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#No Perfect Victim~ One Survivor’s Thoughts About the Justice System

I was recently contacted by a woman who asked if I would be open to giving her space on my blog to share the following piece of writing. I firmly believe that the truth does set us free. Speaking out about things that many can only think about takes tremendous courage. Sometimes the desire to inform and educate outweighs the risk in putting it all out there and being vulnerable while standing firmly in your truth. This is one survivor’s truth and I encourage you to take the time to read it. Yes, it may make you uncomfortable but I don’t think that is a bad thing. ~Julie Keon

****TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains details that some readers might find disturbing and triggering.

Whenever sexual assault is in the news, it’s hard for me to sleep. Everyone weighs in with their opinions, statistics and arguments but I don’t see much on social media that is written by survivors.  Some survivors naturally try to avoid it altogether because it can bring up a lot of pain. When Rehtaeh Parsons’ tragic suicide after sexual assault was in the news about 3 years ago, it opened the floodgates for me and brought up a lot of suppressed memory, emotions, and PTSD symptoms.  The positive part of that public dialogue was that I finally started to talk about and truly process what had happened to me as a young woman.  The Ghomeshi trial has been similarly intense.  This time I’ve decided I need to write. It has helped me process my thoughts, my anger, and my experience with the whole concept of “justice.”

Many have been calling for new thinking about the justice system and how we handle sexual assault because of the overall picture due to the abysmally low reporting/ conviction rates and the difficulties with ‘evidence.’ I think it’s time to think outside the legal ‘box’ and look for a system that is designed to uncover the truth of both parties testimony. The behaviour of the witnesses is on trial and the accused’s version of events is not cross examined. There is no genuine search to uncover the truth in this adversarial system.  A shadow of doubt is easy to come up with when we throw in sexist questions like “What were you wearing?”  We must come up with a better, perhaps even separate, system for sexual assault cases.

My rapists got away with it because I was too afraid and ashamed to report them, and because I knew my experience did not match up with what the justice system considers ‘real rape.’

Calls for change predictably bring the alarmist response (‘but the accused won’t get a fair trial!’).   I want to make it clear that the accused must have a fair trial and we need to be concerned about wrongful conviction.  We also need to be concerned about making the wrong decision and letting sex offenders go free.  I believe we can find ways to bring more balance and some current science into the process.

Science and research have to replace outdated, often sexist beliefs, about what makes a victim’s story ‘credible’.  In my city, 40% of reported sexual assaults never even make it to trial because the police can decide whether or not the victim is credible and if not credible, then charges are not laid.  The reasons may include, agreeing to go on a date with the accused or having had a drink or two the night of the incident.  If the Crown thinks a case will be too difficult to prosecute, they just don’t.  That strikes me as a problem.

During High School, my law class attended court to sit in on a sexual assault trial.  I watched the young woman on the stand, who was also a high school student, be brutally cross-examined (‘whacked’).  She was badgered to tears about details like how many buttons were on your shirt?

You said there were four, now you say there were six?

I watched her extreme discomfort about having to give testimony in front of a class of high school students in her own city and she had to be the one to ask the judge for our class to leave. It was terrifying and I was discouraged from reporting what had recently happened to me. That was in the 80’s and it shocks me that nothing has changed in 30 years.

When I was raped at the young age of 15, by a man many years older than me, I didn’t know anything about the justice system. I was still drawing rainbows and unicorns on my schoolbooks until he ripped my childhood from me on that terrible night.  I didn’t know what kind of ‘evidence’ I would need and in the shock of the aftermath I certainly was not thinking about memorizing details or preserving the ‘crime scene’ on my body for forensics.

From what I’ve seen, if I had reported and assuming charges were even laid, my case wouldn’t have held up in court.  I know what happened to me but our justice system would not have protected me from my rapist. He preyed on vulnerable teens and he got into their heads.  I was bullied by my peers, which made me a target for predators because I was isolated and because I had low self-esteem. Looking through the lens of the justice system, my case would not have succeeded.  I wasn’t a ‘perfect victim’ with a ‘credible story’ and I would have been called a liar.   I’m going to share part of my story in the hope that you will understand a little of what is going on in the mind of a traumatized person, and why our evidence is seldom if ever perfect enough for proof beyond a shadow of doubt.

First flaw in my story:  I agreed to go on a date with him.  Incredibly, this alone seems to be enough to discredit a victim.  The police often ‘unfound’ a case; will not press charges, based on this.  Yet, statistically we know that the largest percent of sexual assaults is carried out by people known and trusted by the victim. This makes it deeply complicated. We know that most abusers are not green eyed monsters lurking in alleys. They are our friends, relatives, neighbors, fellow students, football stars, professionals, co-workers or our teen ‘crush’.  As a society we have a hard time imagining putting them behind bars.  It’s no wonder then, that victims also have a hard time seeing their perpetrators as monsters and often stay in contact or want to continue the relationship. Often we don’t want to call the police on someone we may still care about even though they hurt us. That doesn’t mean they didn’t hurt us. It’s confusing when you are betrayed and violated by someone who also has a ‘good side.’   Date rape and intimate partner violence are very real problems and we don’t seem to have the tools to prosecute.

