My Dad, James William (Bill) Kerr, died on April 5th, 2017.
In the days surrounding my Dad’s death, I wrote a series of emails and Facebook posts, telling people about my family’s experiences. I’ve compiled them all here, along with Bill’s obituary, a copy of the video we showed at his funeral, and various other material.
The colour photos are by my talented sister Julie Kerr, and the black and white photos are by Nelson photographer Fred Rosenberg.
This ongoing story has been a wonderful way to share our experiences with our community. My family and I also hope it gives you some new ideas about how to meet the deaths in your life. It’s been an amazing journey, and doing things the way we did has really helped us to navigate this difficult time.
(People often ask why Julie and I call our father “Bill.” As the story goes, we were at a party when I was 3 or 4, and I was calling to him from across the room. I tried “Daddy” a few times, to no avail, and then shouted “Bill!” and he finally heard me. He was “Daddy Bill” to both of us after that, eventually evolving into “Bill”.)
April 5th 2017, 11:00 pm
My life has taken a sudden and big turn. My dad, who had a severe stroke 7 years ago, and is in a long term care center in Nelson, is dying.
I got word on Monday, and drove straight here from Calgary. He was talking (a bit) when I arrived, and still very conscious and coherent. We all had a good chance to visit him, and say our goodbyes. Since then, he’s slipped very quickly.
Bill’s eyes are mostly closed now, but occasionally he opens them, and looks right at you. As my sister Julie says, it’s like looking at a baby’s eyes. He’s a little blurry, but there’s no doubt that he’s there and connecting. He’s not in pain, but is laboring hard to leave his body.
We’ve been vigiling with him since mid afternoon, and it’s a beautiful process. All six of us have been gathered around his bed, singing, crying, telling stories, chatting, and holding his hand. The Nelson Threshold Choir came (their inaugural bedside visit) and sang their beautiful healing songs. Friends and family have been sending photos, videos and messages from far and wide.The staff have been coming in from around the facility to kiss him goodbye. Bill is a very loved man.
It’s 10 pm, the rest of the family has gone home for a rest, and I’m taking the night shift tonight. I’ll sleep on the couch in the shuffleboard room, so that the staff can wake me if there’s any change, and I can phone everyone else. It’s hard to know how long this will take, and that mystery is part of the process.
I’m so grateful to be here with my family, and that my dad’s departure is happening so gracefully. Hold your loved ones close, my friends, life is short.
April 6th, 2:50 am
It’s 3:00 in the morning, and My dad died just a few minutes before midnight. It was about as good a death as you can imagine.
I was holding his hands and looking in his eyes. He took a few last gentle breaths. And then he didn’t take any more.
Goodbye James William Kerr. You were a great one, and you will be deeply missed.
April 7th, 1:35 am
I can’t thank you enough for the outpouring of love and kindness after my dad’s death. It’s been an intense day, and the flood of messages and condolences has been a gift for our whole family.
Bill died late last night and, soon after that, we prepared his body and laid him out in clean clothes in his bed. I slept on the pull-out couch beside him and, since he began actively dying this afternoon, he’s had someone with him at all times.
Much of a person’s dying happens after their heart stops. We’re keeping vigil to help my dad find his way across the veil, so he can join the village of the ancestors. We’re holding a sacred space to help him adjust to this new way of being, and we’re tending his body with love while his spirit leaves it.
It’s been a kind of time-out-of-time, gathered with my family around his bed in all variety of configurations. Sometimes the room is full, and sometimes there are only 1 or 2 people there. This afternoon, my 16 year old niece spent an hour alone with Bill, playing guitar for her grandpa.
A vigil like this doesn’t just serve the dead, it also gives the souls of the living a chance to catch up to what’s happened. At an intellectual level, I’m completely aware that my dad is dead. But the soul doesn’t operate that quickly. All day, I’ve caught myself thinking that he’s just asleep, and that any minute he’ll wake up. After 24 hours with his body, the new reality is finally starting to sink in. If we miss this time for integration, grieving can be much harder.
