North

Yellowknife teacher's final lesson: How to live a good death

Maureen Tonge’s death from cancer at age 52 offers friends and family a window on how to live and die well.

Maureen Tonge’s death from cancer at age 52 offers friends and family a window on how to live and die well

Maureen Tonge at a Kundalini Yoga Retreat in October 2019 on the Greek island of Karpathos. (Submitted by Maureen Tonge)

Maureen Tonge's living room looks out over the houseboats on Yellowknife Bay. She's sitting in a comfy chair by the window, wrapped in a cozy blanket.

"I'm in the end stages of my life," she says matter-of-factly. "Yep. I'm dying." 

It's Sept. 16. Three weeks from now, Maureen will die at home, with her husband Robert Charpentier, her sisters and her parents, by her side. 

The way she wanted it. 

But on this day, with the warm autumn sun lighting up her face, she wants to talk about dying, while she still has the strength and memory. 

Tonge has taught at École Sir John Franklin High School in Yellowknife since 1992. 

In the last decade she's shared her Kundalini Yoga practice with people in the North and around the world. 

Her family and friends say she's taught them how to live a good life, and now, to die a good death. 

'I would prove them differently' 

Tonge was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme in February 2019. 

Doctors gave her four months and said she wasn't likely to see the end of 2019. 

Those giving the prognosis had no idea who I was ... so I would prove them differently.- Maureen Tonge

But Tonge wasn't giving up that easily. 

"I indicated to everyone who would listen that I was not my diagnosis nor my prognosis," she told CBC North Trail's End host Lawrence Nayally at the end of 2019.  

Tonge went through chemotherapy, but also followed her own less conventional path, working with a naturopath, and with other healers. At diagnosis, the tumour was bigger than a golf ball, but a bit smaller than an egg. Ten months later it was more like a quarter of a marshmallow. 

"Those giving the prognosis had no idea who I was," she said.  "So I would prove them differently." 

Welcoming death 

By June this year Tonge begins to feel pressure between her eyes, jitters and dizziness. A scan shows the tumour has grown aggressively. 

By mid-September trips to the bathroom require a supportive arm. She has trouble keeping track of conversations. 

"I'm pretty low functioning now," she says. "It has been a bit of a struggle to wrap my head around the fact that has changed so dramatically." 

Maureen Tonge and her "twinnie" Kirsten Tonge on Sept 24th. Kirsten self-isolated before being able to see her sister, but was able to get an exemption for her parents, and Maureen's two other sisters so that Maureen was surrounded by family when she died. (Joanne Stassen/CBC)

But the transition from fighting death, to accepting it, has become easier. 

"It's not been a struggle to wrap my head around the fact that I am dying.  Dying is an inevitable part of living. I'm welcoming it."  

Teaching about life, and death 

Maureen's sister-in-law, Kathleen Charpentier has been helping with Maureen's care and says hearing that gives her a lot of comfort. 

"We live in a culture that is death-phobic and grief illiterate," she says. "We often make the demand of dying people to live, and I think that's a very hard demand." 

Eleven days before her death, Maureen's condo is quiet, but there is still laughter, and a fridge full of food from friends.  Hundreds of people have been posting on Maureen's Facebook, sending messages of love and appreciation.

Maureen's twin, Kirsten Tonge, has come from British Columbia, and soon her parents and two other sisters will be there, thanks to a special exemption from the territory's chief public health officer.  

Kirsten describes their relationship as "halves of the same whole" and remembers cuddling up with Maureen on the gurney, when they got the news that the tumours were growing again. 

Maureen, with her friend and former student, Cailey Mercredi, her sister-in-law Kathleen Charpentier and her husband Robert Charpentier. (Joanne Stassen/CBC)

Their bond goes back to the womb, but Kirsten says she's not sure she will ever understand the grace and gratitude her twin shows in the face of death. 

"Earlier this month she said to me 'I'm healing you know … it's not the end.'" 

Kirsten believes Maureen was talking about spiritual and emotional healing of trauma from her childhood.

"You know she had some deep wounds to her spirit, and emotionally.  And she's been able to truly dig deep and use the resources she's built, and heal herself with the love and support of so many people." 

Former student Cailey Mercredi is there to give Maureen a massage.

"She's taught me papier mâché mask-making and then Kundalini yoga," Mercredi said. "To say she's taught me about love would be an understatement."

She added that being part of Tonge's journey toward death will stay with her forever.  

"Vulnerability and the trust there, is what brings us closer as human beings. This is how we make connections and how we build community." 

It's just hard. Knowing I'm saying good-bye, and a part of me feeling entirely ready. And another part of me, not.- Maureen Tonge

Tonge says she can't say how she got to a place of peace about her death, but that it has been a process, something she's been building toward through her life. Having people around her has been essential. 

"I'm so grateful that I have family here but also friends that are like family. Connections have always been really important to me."

For her sister-in-law Kathleen, sharing in Tonge's last days is a gift. 

"I think when you share your death, you are teaching others," Charpentier says. "I think it's important. Because we're all going to be there someday."  

'There is zero fear'

Tonge says she doesn't know what happens after death, but she's not afraid.

"Absolutely not," she said. "There is zero fear. I know that we are composed of energy. And I don't believe energy can be created or destroyed."

Maureen and her twin sister, Kirsten, after Maureen learned her tumour was considered medically stable. (Submitted by Maureen Tonge)

She does feel sadness and it wells to the surface when she thinks about the ones she's leaving behind. 

"It's just hard," she says, between tears. "Knowing I'm saying good-bye, and a part of me feeling entirely ready. And another part of me, not."

Two things bring Tonge comfort: Having no regrets, and the hope she has for her family and friends. It's an echo of what her students of art and yoga have always heard from her: "I just hope that they are able to tap into their richest opportunities, and take full advantage of that." 

Kirsten Tonge says losing her twin will be the "the most difficult loss." 

"She has taught me that this time is only one of many … it's not the final chapter," she said. 

"She may be gone in the physical sense … but I know without a doubt that her love will always be with me, and my love will always be with her." 

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