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'Dear Mom': Reflection Room in Thunder Bay hospital aims to help people talk about death

The Reflection Room offers people a place to pause, think and share their thoughts on the death of a loved one, or death and dying in general, explained Paul Holyoke, the director of research for SE Health in Toronto, about the art installation he's helping set up in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Art installation invites people to share their own experiences with a death to help start conversation

Paul Holyoke, director of researcher for SE Health, stands in The Reflection Room, created during the 2018 Northwestern Ontario Palliative Care Conference in Thunder Bay. A similar room will be open to the public until November 24 at St. Joseph's Hospital in Thunder Bay. (Cathy Alex/CBC )
A new Reflection Room in Thunder Bay gives people the chance to pause, think about someone they love who is dying, or has died, and then share those thoughts and feelings.. 7:35

St. Joseph's Hospital and Lakehead University, in Thunder Bay, are inviting everyone in the northwestern Ontario city to help create a unique art installation about the end of life.

The Reflection Room offers people a place to pause, think and then share their thoughts on the death of a loved one, or death and dying in general, explained Paul Holyoke, the director of research for SE Health in Toronto, a not-for-profit home care group and the organizer of the art project.

The room is a physical space, set up with pencils, cards and tissues, where people can read about others experiences with death, and then record their own.

The Reflection Room at the 2018 Northwestern Ontario Palliative Care conference framed some of the comments and hung them on the wall, like an art installation. A similar format will be used in the room set up at St. Joseph's Hospital in Thunder Bay, until November 24. (Cathy Alex/CBC )

"Hearing stories, reading stories, it's the base of human experience," said Holyoke. "The stories are sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes expressions of regret, and very deep stories that touch people in a real, deep way." 

People are often hesitant at first to enter the Reflection Room, he said. But then they start reading and "they sit down and sometimes have a cry as they remember their own experiences and then they write something down and leave it for others."

Canadians tend to avoid thinking about death and dying, said Holyoke. But advanced care planning - preparing for the health care we need in our last days, hours and minutes of life - demands we think about it and talk about it with our friends and family.

The Reflection Room at St. Joseph's Hospital in Thunder Bay, Ont., invites people to share their thoughts on, and experiences with death and dying. There will be paper and pens provided for those who wish to write something and post it in the room for others to read. (Cathy Alex/CBC)

"There's lots of death in popular culture, but what we really do is deny our own deaths," he said. "What we're trying to do with these Reflection Rooms is to find out if there is a space that we can set aside to move people from death denying to at least death discussing. Can we at least talk about death, in a useful way, that may get us to the point where we actually accept that we are all mortal and that we can think about our ends more holistically."

SE Health is intentionally setting up Reflection Rooms in public spaces, such as libraries, museums and art galleries, to push the conversation forward.

Over 700 stories have been collected across Ontario to date, said Holyoke explaining they range from "Dear Mom, I wish I had..." to "the death of my wife changed my life in a good way, and a bad way."

This note was left in The Reflection Room set up as part of the 2018 Northwestern Ontario Palliative Care Conference in Thunder Bay in October. People are invited to leave their thoughts on death and dying at The Reflection Room in St. Joseph's Hospital in Thunder Bay until November 24. (Cathy Alex/CBC )

The Reflection Room in Thunder Bay is a partnership between St. Joseph's Care Group, the Centre for Research on Aging and Health at Lakehead University and SE Health.

It is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. at the main entrance of St. Joseph's Hospital in Thunder Bay until November 24.

You can hear the full interview with Paul Holyoke on CBC's Superior Morning here.