Stephen Jenkinson reveals the secret to dying wisely

Stephen Jenkinson at the UBC Asian Centre, 11/18/17

Photo Source: courtesy of Mark Tucker

Stephen Jenkinson’s book Die Wise is the inspiration for the Banyen Books event, DIE WISE: Making Meaning on Saturday (Nov. 18). Just as the name suggests, Jenkinson spent the day sharing the wisdom of his years as a grief worker to a sold-out room of Vancouverites.

On Saturday morning, the audience sat in the auditorium of the UBC Asian Centre, a vibrant buzz in the air. A speaker introduced Jenkinson, after which the audience was greeted by the sweet sound of a woman singing acapella from the back of the room. The language was foreign but the words rich with meaning as more voices joined in. The hauntingly beautiful melody ended, leaving a pregnant silence in its wake.

With that, Jenkinson walked on stage. He took a moment to scan the room before commenting on its somber feeling. He encouraged everyone to celebrate the beautiful song, and enthusiastically the room burst into applause.

“They call me the death guy,” Jenkinson said, once the crowd loosened up, “But I’m working on that.” Laughter filled the room, setting the tone for the day.

“Everything you’re going to hear today, it was achieved at considerable risk,” Jenkinson said, emphasizing that the wisdom from his unique journey may not transfer exactly to someone else’s.

Speaking of his journey, Jenkinson is a man of diverse talents. The Canadian is a carver and canoe builder whose house won the Governor General’s Award for architecture. He is a man with two Master’s degrees, one in theology from Harvard University and the other in social work from University of Toronto. He has been the program director at a large Canadian hospital and an associate professor at a medical school. He is an educator, author and activist. He is the founder of the Orphan Wisdom School.

Jenkinson is also a natural speaker with a delicious love for words. He spent the day poetically weaving in and out of passages from his book, inserting personal anecdotes along the way to augment his written stories. Impressively engaged with the audience, he knew when the room was right there with him and conversely he was quick to change route, and note out loud, when he felt the audience had lost his meaning.

“There is nothing inevitable about dying,” he said mysteriously. And later more direct, “The presence of your dying is not in your future. You are in its presence now.”

Jenkinson went on to advise the audience that when dying or attending to someone who is: “Pay attention to your language. It will not fail. Because in it you will find what you secretly believe.”

When in the face of death, he explained, the truth comes out.

His stories gathered momentum as the morning turned into afternoon, and he dug into language further, the way that language is used to convey the average North American’s relationship with death. Ultimately, he concluded, people here are dying in a “death-phobic” culture.

In one story, a woman asks him not to mention the “D-word” to her son. To which he replied, “If I don’t use the D-word, what secret am I helping you keep?”

The crowd hung on Jenkinson’s every word, sometimes sighing loudly as if his words brought relief or understanding. There were consistent waves of ‘aha’ moments, and a few people saying “wow” every now and then. He led the room on a journey of discovery and profound understanding, all the while never insisting on anything.

Jenkinson eventually revealed his own approach to death: “I have the intention of dying while being fond of being alive.”

It was not the serious talk that a person might expect of such a seemingly somber topic. However, as the day wound down, so too did the light-heartedness felt in the room. Jenkinson closed with a few uninterrupted passages from his book. Waves of emotion moved through the audience as the weight of what had been shared took root.

The event concluded with a request from Jenkinson for the acapella singers to sing their song once more. The sweet melody was deep with feeling, settling the room, and met with a standing ovation for both the singers and the wise speaker.