Second flaw in my story:   I didn’t call the police. I didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t tell anyone. My memory went very blank. I went to school and acted like nothing had happened.   This is called dissociation and it’s one tool the brain uses to survive trauma. This led people to say things like ‘it couldn’t have been that bad then. ’ This idea is entrenched in public attitudes and the justice system.  But we have research that shows many different responses to trauma, such as shock, numbing, minimizing to cope and memory problems.  Dissociation got me through high school. Sadly, I have known a number of women who dropped out of school because the aftermath of sexual violence was too much to cope with. Sexual violence is another obstacle to success for women.

Third flaw in my story:  My memory is fragmented.  Because I dissociated, it was as if my brain stored different parts of the memory in different places. For years, I could recall the event but there was no emotion attached. Anxiety and depression plagued me but seemed separate from what happened.  The emotional and physical parts of the memory only came back recently. Some details have never returned, such as what happened afterwards.  I remember him pulling me by the arm out of the back room he had put me in,  through the party and out to his car (and no,  I don’t remember the colour of his car).   I assume he drove me home but I can’t remember anything about how I felt or what I did afterwards, not that night or the next day or the next week.

I remember exactly what happened to me before he grabbed my arm to exit the party; in vivid details that still wake me at night, shaking, smelling him, years later.   But I couldn’t describe the room or what he was wearing. What I do remember, during the assault, was the confusion, the shock, that things were changing so quickly and violently, he was changing from the person I thought he was, into something else that made no sense. Date rape is always seen as a ‘lesser’ crime somehow.  Merely  unwanted or less enjoyable sex, not ‘real’ trauma, not violence.

The reality of date rape is that not only is it violent, it’s a major mind fuck.   He had been someone I liked and I had wanted him to like me. I had been so excited and flattered when he asked me out on a date…but out of nowhere, everything changed, the whole thing felt wrong and too fast and confusing.  My brain could not adapt to his transformation from ‘guy I have a crush on’ to ‘monster from hell’ and one moment I was paralyzed with fear and ….then it was nothing. I was blank.  It was as if my brain could not make sense of it. It shattered my sense of reality, so the brain, in an act of self-preservation, simply shut itself off.   Telling anyone was psychologically impossible in the aftermath, because I was just shut off.  Talking about it remains incredibly difficult.  To this day I have no sense of safety, because I know, as trauma survivors do, that my whole world could be shattered in an instant.

Fourth flaw in my story: I drank alcohol that night at a party with him.  I remember him pouring more vodka into my drink repeatedly.  I drank it.  That doesn’t mean I asked to be raped.

Fifth flaw in my story: I agreed, impossibly, to go on a second date with him, a week later, and for the life of me I don’t know what possessed me to do that. I can’t remember a single thing between events.  I know that it doesn’t mean that I wasn’t raped the first time or that I ‘wanted it.’ It was horrific. So I can’t explain why I went out with him again.  I can only speculate.   He said he’d take me to a movie. Maybe I thought that he was going to take me to a movie and that would somehow make things okay again.  Maybe I thought it would repair the fabric of reality and things would make sense. I could re-write history a different way.  Perhaps then I could comprehend, fix things, construct a narrative that would allow my mind to survive.

I’ve read that our subconscious, when traumatized, tries to recreate the scenario, like our brain wants a do-over.   I’ve read about soldiers re-enacting scenarios that reflect their trauma on the anniversary of a bad experience.  So again, we need to look at the research and try to understand, not use ‘post-incident contact’ as a weapon against a victim’s story.

As you can probably guess he didn’t take me to a movie on that ‘second date’.

If my case even made it to court, based on the outdated beliefs that underlie how we evaluate credibility, my story would be difficult to prosecute.  I likely would have been called a liar and accused of trying to ruin the life of a ‘decent man.’ The fact that despite considerable effort to heal and move on I still suffer with PTSD, anxiety, chronic pain and depression is probably not considered evidence.

How can cases like this get prosecuted? I know for a fact I was not his only victim and this guy is still out there.  It seems incredible that the onus would have been on a 15 year old traumatized kid to be able to prove guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt (keep in mind the age of consent back then was 14).  Statistics show that the most likely age for a woman to be sexually assaulted is between 15 and 24.

There are thousands of cases like this every year and an extremely low conviction rate. This is a serious problem. The tendency is to blame the victim for not doing a good enough job. She should have reported immediately. She shouldn’t have gone on a date with him (apparently?)  She shouldn’t have had a drink.  She should have put her clothing into paper, not plastic bags which damage the evidence. She shouldn’t have had contact with him after the assault.  If she was really raped she would remember it. She would have told someone.

