Uplifting: finding the grace in death
"REST in peace" we say when someone dies. But peace is also a much-needed element in the last difficult days of a person's life. Helping to bring that degree of serenity is Meredith Dennis, and the organisation she heads, Tweed Palliative Support.
The former nurse helped found the organisation in 1998, when it was a group of well-meaning individuals - "slightly hippie" - set on easing some of the discomfort and fear around dying.
"I helped them become incorporated. We were given an office in Murwillumbah and held our first training course in someone's house," Meredith says.
It took a while for TPS to grow, but now it has about 100 "clients", 80 volunteers, 200 members and four op-shops in Murwillumbah that are part of the successful fundraising organisation.
So successful, in fact, that TPS has been able to pay off a million-dollar plus house in Dulguigan, a place that radiates peace and tranquillity and will open its doors to the dying in February next year.
The bush-clad Wedgetail Retreat is a fully fitted-out hospice, the culmination of TPS's work.
"The last week of someone's life is usually pretty hard, exhausting for carers," Meredith says, "so at Wedgetail we will invite partners to come too, and be cared for by a trained nurse and highly skilled volunteers."
Indeed, the woman who is the driving force behind TPS nursed her own 85-year-old dad, Stan, through his last days at Wedgetail last year, as he succumbed to cancer while visiting from the family home in the Adelaide Hills.
Meredith spent her formative years there, growing up on a dairy farm and training as a nurse at the Adelaide Hospital. That rural upbringing may account for her love of the country now: she has a home in picturesque Limpinwood, where she keeps horses, five labradors and one "bitza".
But Adelaide was not exciting enough for her as a young woman and she went to Sydney with a boyfriend and continued nursing. What she saw on some of the wards disillusioned her, however, and she left nursing to take on a business career, owning and running two of Sydney's biggest Video-Ezy stores, whose success allowed her to pursue her passion for travel.
But she is an idealist at heart and after 12 years of city living she made plans to go to Africa "to feed the starving children, dig wells... save the world", she laughs.
But nearly all of the overseas providers were based on religion, she says, "and while I'm not anti-religion, I didn't want to get involved".
Returning home, she was lured to the Tweed by a respected business mentor with a view to opening a restaurant: that proved too complicated but she had fallen in love with the region and stayed.
Looking for somewhere to direct her energies she discovered the nascent TPS and was able to apply her business acumen to helping it to grow.
First up came the purchase of a "daggy little" coffee shop opposite the hospital, which she saw, rightly, as a connection point to the medical staff.
She took food and drink to the "starving" nurses on the wards and gradually won their confidence with her home-baked muffins and can-do attitude. They began to refer discharged patients to TPS and people started to donate equipment.
The coffee shop became too busy so she sold it, only to buy it back later and turn it into an op shop. That led to other op shops and an office on Brooks Rd, where 20 new volunteers a year got their training.
Today TPS is a large and vital component of healthcare in the Tweed, with several vehicles - a long way from when Meredith would drive her "little Suzuki Vitara around with all this stuff sticking out the back", and hospital beds being carried on the back of an elderly member's truck.
It's full-time work for Meredith and at weekends she works for a nursing agency looking after veterans - men like her dad. She has no children and describes herself as "an unmarried old spinster … a very sad term ... but there's no other word."
"Old" and "sad" are the last words to come to mind when meeting this humorous and vivacious woman, but how does she remain so buoyant amid so much death?
"I have the dogs and the horses, and lovely neighbours who look after the animals when I go on holidays. And if I get stressed I'll talk to other committee members or friends."
And the work is uplifting, she says: "Death is just a part of life. It can be a beautiful event. When you're around dying people enough it's amazing the things you see.
"As a volunteer you get a lot more out than you give. Someone just saying 'thank you' is enough."