20 April 2023

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A Living Wake? What’s that…

Read Tim's story on how he confronted his terminal diagnosis with a celebration of his life!

Late last year, in December 2022, around 80 people gathered in the beautiful church hall of the Holy Trinity, Penge to celebrate the life of their friend Tim Lund. A further 40 or so watched the event online. The odd thing, though, was that Tim was very much still alive. In fact, he was in attendance! This was his ‘Living Wake’.

As a supporter and now a patient of St Christopher’s, we asked Tim, as well as his friend and one of the organisers of the event, also called Tim [Walker], to share their thoughts of the event and any advice they might have for others planning a Living Wake. We also recorded a video with the two Tims where they shared their thoughts more widely.

Tim Lund: I have stage 4 bowel cancer, but I’m not “raging at the dying of the light”. Nor am I just “slip slidin’ away”. That’s from a favourite Paul Simon song [Father and Daughter].

Facing death, I feel that same need to explain, but thankfully I have my daughters, and we can talk.

So, when some friends came up with the idea of a “Living Wake”, I jumped at the idea. How much more could they learn than just from me from all the friends and old colleagues who would come along for the party?

I like seeing friends, and seeing them chatting to each other, making new connections – a bit like how my Mum and Dad used to enjoy a wedding anniversary party. And at a Living Wake, people are going to say nice things about you, so that’s uplifting too. Thanks to the chemo, the cancer, and an operation I’ve had to have, I don’t have the energy I used to, but I was up to saying something to everyone about it being about staying in touch, especially with my daughters. I’ve tried myself to make sense of my parents’ lives, putting them in context, explaining the things they did, and these connections are invaluable. Long term, the best of the Living Wake for me will be helping them do the same for me. But I’m not gone yet, and I still want to talk with friends, so now the invitation is out there, to come round to talk about any number of things I’m interested in. Talking about my cancer is unavoidable, but it’s not the main thing I’m interested in. I also have some projects I can still get on with, which can keep me happy.

I have stage 4 bowel cancer, but I’m not “raging at the dying of the light”.

Maybe thanks to where I was in the chemo cycle, and the excitement, by the end of the afternoon I was pretty tired, but two days later, I was recovered, and managed to get these thoughts down. It hasn’t felt like a stage in “the dying of the light”, and it came as a bit of a surprise to register the poignancy with which a friend, who’d managed to fit it in with visit from Australia, pointed out this would probably be the last time we saw each other. Well, that’s going to be true for many friendships without us knowing it. There was another old friend there, who I’d not seen for over thirty years, who I hope he will take up that open invitation to come round to chat. Without closing our eyes, life goes on.

Tim Walker: Tim L had widely shared news of his terminal cancer diagnosis with friends and family in July and it was while having coffee in our local park that my friend John and I discussed a suggestion from another mutual friend. Tim was taken with the idea of a Living Wake, and was looking for someone to organise it. After some reflection we agreed that if Tim was serious then we would do it.

We didn’t really know what a Living Wake might be. Looking around on the web we gained some idea of what others had done. But we quickly realised how there was no real formula, each is a one-off and it all depends on what the family wants. We wanted to carry the burden of organisation on behalf of Tim and his family. They had more than enough to deal with already as Tim’s health fluctuated under a series of medications and hospital admissions.

Tim wrote down his initial vision of what it might be. A small event in the local park, a marquee a few speeches, maybe 30 or so people, ideally Zoomed to a wider audience. But we needed indoor comfort for autumn or winter so we scoured the locality for venues. It soon became clear that over 70 people would probably attend.

Having found a date and venue we then dealt with the practicalities, co-opting two other friends to help and to stress test our ideas, plans and messages. The idea of Tim’s living wake needed to be introduced and explained. We drafted and sent a suitable invitation from an email address set up for the purpose so that we could manage responses. Meanwhile we covered all the usual things you need to think of in organising a gathering. Seating, food, drinks, order of events, setting up and taking down tables, recruiting volunteer help for the day, flowers, name badges and so on. Plus the technical aspects of Zoom for those who could not come.

In parallel to these things, we involved Tim whenever we needed guidance or something more personal – the invitee list, music choices, family photos to be displayed and so on. We realised that we needed Tim, his wife Viv and their two adult daughters to be very much involved in developing the content and format of the day. We guided each other as we felt our way through devising an event that would be new to us all. I remember Tim asking if people did music at a living wake. None of us knew but it sounded like a great idea, so we did.

Responses to our email invitation were often poignant. Generally very positive, though not everyone responded. Some were uncomfortable with the concept, or perhaps shocked or saddened, having not already heard Tim’s news. We handled responses to emails daily, dealing with all administration but passing on personal messages directly to the family.

The day itself went as well as we might have hoped. As people arrived there was a memories book to write in, and we will paste in other remembrances and pictures that guests have emailed to us.

It’s something to enjoy. Come cheerful, leave more so.

Guided by our volunteer master of ceremonies we had three guest speakers, all selected by Tim, before breaking for people to chat informally over drinks and food, then a further three speakers.  The range covered family, friends going right back to schooldays and others who know Tim locally. As the afternoon progressed a rather beautiful jigsaw of Tim and his family, his life, and the love and respect for him and his achievements was assembled through the words of our speakers. We had time for a dozen or so more to say a few words too, each adding their own, often moving, perspective.

There was much laughter and conversation, friendships renewed and of course a few poignant moments drew tears. The main thing of course was that Tim was there and was well enough to be able to speak about his life, his family and friends and to remind us of his continuing need for visits, friendship and conversation.

Tim and Viv nominated three local charities to share a collection, including for St Christopher’s. Donations were generous, with many giving cash at the event and others using the Just Giving QR code we publicised before and during the event.

Reflecting back, I feel we got the important things about right. I think it might be emotionally very hard for close family to organise something like this, so Tim did well to ask outside the family. Being a little more detached meant we could focus on what needed to happen, and also involve the family only when we needed them. In turn, they needed to be able trust us with this most personal of events, and we tried to help with this by sharing a clear and written plan as we made decisions with their help. We found it very helpful to have a small group who could meet over a coffee, think through the project, add and adapt ideas and change direction when we needed to.

It was Tim, in an early email exchange, who drafted a note for the organising group about what a Living Wake meant to him. “First, it’s something to enjoy. Come cheerful, leave more so.” That phrase struck a chord and we used it in all our messages. Tim and his family were the last to leave, clearly in very good spirits, and perhaps that’s the best measure of how things went on that December Saturday.

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