When you are in the middle of being raped, trust me, you are really not thinking about how you can be the perfect witness by memorizing details. You are not thinking about running straight to the police so you can be interrogated.  You are not making certain you remember every single sordid detail because if you forget something it is called ‘changing the story’. You likely don’t even know that you shouldn’t take a shower or brush your teeth because then you won’t have any ‘evidence’ for the examination by a doctor with a speculum. (by the way a rape kit exam takes between 2-4 hours and involves photographing, as well as extensive physical  examination) Right.

Then there is the fact that even if you have all this ‘evidence’, the police can decide not to press charges regardless, as we saw recently in a story reported in Ottawa news.

I didn’t report any of my rapes. Yes, it happened several times (in a small town, word gets around between predators but that’s another story).  My decision was mainly out of fear: fear of the ruthlessness of lawyers, fear that I would be publicly dragged through the mud and called a liar, fear of my rapists, of what they might do if I ‘made them’ angry. I already knew what they were capable of.

Silence is painful. It meant I had no support in healing. Initially, the silence was due to shock and dissociation. Later on, it was about shame. Now, silence is a tool by which I retain control over my story and my reputation. I tell only those I trust.  Even so I’ve been minimized and invalidated by people I thought were friends.

There is another factor that maybe people who haven’t been raped just don’t get. From a survivor`s perspective, when you look at the abysmally low conviction rates, there is actually considerable personal risk in reporting. Even if you manage to psychologically survive the trial, if your rapist walks free, you have to face the consequences of a system that has not protected your safety and will not protect you if he decides on revenge. You will spend the rest of your life literally looking over your shoulder.   Thirty years of PTSD and silence, has been the life sentence I have served for his crimes.

-Anonymous Survivor

Warriors We Remember

Yesterday, December 6th, marked the 26th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre; the day Marc Lepine walked into Ecole Polytechnique and consciously chose to murder 14 women whom he despised simply because they were women and because he perceived them as feminists. Each year, on this day, people gather at monuments to reflect, to light a candle and to ignite that fire within that the violence perpetuated against women that continues to this day must be stopped. For many here in Renfrew County, yesterday was also a remembrance of the three women killed recently in Wilno, ON and surrounding area when a man who was out on parole and hell bent on revenge, walked into their homes in the morning of September 22nd 2015 and shot them. He was eventually captured outside of Ottawa later that day but three families and the community at large were left in a state of shock and asking the question, “How could something like this happen?”

Three days after the shootings, the tiny community of Wilno invited me to create and lead a candle light vigil ceremony to support those directly and indirectly affected by this violent act. Although my training as a Certified Life Cycle Celebrant includes the creation and benefits of community ceremonies, this was a first for me and one that I knew carried such importance. It was my intention to create something meaningful that would aid in the collective grief we were all experiencing.

I opened the ceremony with these words:

Good evening and thank you to each of you for coming out tonight to support one another, this community and most of all to remember Anastasia Kuzyk, Nathalie Warmerdam and Carol Culleton: three local women whose vibrant lives came to a tragic end this past Tuesday. We gather this evening in solidarity and in shared grief and shock in the events that unfolded here in Wilno and the surrounding area on the morning of September 22nd. Gathering together tonight eases the suffering that we have all felt since hearing the news that three beloved members of this community died prematurely in a tremendous act of violence.

Experiencing this type of trauma and sadness in isolation only intensifies it. By coming tonight and seeing the faces of your fellow community members and the faces of those who have travelled from afar to be here tonight in support, helps us to understand that every one of us has been deeply impacted and forever changed by this tragedy. It is my hope that this gathering tonight will ease some of the isolation you may have been feeling. I urge you in the days and weeks to come to reach out to your neighbours, your friends and family, your spiritual leaders or community professionals if you are having difficulty understanding or processing the very normal but complicated feelings that occur in the aftermath of a tragic event such as this one.

It is a natural response to try to place blame and to figure out how something so horrific could have been prevented. Tonight, I urge you to take a deep breath and set aside these feelings of rage and blame and instead reach down into your heart and bring forth compassion and love for one another and especially for the friends and families of Anastasia, Nathalie and Carol who suffer most deeply. I also ask that we keep the Borutski family in our hearts, understanding that they, too, suffer as they attempt to come to terms with what has happened.”

After the opening words, a local man and friend of one of the victims came up and sang a moving a Capella rendition of  “Tears in Heaven.” At this point, the 400+ attendees were instructed to keep their candles unlit. We stood together in semi-darkness until each slain woman was honoured by a personal friend. As each person got up and spoke, the candles were gradually lit until we stood together in the glow of hundreds of flames. Yes, we were engulfed in darkness with this tragedy and yet as each woman was honoured and her individual characteristics and personality were celebrated, we lit up that dark night with hundreds of little flames…….beacons of hope

Photo courtesy of Ryan Paulsen (Pembroke Daily Observer)

 Photo by Ryan Paulsen (Pembroke Daily Observer)

The moment of silence for private reflection was broken by a chilling and powerful song called “Warrior” by the Wyrd Sisters and sung by local musician and singer, Stephanie Pinkerton. I encourage you to listen to the song here. Following this song, everyone was invited to come forward and lay flowers at the makeshift altar. A local choir sang Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluiah” as mourners silently came forward. I closed the ceremony with the following words:  “Together as a community, we share in a collective grief, that will need time and tending to before healing will occur. Our lives have forever been changed and the memory of this day will be etched in the history of Wilno and the Madawaska Valley. It is my sincerest hope that in these sacred moments of remembering, we may come closer to accepting the unacceptable and we may find some meaning where there is no meaning. May we always remember our pain so that it can be transformed into action so that we will never see history repeating itself.