Here’s a shot I just took in the parking lot. I’m heading home to bed, and have handed the vigil baton to the first of two volunteers from Nelson Hospice who will be covering the night shift. We’ve been surrounded by such love and generosity, it’s what makes this incredibly difficult process bearable.
April 8th, 1:06 am
What an intense and beautiful few days it’s been! Many thanks for all your comments and messages. I’m sorry we haven’t been able to respond to them all personally, but know that they are all being received and greatly appreciated. It takes a village to send a loved one off well, and the support we’ve felt from folks near and far has been a huge help through this process.
Late this afternoon, we moved my Dad’s body from his bed to the casket we’d decorated for him. It’s lined with soft fleece, and we attached a poster-sized photo of Crowsnest Mountain (where he grew up) to the inside of the lid, with the peak over his heart, and his face looking out into the blue sky. Bill’s pillow was made by one of his granddaughters, his blanket by another. He was wearing his favorite denim shirt, and his Kerr tartan tie. His favorite old cowboy hat (which was originally his father’s) was on his chest, and his geological rock hammer was in his hand. He somehow managed to look surprisingly like his old self.
We moved Bill’s bed out of the room, and set up an altar at the head of his casket. The altar was covered with another piece of Kerr tartan, and on it were photos of his parents, and all his grandparents, and great-grandparents. My Dad and I had talked a lot about his ancestors being on the far side to welcome him when he made this crossing. The altar also held a small leather bag full of gifts Bill had received from friends and extended family at a goodbye ceremony we held when he moved from Calgary to Nelson.
My Dad has lived in this nursing home for 5 years. He moved to Nelson after his stroke and so the staff are really his community in Nelson. They’re kind and amazing people, and have given him the most wonderful care we could have ever hoped for. We wanted to honour his village, and the significance of his leaving it.
We had put out the call for the staff who knew Bill best to join us, and 15 or so staff showed up in his room, some coming in on their day off. Our friend Jane DiGiacomo from Nelson Hospice facilitated a beautiful ceremony for us. Each person got a flower and, one at a time, came forward to speak about what they loved and will miss about my dad, and then laid the flower in the casket with him. I knew my Dad was well loved, but it was amazing to hear what people had to say about him and to watch the flowers pile up. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Everyone in the family spoke too, and laid our flowers. Ritual is a performative art, and it was beautiful to have our words so deeply witnessed.
After the flower laying, Jane read a poem that my dad loved, and my sister Julie led us in a moving rendition of “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” Then the staff left the room, and lined the hallway between my dad’s bedroom and the front door. Jane led us down the hall, with my family following the casket. As we passed by them, the people lining the walls curled around behind and followed us out.
In the parking lot, we loaded my dad’s casket into the back of our van, and had another moment of goodbye to end the ceremony. Then there was lots of hugging, and more crying, and then we drove away. It was such a meaningful transition, one more small move that’s part of the really big move that’s happening for all of us over these days. The soul can only move so fast, and ritualizing each of the stages lets it catch up.
Tomorrow we will cremate my Dad’s body. We’ve had great support from the local funeral director to do this our own way, but the funeral home has a policy that if we don’t use all their services, we’re not allowed to use the morgue. So my dad is spending tonight in the coolness of my brother-in-law Craig’s shop. It’s a totally fitting place for him. He loved sheds and garages and tools, and was eminently pragmatic about things like this. My Mom says it’s like the way people used to put the body in the top of the barn until the ground thawed in the spring. The utter normal-ness of this process has been part of its gift.
It’s felt amazing to do this for my dad as an expression of our love. It’s a lot of work, and it’s required a big team of support around us, but after doing this together, I don’t think my family would ever do it any other way.
