How do you ask what someone wants after they die?

Yva McKerlich became a Spiritual Care Volunteer after her mum, Sandra, was cared for at the Marie Curie Hospice, Glasgow. She helps people start difficult conversations with their families about what they want to happen after they die. She also gives them space to share stories and happy memories together.

“My mum, Sandra, was diagnosed with cancer about 12 years ago, and she came to the hospice for respite care two and a half years ago. The time she spent at the hospice turned out to the last three or four months of her life.

“When Mum died, we held a funeral that suited us. We made Mum an Egyptian death mask with peacock feathers and gold leaf. We planted wild flowers and trees, and we set off fireworks. 

"I decided to lead her funeral service, and on that day I stood and told stories about her. We laughed, and I left the dirty bits in because she wouldn’t be the same without them. Afterwards we ate cake and danced and paid tribute as best we could.”

Finding the words

“I’d talked with Mum about some of the things she wanted, but one of the things you realise is how difficult it is to start that conversation. Even if you know the person is terminally ill, how do you ask ‘What do you want me to do when you die?’ 

“In the end that was what I had to say to my mum: ‘Don’t you bloody die and leave me not knowing what you want!’

“It was tough; my mum and I were two capable, outspoken communicators, and we were still having tremendous difficulty having that conversation. When I realised that maybe I could go and get some further training and be a person who’s around to help with those conversations, that idea became really important to me.”

Sandra, Yva's mum

Celebration of life

“Partly due to the positive experience I was able to have in leading my mother’s funeral, I decided to retrain as a funeral celebrant. A celebrant leads a service with whatever celebration of life the family wants to have. I reflect any of religious needs there may be; I’m faith neutral.

“After I changed careers to be a celebrant, I got in touch with the hospice to ask how I could help people have those difficult conversations. Eventually I became a Spiritual Care Volunteer at the Glasgow hospice.

“The spiritual care team aims to find a way to meet their spiritual needs of anybody who walks through the doors of the hospice, even if they might not define those needs as spiritual.”

Telling the stories that matter

“I talk with patients and families, and help them share their stories. Sometimes it turns into funeral planning and sometimes it doesn’t. It might become a chat about family and where you went on your first date or how it felt to hold your grandchild’s hand. Or a person might want to discuss everything from the last outfit they’ll wear, to the stories they’d like to have told at the service.

“I’ll also work with the family and gather their stories as well. I’ve had family members come up to me after a service and exclaim, ‘I didn’t know that story!’ Sometimes they’re quite key moments in their loved one’s life; they’ve just never been shared until that moment.”

Comfort through connection

“When you’ve lost someone, you will face times when you begin to ponder heavily on ‘where are they really?’ and ‘how am I without them?’ I think whoever you are you can find comfort by connecting with other people.

“When Mum passed away, I knew that someone from Marie Curie would be reaching out to see if I needed any help. To know that they were there was incredibly important. People don’t think about how much care goes on after someone’s died, but we are truly a family and relationship-centred charity.”

Losing someone close to you affects everyone differently. Find out more about coping with bereavement, or if you want to talk to someone, you can call the Marie Curie Support Line on 0800 090 2309*. It’s open 8am to 6pm Monday to Friday and 11am to 5pm Saturday.

*Calls are free from landlines and mobile phones. Your call may be recorded for quality and training purposes.