I presided over two more vigils that week; one after the annual Take Back the Night event and another community candlelight vigil in the town of Petawawa. By the time I did the Petawawa vigil, a week had passed since the shootings and the feeling in the community was one of anger. The shock was transforming and people were really furious at how this could happen: “As a community we can’t help but feel deep sadness and as the reality sets in, we are faced with a new challenge. How do we make sure this type of violence never happens again in Renfrew County? How do we begin to shift cultural perspectives and create lasting change? This issue belongs to all of us. We, as a community, can no longer turn away while women continue to be terrorized. We must be willing and vigilant in creating an environment of safety and one where women can seek assistance to feel safe and protected and actually achieve it. As the grief settles into your bones, your feelings may shift to that of anger and rage.This anger can fuel change; lasting change and tonight, I hope that as we come together and reflect on these three beautiful women, that we will all pledge to do whatever we can to prevent this from happening again. We all care about what has happened. We feel deeply about what has happened and we must now heed the call to end violence against women once and for all.”

I urged the crowd to “never forget the devastation and pain.” I talked about how we must take these raw emotions and transform them into action. It was clear to me then that in the not-so-distant future, we would resume our regular lives and so it was critical that we vow to keep the momentum going to find constructive, effective solutions.candlehand Not long after the shootings in Wilno, people did return to their normal daily lives and soon there were groups cropping up to begin fund raising for the wave of Syrian refugees who would be coming to Canada in the coming months. I had originally signed up to be a part of this grassroots group but I felt an internal struggle. I was amazed at how local people rallied together and came up with incredibly creative fundraisers and events to raise thousands of dollars in a relatively short amount of time to support new Canadians. Although I understood and supported their efforts, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if the same amount of energy, creativity and support was shown for the women living in Renfrew County right now who live in terror every single day and night; terror bestowed upon them by their intimate partners. And I felt frustrated that, as I had predicted, we went back to our normal lives and nothing had been done or changed since the Wilno shootings. The Wilno shootings shed light on the insidious problem of violence against women and people were left with a deep need to help and yet not sure how to do so.

I recently met with JoAnne Brooks of the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County and I asked her what people could do right now to support women in crisis. This is what she had to say: “Women who unexpectedly experience violence tell us that practical help makes a difference. Gas cards from the Canadian Tire gas bar means that lawyers appointments can be gotten to, medical advice can be sought – especially in our large geographical region where we have no buses. Walmart and Giant Tiger gift cards mean that women and children can get some food and items like underwear, socks, shoes, shampoo. When women are ‘matched’ with other folks kindness it often provides a ‘glimmer’ of light that a stranger cares. Especially the winter season when it is dark and cold a wee bit of ‘comfort & joy’ can go a long way to making a difference for a woman and her children.”

In this season of giving, as you make your way around to the various shops and stores in Ottawa and Renfrew County, please consider adding a gift card to your shopping list knowing that your generosity does make a difference in the lives of women who are in violent situations. JoAnne goes on to say: “Every holiday season WSAC distributes holiday gifts for women and children in Renfrew County. Though gifts are wonderful and we are extremely appreciative for your donations. The holidays are often a time when women feel that they don’t have many choices. Gift Cards provide them with the freedom to make choices specific to their families wants and needs for the holidays. We appreciate any and all offerings that can be shared with women and children. Gift Card Suggestions: Grocery Stores, Gas Stations, Walmart, Shoppers Drug Mart, Dollar Store, Giant Tiger.

If you want to contribute to the well being of women in Renfrew County consider sending a monetary donation or a gift card donation to: WSAC, PO Box 1274, Pembroke, ON K8A 6Y6

Sadly, there is a need to support women and children in our own communities. If you were devastated by the Wilno shootings and have wondered ever since how you can help, please consider JoAnne’s suggestions above and make a donation to your local women’s shelter and/ or women’s sexual assault centre.


Renfrew County Women’s Monument which was created to honour and grieve all women in Renfrew County murdered or abused by men.

“I am an older woman now
And I will heed my own cries
And I will a fierce warrior be
’til not another woman dies

I can and will fight
I can and will a warrior be
It is my nature and my duty
It is the womanhood in me.”

I remember.


There are seventeen names etched in this stone representing the women we have lost to violence and, sadly, three more names will be added. Let us do the work to bring about change so that Anastasia Kuzyk, Nathalie Warmerdam and Carol Culleton will be the final names engraved in this rock .