April 9th, 1:36 am
It’s felt like my family has been on a completely different track than the rest of the world during the last few days. Things are starting to settle down now, and we’re slowly beginning to come out the other side of the liminal space of my dad’s death.
We’ve gone through so many layers of goodbyes: each phase of my Bill’s physical decline, his last breath, and then all the stages of him moving away from his body, and from us. Giving ourselves the time and ritual support to fully feel each of these goodbyes has been really important in the grieving process.
We’re sad, but there’s not a feeling of shock, or of being wrenched or torn. We’ve moved through the process at soul-speed and, if I look at it energetically, I can see my dad moving away from us step, by manageable step. Each step hurts, but we’re feeling the hurts one at a time, instead of all at once.
We took one more important step today. Julie and Craig and I loaded Bill’s casket into the van, and drove him to the tiny crematorium in the Nelson cemetery. We unloaded him from the car and onto the trolley. The very kind funeral director took the far end of the trolley and began to pull it towards the retort. I felt a deep inner jolt at the point when my dad left our hands and was suddenly completely in the hands of a stranger. It’s the first time that’s happened in this whole process.
It was a jolt, but it wasn’t as big as the feeling I’ve heard people describe when the funeral transport service comes to pick up a loved one an hour or two after they die. We’re so lucky to have been able to take all the we needed with Bill and, when we got to this next step of separating, it was hard, but it was also right. My dad’s not in his body any longer, it was on loan to him from the earth, and now it’s time to return it.
Some of the stages of letting go happen in the language. I find myself struggling around when to use “him” and when to use “his body” as I write this. Did we load him into the crematorium? Or was it his body? Those two things used to be the same, but as we move through this process, they are becoming different. It’s confusing now, because we’re still in the coming apart stage, but it’s just another step in the process. By tomorrow, that distinction will be clear, and then we’ll move onto the next step.
Thanks to all of you for “listening” as I share these stories and reflections. I tend to write them in the wee hours after a busy day, and it’s been an important way for me to integrate what’s been happening. I’ve heard from so many people that they appreciate the sharing, but it goes both ways, I appreciate having a community to witness the process.
April 16th, 4:47 pm
This post was added later, because we were lucky enough to have Fred Rosenberg, a talented local photographer and volunteer from Nelson & District Hospice Society join us and take photos of some of the ceremonies we did with Bill after he died.
Fred works with film, and so the images took a few days to be finished. We’re thrilled with how he captured our experiences, and are happy to share them here.
April 10th, 12:51 am
It’s been an honour to have so many people following along with my family through my Dad’s death, and I wanted to share something here to give you a sense of who he was. This 11-minute audio piece, called Getting Unstuck, was made by our dear friend Judy Aldous and aired on CBC Radio’s Tapestry in the spring of 2010.
Judy interviewed Bill and me just after his stroke, when he was making the decision to stop taking a number of medications that were designed to prolong his life. It’s funny to listen to it now because, of course, he lived for 7 more years. At the time, though, we really thought this decision would be the beginning of the end, and we took it very seriously. The conversation about medically assisted death has evolved a lot in that time as well, and although my Dad would have wanted that, he wasn’t eligible.
If you don’t know my dad, I hope the recording helps you come to know him a bit because, if you’ve been following here in the last few days, you’ve been part of the extended village that’s helped launch his canoe and send him off to the other side of the river. And for that, I’m very grateful.
April 10th, 9:36 pm
We’ve been planning Bill’s funeral, and have just completed his obituary, it will run in the Nelson and Calgary papers. My dad was a big fan of reading the obituaries, in both the newspaper and his various alumni magazines. We’ll also be submitting an announcement to the U of A, Columbia, and Queens alumni publications.
Again, many thanks for all your calls, cards, and messages, they mean the world to us.
