By Dr. Sandy Simpson, Chief of Forensic Psychiatry, CAMH
In December we held a memorial service in the Sacred Space at CAMH for a woman whose doctor I have been for the last seven and a half years. The space was filled with other clients from CAMH, staff who had cared for her in hospital and in the community, and workers and co-residents from the places she worked in and places she lived in the community over recent years.
She, like many of us present, had been an immigrant to Canada, in her case a refugee. She was 55 when she died in a tragic accident. She had major mental health and physical health problems, and of course problems with the law that brought her to the forensic health system and under my care.
What lived in that room, and in our memories, were the stories of her warmth, her wit and her courage with which she faced life’s many challenges.
There were certain things that mattered greatly to her: family, having children, and the importance of doing a job well and professionally. She would not infrequently reprimand me and even her endocrinologist if we did not dress as well as she felt we should. She herself had great fun with her own appearance, changing her hair colour regularly and dressing with personality and panache. She wanted and appreciated help from us in the Forensic Outpatient , although we disagreed with her at times as to what form that help should take. This led to her intermittently firing me as her doctor, though she would always have me back after a month or so.
During the memorial, we listened to the stories of many whom she touched. When she got to know us, how she would remind us of the need to get married, to have children and to enjoy our lives. She always knew what she felt mattered most in life. And what shone through all the accounts and stories was the common experience of a special person: her generosity (even when she had little), her warmth, sense of humour and the hugs she gave freely as she perceived people needed them. This was true of all of her fellow CAMH service users , co-residents and workmates, and also true of those of us who were fortunate to have been clinical staff who supported her.
Our common humanity, our common connectedness were enhanced by her small acts of kindness and the generosity that defined her interactions with us. Not diagnoses, not the problems with the law, not those other difficulties that we struggled with together. It was the things that transcend all of them that people spoke of. It was so moving to celebrate and remember the life of someone with all of those problems who gave so much to the many people she encountered.
She was taken from us too soon. She taught us much.