Honouring the Crone Part 2

Creating this Honouring the Crone Ceremony was a process. I spent a lot of time thinking about what would be most meaningful to our mother and how I could use ceremony to soften some of the growing pains she was feeling with entering into this new decade. At first, my mother thought this ceremony would be about aging and getting old and I needed to reassure her that it would be positive, powerful and beneficial. I am glad she surrendered and trusted us in planning this beautiful afternoon and evening for her. I have three siblings and each of us brought our special talents and contributions.indexI was in charge of writing the ceremony with input from my siblings and so this post will be about that.

Our mother is an avid gardener. Although she is a devout Catholic and goes to church every Sunday, she might agree that being in her garden elevates her spiritually more than anything. It is like a drug and something she must do on an almost daily basis as soon as the thaw happens sometime in April each year. She craves being in her garden and shares it with anyone who has interest; generously giving plants to those who wish to start or enhance their own garden. It seemed appropriate then to have each guest bring a perennial to add to her garden and I created an earth mixing ritual to go along with these gifts. Everyone was instructed to wear purple as this is the colour of wisdom and each guest was given a handkerchief to catch their tears which were sure to fall throughout the ceremony. My sister, Stephanie, stitched a lavender sprig on each one and also added a drop of essential lavender oil to honour our mother’s love of this plant.

In preparation for the ceremony, I created an altar that symbolized our mother’s life (her childhood, her life as a young woman, as a mother and finally now, as a crone). Each section of the altar was decorated with photos, a candle to be lit during the ceremony to welcome the directions and the elements which represents each direction. As well, tiny bottles of earth were displayed throughout the altar. A week before the ceremony, my father and I took a little road trip and I collected earth from significant places in my mother’s life~ from the place where she and my dad danced when they were dating, from her original family homestead, from a second family home which was also previously her schoolhouse, from the church where my parents were married and from her parents’ grave. My dad also pulled over on the side of the road where he kissed my mom for the first time! It was important to honour my mother’s lineage and so a section was dedicated to her female ancestors and we welcomed their spirits to our circle by lighting an ancestral candle. A photo of my mother’s mother as a young woman in a logging camp as well as a photo of her childhood homestead accompanied this special candle. The purple candle stood proudly by the Crone statue (handmade by my sister, Stephanie) and a piece of raw amethyst. The purple candle was lit by mom to welcome the guests to this sacred gathering.


The ceremony began with welcoming words and the purpose and intention of the ceremony. Each woman introduced herself in relation to her female lineage (“I am Julie, daughter of Donna, grand daughter of Pearl and Delima and mother to Meredith.”)

And then we welcomed the four directions:

20150912_141108“Blessed be this Wise Woman with the gifts of the East. The eastern spirit of the sun brings warmth and light. It is the place of beginnings. It is represented by the element of AIR for openness and breath, communication of the heart and purity of the mind and body. From the east you receive the gift of a new beginning with the rising of each Sun and the understanding that each day is a new opportunity for growth. This candle is placed in the area of our altar that honours the beginning of your life and your childhood.”20150912_141127

“Blessed be this Wise Woman with the gifts of the South,represented by the element of FIRE, for energy, passion, creativity and the warmth of a loving home. From the fire within, you generate light, which you share generously and willingly providing warmth to all who need it as a wife, mother, grandmother, friend and also for many years in your career as a nurse. This candle is placed in the area of our altar that honours you as a young woman, vibrant and full of life. You found passion and a deep, lifelong love with Stan with whom you created a family and a home.”

20150912_141318“Blessed be this Wise Woman with the gifts of the West represented by the element of WATER for your capacity to feel emotion and to mother four children brought forth from the waters of your womb. You have always had the ability to keep your heart open in both joy and sorrow and have raised your children with love and gentleness. This candle has been placed in the area of our altar that honours you as a Mother.”


Blessed be this Wise Woman with the gifts of the North. The north contains the power of wisdom. Here we take time to reflect on what we began in the east, in the morning, in our youth. The North is represented by the element of EARTH which provides sustenance and security. As you embark on the north of your life, may you continue to welcome each day through the eyes of a child yet with the wisdom of the Crone, knowing that each moment must never be taken for granted. This candle is placed in the area of our altar which honours you as an elder and grandmother.”

At this time, I told the story of my mother’s life and as we moved through her story, I invited her to blend earth into a bowl. As I spoke of her birth and her childhood, she blended the earth collected from her homestead, schoolhouse/ eventual family home and from her parent’s grave. As I spoke of her adolescence and of meeting then marrying our dad, she blended earth that was collected from the property where a dance hall once stood, and from the side of the road where my dad stole his first kiss, from the old ball park where they used to make out (which is now a forest) and from the Catholic Church in Vinton, Quebec where they were married. Our mother gave birth to four healthy children who in turn have blessed her with seven grandchildren. As I spoke about her role as mother and grandmother, she blended earth that we brought from our own homesteads (from Cobden to Inkerman to Augsburg and Toronto).

