Death doesn't seem the most inspiring of topics for a film, does it? If I were to hazard a guess I'd say that the majority of us do our best to go through our days without thinking about death or dying. After all, who wants to think about such a gloomy subject? What purpose would it serve anyway? Wouldn't thinking about our impending doom, because we are all going to die eventually, just serve to depress us? So it might surprise you to hear somebody say that by denying our eventual deaths we reduce our ability to live our lives to their fullest.
Stephen Jenkinson has a Master's Degree in Social Work, is a graduate of the Harvard School of Divinity, worked in the centre for children's grief and palliative care in a major children's hospital in Canada, and as an associate professor in a Canadian medical school. He counsels individuals and their families, helping them come to terms with their impending death and all its implications. He also lectures and leads workshops for people who work in palliative care and offers workshops to the general public on how to get the most out of your life — through a better understanding of death.
Griefwalker, produced by The National Film Board Of Canada and distributed by Alive Mind Media, is a documentary about Jenkinson that was filmed over a 12-year period by director Tim Wilson who also happens to be Jenkinson's friend.
There are two parts to the film: one deals with Jenkinson and his work and includes footage of him working with clients, leading seminars, and interviews with people who have worked with him, while the other is a mixture of the director's personal recollections of his relationship with Jenkinson and an examination of the man's philosophies and how his approach to life has shaped them. At times the director steps out from the behind the camera and becomes part of the film as he cross-examines his friend or recalls personal memories. For at one point the director had come close to dying after what was supposed to have been routine surgery and Jenkinson had said something to him that pissed him off at the time. In the movie the two men discuss that time and it works into their discussion on death and people's relationship to it.
The interviews with clients are some of the hardest things you'll ever watch in a movie because of their simple realism. These are real people talking about their circumstances and that makes it all the more poignant. There are two incidences where we are witness to Stephen at work counselling people, and a third is a young couple recounting their experiences with him when their infant daughter died. What we quickly find out about Jenkinson is that he's genuinely serious about helping people come to terms with the reality of impending death, and does so by forcing them to confront their fears. He doesn't come across as necessarily sympathetic — at least in the sense we might think of based on the sentimental ideas of sympathy we've been raised on. However there can be no doubting his compassion for the people he is dealing with as he coaxes them into admitting what they are really feeling or facing up to their situation.
The case of the young couple is a good example of this. Their baby was being kept alive by blood transfusions. Every two or three days she would need another transfusion but there was no promise of her ever recovering. The mother recalls how Jenkinson gradually helped her realize how she was in denial about her baby's chances of survival by making her say out loud the false hopes she was clinging to in her head. Eventually she and her husband took their baby home where she could die in peace and without pain. They were able to enjoy their child's last days to the fullest because of this instead of the gradual wasting away that would have occurred in the hospital.
I've a natural mistrust of people who assume the trappings of a culture other than their own as most of the time they have only a superficial knowledge of what they've adopted and make no attempt to actually live their lives according to what they supposedly believe in. So the sight of Jenkinson with his hair tied back in a braid was at first slightly off-putting. However as the movie progresses you come to realize this is not someone who has merely taken on the appearance of his Algonquin neighbours — he has an understanding of their culture and belief system, and attempts to live his life accordingly. He has also looked to indigenous cultures around the world for the basis of his program for teaching people how to cope with death based on their connection to the world around them.
The movie does a great job of not only presenting Jenkinson's ideas on death and dying, but introducing us to the man and showing us not only how he formulated his concepts, but how the life he has chosen to live embodies them. He is what he preaches and does his best to live according to what he espouses. Whether you agree with his ideas or not, and the movie is a pretty convincing argument in favour of what he has to say about our fear of death and how that impacts our quality of life, you can't help but admire him for his dedication to helping people and his compassion for everybody he comes in contact with.
Probably everyone has seen a silly Western movie at some time or another where an Indian character on the verge of going into battle will say, "It's a good day to die." However, the real meaning of that expression is live each day as if it were your last and enjoy it to its fullest. Greifwalker is the story of a man who does his best to make any day a good day for people to die in by helping them confront and defeat their fears surrounding it. While the DVD doesn't come with any special features, the person you meet in the film is probably one of the more special people you'll come across in a long time.
If you're interested in learning more about his counselling services and workshops be sure to go to his Orphan Wisdom web site where you'll find complete descriptions of what he has to offer and his a listing of his scheduled appearances – so far – around North America for 2010.