Last fall Catherine Hayes’ sister died in a helicopter accident; on April 26 she launches The Departure Lounge
By Maria Spitale-Leisk
These facts Catherine Hayes will always remember. It was the day her sister, her rock, was gone.
“She could always rally me in ways that nobody else understood,” says Hayes. “I had her for 43 years, you know, protecting me. Forty-three years – some people never have that, right?”
On Oct. 1 the early fall sun was warming Hayes’ face while she was singing her sister Karen Coulter’s praises to a mutual friend.
Coulter had already earned her engineering ticket to fix helicopters, but she wanted to go further.
“She had always wanted to fly,” says Hayes.
Coulter found her wings and got on with the air ambulance service in Alberta.
She soon found her way back to B.C. and took a job in Campbell River last summer. Coulter was in her element and loving life, according to her sister.
Nothing could prepare Hayes for the call that evening.
Friends were over for dinner and an unfamiliar number was illuminating her phone. Coulter’s helicopter had crashed in a remote forested area on the island, Hayes heard.
She tried to remain calm under the shocking circumstances, while hurrying to catch the next ferry to the island to be by her sister’s side.
In her mind Hayes thought: “I’m just going to go there and clean her up a bit and she’d be OK.”
On the ferry ride over Hayes had her life turned upside down.
“It is like being completely sucker punched just for no reason,” describes Hayes.
Her partner, Shawn, had only left her side momentarily to grab a coffee. Hayes’ cousin delivered the news over the phone while she was alone surrounded by strangers.
“He just said: ‘She died.’”
Her phone dropped and Hayes started screaming. The worst was yet to come.
When she got to Victoria, her sister wasn’t there, which sent Hayes on a wild goose chase.
“We couldn’t find her for a long time,” she recalls.
At first Hayes was told Coulter would be in Victoria. She wasn’t there. Maybe Comox?
Eventually, Hayes learned her sister’s body was still in the helicopter amongst the dense bush in pitch-black darkness.
The coroner wouldn’t arrive until daylight. It’s a scene that hauntingly plays over again in Hayes’ head.
Those first few days were the hardest. Hayes was presented with impossible questions that she couldn’t possibly prepare for.
Did she want the clothes her sister was wearing when she died?
“How do you respond to that?” says Hayes.
She would have recurring flashbacks of trying to reach her sister, but just going around in circles.
There was no beginning and end to her days – time blurred together into one vivid nightmare.
Hayes tried a host of remedies to turn her brain off at night – prescription and non-prescription – to no avail.
In the long days and months after the accident, along with overwhelming grief, Hayes had this nagging fear.
“Who’s going to go next? Is it going to be me? Is it going to be my son?”
The pain and anxiety became unbearable. Hayes compares it to being caught in an avalanche – you don’t know which way is up.
“And every time you do get a breath – you’re slammed again,” she says.
There is no textbook answer for how to handle grief. Hayes had someone say to her, you can’t be sad forever. But Hayes couldn’t see it any other way.
A framed collage of Coulter’s life leans up against a wall in Hayes’ kitchen. She curated the collage with some pictures discovered while cleaning out Coulter’s purse.
There’s a faded photo booth strip of the sisters goofing around in their teenage years.
“She probably even permed my hair and made me do it,” says Hayes, summoning a smile.
Hayes had no idea her sister had held on to the memento all these years in her wallet.
It’s these precious gifts from beyond the grave that buckle Hayes’ knees, often in the most unlikely places and without warning.
With the facts around her sister’s death seared into her brain, Hayes forgot how to take care of herself.
She says she felt like she was walking on her hands and eating with her feet. Nothing felt normal.
It was while hiking in Lynn Headwaters with a good friend that Hayes saw a faint light at the end of the tunnel.
The friend dropped the term “death doula” and Hayes was intrigued. She went home and immediately googled it.
“It was so clear to me that this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” says Hayes.
Except the timing for Hayes becoming a certified death doula was a little off, she admits.
You’re not supposed to take the program when you’re in the throes of grief, but Hayes pushed through to the other side.
She was a student learning about grief when she had already aced the painful exam.
Hayes took a three-month, end-of-life doula program overseen by the Conscious Dying Institute out of Colorado.
The serene setting for the course was an old brick building on the west side of Vancouver, with floor-to-ceiling windows and plenty of natural light.
Just like a birth doula, a death doula maps out the journey according to a personalized plan.
The doula helps a person with anything that might “flare up” during those last months, from tying up loose ends, to mending fences with a loved one, to pain management, to after-death arrangements.
Hayes said some people will take two weeks to answer the questions “because it really causes you to dig deep.”
This end-of-life direction goes deeper than a will or a medical representation agreement.
Families often hire a death doula a few months out from the main event.
A plan is made, called Your Best Three Months.
The doula helps their client check off items on their death wish list, covering off five elements of life from the spiritual to the physical.
Hayes took the test herself, as part of her training. One of the questions she faced was: While you’re still physically able, what do you want to do?
Hayes learned she wants to climb the Eiffel Tower. Step 1 – how is she getting there? She would have to budget her finances, take time off work, book a flight and find a place to stay.
Hayes took her travel planning one step at a time – just like her grief journey.
Half a year after her sister’s sudden death, Hayes is starting to put one foot in front of the other again.
She’s now a certified end-of-life doula and has started a grief group, called The Departure Lounge. The first meeting is April 26, set in a large log cabin with a fireplace nestled alongside Hunter Creek in Lynn Valley.
The guest speaker that evening will be her stepsister, Rev. Colleen Tanaka, who helped pull Hayes out of the grief fog.
There will be guided meditation. For people who want to share, they can talk briefly about their experience with grief. Afterwards, attendees can mingle together over coffee and tea.
It’s almost like matchmaking for the bereaved. After being introduced, Hayes is hoping some people will group up in the community on their own.
Hayes said her unfortunate experience makes her relatable to others who are grieving.
She’s already had an overwhelming response – more than 100 emails from people wanting to share their personal story of grief, including a dad who lost both sons in drunk driving accident.
“It’s like all of sudden I got this street cred,” she says.
Now that she’s getting stronger, Hayes wants to help as many people as she can. “We learn all kinds of things in school but there is nothing that teaches us about death and grief,” she says.
Hayes cites a Gord Downie quote: “Let’s turn our faces toward the sun and get whatever warmth there is.”
This November for her 45th birthday, Hayes will board a plane to Paris and soar towards the sky.
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