The next ritual was called the “Releasing Ritual.” The intention of this ritual was to make space in this next stage of life by reflecting on those things she wished could have been different or perhaps those things that she still hung onto which no longer served a purpose. At this time, mom was given an opportunity to sit quietly for a few moments, close her eyes and think back over her life. She did not need to share those things that needed releasing. Instead, as each item came up, she simply took a pinch of salt and sprinkled it into a dish of water saying, “I release that which no longer serves me.” After each release, she would sit back and close her eyes once again, scanning through her life plucking up anything that needed to be released. The rest of us sat quietly supporting her in this ritual while soft Celtic music played in the background.


The next stage of the ceremony honoured her transformation from one stage of life to the next. I shared the following words as she was crowned with a wreath of fresh flowers and lavender sprigs and wrapped in a purple shawl. “Our attention now turns to honouring Donna as the Wise Woman she has become. You have 70 years of life experience, adventures, sorrows, joys, memories and story lines all contained within you. Every single one made you into the beautiful spirit you are today. At this time we place this wreath of flowers on your head as a symbolic crowning and we wrap you in this purple shawl as an initiation into this next stage of your life as Crone. May you move from the mindset of age-ing to sage-ing trusting that you have earned this title of Wise Woman and that you are loved by these women who surround you today.

To honour her initiation as crone, each woman present described the perennial they had brought and why it was chosen. We originally planned to go out to the garden and plant them but it was raining so we spoke in the circle and then my mom went out to her garden and mixed the earth she had blended earlier in the ceremony into the area of her garden where she intended to plant the gifted perennials. Then I had her leave her garden and walk into the abandoned lot next door and toss the salted water from the release ritual. Everyone stood by to witness. It was very emotional and powerful to watch our mother do these two simple actions.

20150912_182945We returned to our seats to complete the gift giving with a “Guardian of the Blessings Mobile” ritual. Each woman had been asked to bring a strip of material that was special to them in some way to add to a mobile. The mobile would be hung in a tree branch over the perennial garden in the spring.20150912_192045

The final stage of completing was next. We released each of the four directions by extinguishing the corresponding candle. I them invited all of the women to gather around mom and place their hands on her while the following poem (written by Ara) was read:

“Blessings to the Crone
For she is the ancient wisdom in our veins
The drum beat of our hearts and the sacred fire of our spirit
Woven out of moon light and shamanic sage smoke
She is the beating heart of the old ways
Long may she weave her knowing within me
Long may she howl to the full moon bright.”

Of course, we all howled like the wild women we are. Everyone returned to their places and a final blessing about community was shared and our circle was opened. The ceremony was followed by some social time with signature cocktails and appi’s while a sit-down, gourmet dinner was prepared.

I know that this ceremony served it’s deepest purpose and helped my mother transition into her honourable role as Crone. Ceremony and ritual have such powerful benefits in assisting individuals, couples, families and communities transition in joy, sorrow, big and small ways.

Honouring the Crone Part 1

“I am not old… I am rare. I am the standing ovation at the end of a play. I am the retrospective of my life as art. I am the hours connected like dots into good sense. I am the fullness of existing. You think I am waiting to die…
But I am waiting to be found. I am a treasure. I am a map. And these wrinkles are imprints of my journey. Ask me anything.”

~ Samantha Reynolds


Courtesy of

I am acutely cognizant of the great blessing it is for me to have my mother alive and well and a part of my life forty-four years after my birth. I got lucky in the lottery of motherhood and could not have custom designed a better mother for me. Reading this, she would stammer a little and maybe feel a bit embarrassed by my words because that is who she is. She is a lover of life and most of all family and so the way she is, is as natural to her as breathing. Being an extraordinary caregiver, a gentle soul, a loving mother, wife and friend, is just who she is and she would think nothing of it. My mother is a content woman who delights in so many of life’s simple pleasures that you might assume she missed out on childhood and is only getting to experience it for the first time now. Each year, we have “the BEST Christmas tree ever” and she is never bored with the bursting buds in springtime, the magnificent foliage in autumn and the first snowfall is magical every. single. year.

I do know that there is a part of her that dreads getting old and another part of her that plans to fight like a demon when death comes to pay a visit. She will certainly not be “going gently into that good night” and she will most definitely “rage against the dying of the light.”  Even to speak of it brings her to tears and seems to cut off oxygen  interrupting her ability to speak. If she could live forever, she would. No doubt about it.

And so, last year, after she turned 69, my siblings and I began to plan her 70th birthday. With my dad’s input and much thought, we knew that she would be happier with a small family dinner rather than a huge surprise party. We know our mother and as much as we wanted to go big with celebration, we knew that we needed to do what would be most meaningful to her. A part of her celebration weekend included a Crone Ceremony. The intention was to set aside some space, physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, to pause and acknowledge this milestone year. Although I think my mother was born with an old soul, it was important to shine light on the seventy years she has lived and to honour the wisdom gained.