James William (Bill) Kerr
Jan 24th 1936 – April 5th 2017
What is remembered lives
We are sad to announce the passing of James William (Bill) Kerr, beloved husband, father, father-in-law, and friend
Survived by his wife Sheila, daughters Sarah and Julie (Craig Korth), granddaughters Ella and Amy Korth, and his brother Gordon Kerr, Bill is pre-deceased by his parents, Florence and Jim Kerr, and his brother Jack.
Bill was born and raised in the Crowsnest Pass, and the geography of Southern Alberta was etched in his soul. He studied geology at the University of Alberta, winning the Governor General’s gold medal award when he graduated in 1956 for the highest marks in the University. Bill completed his PhD at Columbia University in New York City, and began his career as a professor at Queens (where he was younger than many of the students he was teaching.)
While still a student at the U of A, Bill worked in the Canadian Arctic as an assistant to exploration parties of the Geological Survey of Canada. He joined the GSC in a full-time capacity in 1961, and continued his pioneering research, traveling by dogsled and helicopter, and living in igloos. He loved the wildness of the land and the camaraderie of the bush camps.
Professionally, Bill is most remembered for his geological mapping. His many original maps and accompanying reports made an important contribution to the knowledge of arctic geology and are still referenced today. His personal favorite publication, though, may have been a guidebook he wrote about the Frank Slide. After a successful career, Bill left geology in the mid 1990’s to pursue real estate and entrepreneurial projects in partnership with Sheila.
In 2010, Bill had a massive stroke which crippled his body, but thankfully left his mind mostly intact. Following Julie and her family, Bill and Sheila moved to Nelson in 2011, and Bill moved into Mountain Lake Seniors Community.
Bill was a warm, funny, loving, and much loved man. Some of his favorite activities were eating bagels, making wasp traps, picking saskatoons, and holding an audience spell bound with his quirky, funny, and wide-ranging stories. He had an insatiable curiosity, and he loved meeting new people and learning new things. Above all, his grandchildren were the light of his life.
After his stroke, Bill’s world got much smaller, and he often said that death would be a welcome release. His dying was peaceful and graceful, and he was surrounded by family before, during and after his last breath. He would have loved the hand painted casket and DIY funeral we gave him, and while we grieve his leaving, we’re glad he’s finally free.
Many thanks to all the staff at Mountain Lakes, to the volunteers from Nelson Hospice and the Threshold Choir, and to all our friends and family who have held us so warmly through this difficult time.
A funeral for Bill will be held in the Officers’ Mess at Fort Calgary, on April 18th at 2:00 pm, with a reception to follow. Condolences may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Donations in Bill’s name may be made to Nelson & District Hospice Society at Box 194, Nelson, BC V1L5P9 or online at www.nelsonhospice.org.
April 19th 9:22 pm
Bill’s funeral was yesterday afternoon, and it was a grand and glorious affair. We held it at Fort Calgary, and it was a perfect setting to send off a man who was so much a part of this land and its history. We told stories, sang songs, and ate saskatoon tarts. And we laughed and cried a lot.
I delivered a tribute to my Dad, and if you’d like to read it, the full text is here.
This photo montage was made by my sister Julie, and the first song in it is one she wrote called “A Song for Bill”. It’s from her album Deeper Still (available on iTunes).
Many thanks to all of you who attended Bill’s funeral, or who called, sent notes, or delivered casseroles. Next to my Dad’s stroke, this has been one of the biggest events our family has gone through, and it’s been wonderful to feel so supported by our family and friends.
If you’re reading this after the fact, or if you didn’t know Bill, we hope that hearing the story of his life and death inspires you to meet your life, your death, and the death of those you love with the same warm-hearted enthusiasm that Bill had. After all, “What is remembered lives.”
August 5th, 2017
We interred my Dad’s ashes at the tiny graveyard in southeastern BC where many of our other family members are buried. You can see photos of the event, and read all about it in another blog post here.
September 28th, 2017
A group of my Dad’s geological colleagues prepared his scientific obituary, and it was published in Arctic, the journal of the Arctic Institute of North America. Read the full obituary here.