CBC NEWS: In a final act of love, this woman built her wife a casket

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Heather Nicholson wanted to send her wife 'off in style'

As Heather Nicholson prepared to say goodbye to her partner of 22 years, she set up sawhorses, and made her Oromocto, N.B. living room into a workshop. 

She was preparing to build her wife, Heather Morley, a casket, as a final act of love.

"When you're grasping at straws, it's wonderful to have a task to do, and I'm kind of task-oriented. So I'm really grateful," she said. "It was wonderful to do it."

'I won the jackpot with Heather'

Over two decades earlier, Nicholson met Morley at a conference in Salt Lake City. The pair bonded over sharing a name. "She and I were outside smoking, and our nametags both said Heather, and that's how the conversation started." 

The rest, Nicholson says, was history. 

"So what happened was I won the jackpot with Heather, and I got 20 years."

In 2008, Morley was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD,  an inflammatory lung disease that causes long-term breathing problems. Nicholson was in the room when the doctor delivered the diagnosis, and immediately started to cry.

As Heather Nicholson prepared for her wife's death, she build and painted her a casket. 'I felt like I was sending her off in style, giving her that good death,' says Nicholson. (Submitted by Heather Nicholson)

"And Heather's thought was 'I'll be fine, I can do this'," she said. "It took a longer time for [the situation] to be recognized by her."

Last year, as Morley's condition worsened, it became obvious she would need palliative care.

"The kicker came when she couldn't put her socks on, and she said 'Honey, I need some help,'" said Nicholson.

Casket kits

With her wife in palliative care, Nicholson began looking for support to prepare for her death. One of those supports, a death doula, suggested a Fredericton, N.B. business called the Fiddlehead Casket Company. They make casket kits, which would allow Nicholson to build her wife's casket. 

The assembled casket, with rope handles, on sawhorses in Nicholson's living room. Building the casket took about 45 minutes. (Submitted by Heather Nicholson)

The disease had robbed Morley of her independence, and there were few opportunities for the couple to feel in control, so for Nicholson, building and personalizing the coffin to honour her wife's life was one way to reclaim that control.

Nicholson bought a casket kit, storing it in her living room until she needed it. 

"I said 'OK, the best place for this to be is where I'm going to need it ... It'll stay right here, behind the couch, underneath the windows.'"

Nicholson said watching her wife's coffin being carried away by the funeral home's retrieval vehicle filled her with 'a sense of pride, and a sense of caring, in sending her off well.' (Submitted by Heather Nicholson)

On an evening in late April this year, the night before her wife died, Nicholson assembled the casket in the living room. Once it was built, Nicholson painted one side of the coffin lavender, so that friends and health care providers could write messages on the outside. The other side was a beach scene, to commemorate the happy times the couple had spent by the ocean. On the top, she painted a rainbow, to symbolize the colours of gay pride, topped with a strip of silver "because we're both older, wiser lesbians." 

Building and painting the casket took Nicholson hours but the time she spent absorbed in the task was a welcome opportunity to focus her mind and prepare herself for the transition to come.

It helped me greatly, and I'm so glad we did it. It wasn't perfect, but perfection wasn't the point.- Heather Nicholson

"It helped me greatly, and I'm so glad we did it," said Nicholson. "And it wasn't perfect, but perfection wasn't the point. It's the love that went into it, that was the point of the painting and the putting it together and having it ready when she needed it."

Nicholson said watching her wife's coffin being carried away by the funeral home's retrieval vehicle filled her with "a sense of pride, and a sense of caring, in sending her off well."

 - CBC Radio, Now or Never

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