As a Life-Cycle Celebrant, I am so privileged to help individuals, couples and families transition through life’s  moments, big and small, through ceremony and so creating and writing my first Crone Ceremony was both exciting and challenging. It didn’t take long for the ideas to flow and come together and with the approval of my siblings, this “Honouring The Crone” Ceremony came to life.

After a family dinner on the Friday night complete with artwork by her grandchildren and bbq and cake, we continued the celebrations into Saturday with a surprise three hour afternoon trip to the spa. As she was pampered, we (her children) got busy preparing the house for a special Crone Ceremony and a gourmet dinner to follow. Due to the nature of this type of gathering, the number of guests were kept to a minimum and mom chose a handful of friends to surround her. We anxiously waited for this part of the birthday weekend to unfold so that we could finally share with her everything we had been planning for months before.

**Stay tuned for Part 2 which will include a description of the ceremony**

The Fledgling

The Fledgling

I find myself in a very strange place these days. And by ‘strange place’ I am not referring to somewhere geographically but more to somewhere psychologically. As a birth worker since 1998 in the capacity of a birth doula, postpartum doula, breastfeeding counsellor, belly caster and traumatic birth workshop facilitator, my identity was naturally a part of the work that I wholeheartedly participated in.BabyWhen you are a part of the intimate experiences of others’ lives, and you love every part of it, it doesn’t feel like work. I was considered an “oldie” doula to some extent due to the years of experience and knowledge I gained in the last seventeen years being with birthing women, babies and newborn parents and families. In 2012, another job title was added to the list; that of marriage officiant. In 2013 after an eight month training course with the Celebrant Foundation & Institute, I graduated as a Certified Life-Cycle Celebrant specializing in funerals and end-of-life celebrations. These past few years of writing/ creating custom ceremonies for the entire life cycle  has prompted me  to let go of my birth work little by little….work that I loved but was no longer fulfilling me in the way it used to.


Photo courtesy of Union Eleven: Ottawa Wedding Photographers

I am embarking on a new path. My work as a funeral celebrant serving families who are dealing with the death of a loved one, has ignited an interest in end-of-life care that has lain dormant for many, many years. Death isn’t something that I have been afraid of or shied away from in my life and I know where that stems from. My mother was a nurse for over forty years and as children we listened to her stories of patients dying and I recall how she always told the stories in such a way that the dying process, although mysterious, seemed so natural and sacred.

There were things she observed over and over. She would tell us that, “Oftentimes they wait until their loved ones are gone and then they die” or “This woman waited until her son arrived from far away and the moment he was there and took her hand, she exhaled for the last time.” In addition to hearing these accounts, my sisters and I often sang at the funerals of our local church and we attended many wakes of people whom we didn’t know personally but who maybe didn’t have family to pay their respects. Thirty-five years ago, people would die at home and my mom would send my sisters and I to deliver food for a weary family needing nourishment. It was all a natural part of growing up in a small, Ontario town. When a family pet died, the neighbourhood kids gathered round while we performed a makeshift funeral and burial. It wasn’t until I was much older and living in a city that I recognized that this was not the experience of all children.

My interest, though, in end-of-life care began in high school when a progressive teacher offered a course called Death Education as part of our Man in Society class. Granted, this teacher was the brunt of many jokes and when I look back now, I realize how much courage it took for her to not only offer a class with this title but to offer it to a bunch of teenagers. I will tell you, though, that it is probably the one class I remember and that impacted me deeply. I recall going on a field trip which involved a bus trip to Ottawa to visit Tubman’s Funeral Home. Can you imagine a class of 15 and 16 year old students filing into the funeral home and trying to behave seriously and respectfully? The tour even included a walk through a visitation room complete with the open casket of a woman named “Mrs. Bobolink” (yes, I even remember the deceased woman’s name!). Some of the students had never seen a dead body before and fled within seconds the moment their brain registered what they were in the presence of. We were shown the embalming room and educated on all aspects of preparation and handling of the body after death. It was a memorable class to say the least.

A few weeks ago, I came upon an accordion file of articles I have clipped from newspapers and magazine over the years and it was interesting for me to see the number of death-related items I had kept over the years. One in particular was entitled, “Funeral Homes Help Diminish Grief,” a handout given in that Death Education class in high school. A subtitle reads, “Funerals are for the living…….they cause us to come together in a way we otherwise never do.” That simple phrase stuck with me and I carried that belief with me over the passage of time.

Pearl Funeral 6

In my early years as a birth doula, I was drawn to hospice care and I wondered if it would be a bizarre combination to be assisting with ushering souls in and out. In the end, I just never seemed to get around to exploring this desire any further and my birth work kept be busy. In 2003, I became a mother and that became my main focus for many years especially considering our daughter’s medical fragility.

