgary’s downtown core and will include a either a structure or a monument to help people reflect, a bench where people can rest, and commemorative plaque to honor all those who have been lost. This memorial will be a powerful reminder to all Calgarians that we all matter in both life and death, and we all deserve love, dignity, and remembrance.

More information about the CAC and Dr. Shaw are available on the Homeless Memorial Project’s GoFundMe page, along with more information about the project itself. One of the best ways support the memorial project is to attend this year’s Longest Night of the Year memorial, which will be held on Friday, December 21 in front of City Hall. Gathering together will not only show members of the homeless community love and support, but it will also show our city that there are many of us who care deeply about this population and project. By supporting our friends and neighbors who grieve in homelessness, we can help create the possibility of “a better death” for all Calgarians.

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