So here I am today……….a fledgling. It is strange to be in the beginner’s shoes after so many years as an experienced birth worker but end-of-life care is calling to me loudly; no longer in whispers. I am half way through my hospice volunteer training and I have taken the plunge and enrolled in death midwifery training which will begin January of 2016. I intend on using this space to write about my learning and reflections as I move forward in this direction as well as share aspects of some of the ceremonies I get the privilege of taking part in. Stay tuned as I track down my old high school teacher for an interview and write about things that perhaps most of us think about but don’t dare say outloud. I hope you will come along as this doula leaves one end of the life spectrum for another.


The Circle of Life

And the seasons, they go ‘round and ‘round and the painted ponies go up and down. We’re captive on the carousel of time. We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came and go round and round and round in the circle game.”

~ Joni Mitchell

I started out as an adult believing that I would work with people in one way or another. I graduated from the Social Service Worker program at Sir Sandford Fleming College in 1992 and assumed I would work in the mental health field, as this was an area that interested me. I also knew that I wanted to work with women specifically. In 1998, I came upon the Doula Services Association of BC exhibit while attending a women’s health fair in Victoria, BC. A Doula is a woman who provides continuous emotional and physical support to a woman and her partner during labour, childbirth and the postpartum period. I knew, in that moment, that I had found my calling and I proceeded to take my training a couple of months later.

Since becoming a Certified Doula and prior to my “retirement” in 2003, I had the privilege of attending over one hundred births. I attended births in the hospital and home and I worked with Obstetricians, General Practitioners and Midwives. I had witnessed highly medicalized births including cesarean births as well as all-natural, low intervention births. I always felt it to be an incredible honour to sit with the labouring mother, sometimes for short and intense periods as is the case with precipitous labours and more commonly for many hours and even days as is the case of a long, prodromal labour. I was very sad to hang up my doula hat but my life circumstances did not allow for me to continue this work; an unpredictable job that includes being on-call almost continuously and being away from home for many hours and even days at a time.

In November of 2010, my paternal grandmother, Pearl Keon, became ill and it wasn’t long before we knew that she was most likely not going to get better. She was moved from the medical floor to the chronic floor at the Renfrew Victoria Hospital while she waited for a bed to become available in a long-term care facility. Although the doctors and nurses were positive and encouraging, my mother, who is a retired nurse, felt that Grandma was not going to be with us for very long. At the age of 91, it was as though her body was shutting down even though her spirit was still alive and well and sparkling.

Because my mother was a Registered Nurse for forty-three years, she and my father made the most loving and selfless decision on Boxing Day to bring Grandma to their home for end of life care. We were overjoyed to know that Grandma would be surrounded by those who loved her most and that she would spend her final days basking in the warmth and familiarity of a home where she had spent so many joyful times in the past twenty years. How many birthday celebrations, Christmas’, Easters and family dinners had she participated in at this home? My mother created a space for her in the dining room that is made up mostly of windows so that Grandma could look outside and be close to the kitchen. We played Irish music for her, displayed photos of her with my Grandpa, pasted cards and drawings on the wall from friends and family and we took turns sitting with her round the clock. Family and loved ones offered to sit and help out and soon my parent’s home became a sacred space where this amazing Matriarch was living out her final days.

In that week, I learned a profound lesson that, like labour and birth, dying can be hard work. This very natural process takes time and a smoother transition often involves the loving support of trustworthy caregivers. As I spent time sitting with Grandma, I reflected on how similar the care is when one helps to usher in a new soul as in birth and when one helps to send a soul on its’ way. My sisters and I gave birth at home and I thought of how we had taught my mother about giving birth at home and how our mother was now teaching us about dying at home.

There were so many parallels in the care given in birthing and in the care given in dying. The care given to Grandma in that last week of December reminded me of the things that I did during hundreds of hours of labour. The skills of a birth doula can be easily transferred to the skills required of those walking alongside the dying. These skills include but are not limited to: continuous emotional and physical support, assistance with personal care, soft voices and gentle touch, a calm environment, protecting the space, soft lighting, background music, the display of familiar things like photographs, offering sips of water or ginger ale with a straw, assisting with nutrition and feeding and sometimes simply knowing when to do nothing but sit quietly and be present. I remember smiling to myself when I wrapped my Grandma’s cold feet in a heated rice sock; the same rice sock that had comforted countless labouring mothers many, many times before. Grandma died peacefully on January 1st, 2011, surrounded by two of her children, her daughter-in-law and three grand-daughters.

The Circle of Life

As with all of the births I have attended, it was an honour and a privilege to help “doula” my grandmother through the dying process and to be there in that moment when her soul was no longer with us. I am so grateful that my parents were in a position that they could not only provide this care to my grandmother but that they gave this opportunity to myself and our family. To witness how incredibly sacred, respectful and beautiful the dying process can be is something that I consider so very positive and life changing. I feel very blessed to have been a part of these two transitions that all of us must go through in this circle of life.

** Originally published in the Whitewater Cobden Sun newspaper in Julie Keon’s weekly column “One Woman’s Words” April 2011 **

© Julie Keon 2014

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