Jo Seagar on the importance of talking about death

Jo is a former nurse, and aware that death is something that not many people are comfortable with.

By Amy Prebble
Sunny celebrity cook Jo Seagar has been an unwavering supporter of Hospice New Zealand for 20 years.
She's so dedicated to the charity that she was made a patron as well as an ambassador eight years ago.
"Everyone knows I'm passionate about foodie things, but I'm also passionate about hospice!" she exclaims.
"People say, 'It must be so sad,' but the fact is, I've never met people with such humour as hospice volunteers. Really, it's about celebrating life and living to the last moment possible."
The charity has held a special place in her heart since it gave the Seagar family the opportunity to really farewell her adored dad.
"Hospice allowed us to actually talk about my father dying," she recalls.
"It gave us permission to discuss his funeral right down to the details. He was a returned serviceman, so he would have been mortified if the bar ran dry. We worked out who would buy the mixers, what needed to be ordered and that we had to have a proper bugler play and not a recording.
"Then he decided we'd better check if us kids would make adequate pallbearers – we carried the sofa shoulder-high down the driveway with Dad directing!" she hoots.
"I've seen it with so many families. They need permission to talk about death. I think that's a really good thing with hospice – it actually tells you what's what and how you can best cope with it.
"For Dad, having their help meant he could stay at home. My brothers and sisters and I could be his children, and Mum could be his darling wife because hospice did the work. He would have hated us to be doing the bedpans or anything like that."
Jo has been supporting hospice for 20 years and intends to continue for as long as she can be of help.
Jo (63) believes there are a lot of misconceptions about the work that hospice does and who it caters for.
"People seem to think there are nuns involved or that it's the last station on the line, or that it's only for old grans. But, in fact, they help people with renal illness, MS, motor neurone disease, cancer, heart disease and dementia. A lot of patients are in their 30s and 40s. Hamilton even has a specialist children's hospice."
Jo is understandably proud the charity is available to everyone and that you don't need a raft of referrals from medical professionals to qualify for help.
A former nurse, she's aware that death is something that not many people are comfortable with.
"There are a million books about having a baby and what's going to happen at every second – none of it true – but there aren't a million books about dying," Jo muses.
"When I was in my second year of nursing, I looked after an old man who had nobody with him. He kept saying, 'I'll be gone soon.' And I was saying, 'You'll be a box of birds tomorrow!' As nurses, we weren't about dying. You didn't mention it."
Jo held the man's hand as he died and then ran to deliver a baby immediately afterwards.
"I opened the doors of an ambulance and literally caught a baby! I worked out it was seven minutes since one had gone and one had arrived. It was a profound moment for me. We have a life cycle, you're born and one day you'll die."
Jo finished her nursing training and spent five years in London with British Regional Heart Research before enrolling in world-renowned cooking school Le Cordon Bleu London, followed by La Varenne in Paris.
She opened her first restaurant in Auckland in 1981 – where she met her husband Ross, an accountant who covered one of the waitress' shifts.
It wasn't until 1997 that she became a TV cook with her TVNZ series Real Food for Real People.
"I became really famous for waving my wire whisk and talking simultaneously on the telly," she says with trademark humility.
"When you are on television or a minor celebrity in New Zealand, the demand on your services is huge. I had thousands – and I'm not exaggerating – thousands of letters from charities requesting help. I actually spent some time in Wellington with the Philanthropic Trust. They said there's one place that really needs a champion and it's hospice."
Jo aged 21, graduating as a nurse in 1976.
Jo immediately contacted the charity to offer her services.
"I think they thought, 'Gosh, what's that cook off the telly going to do? Some Desserts to Die For cookbook or something,'" she chortles.
"I'm just one of thousands of volunteers around the country. But my particular job is to raise funds and awareness of the work of hospice really."
Any time Jo does a cooking demonstration or book tours, all of the functions benefit hospice.
She's also on hand to look after any overseas visitors from international hospice and attends the organisation's palliative
care conferences.
At the last one, Jo, along with Jane Rangiwahia, Professor Rod MacLeod and Australian chef Peter Morgan Jones, looked at creating food for people who are dying.
"There was wonderful stuff like foam," says Jo.
"You think that's some trendy restauranty thing, but if you can't swallow, you can have this foam that gives you the sensation of a lovely coffee, or a glass of red wine or a steak."
After a rough couple of years Jo is looking forward to leading cooking tours in Italy and Morocco later this year
Personally, Jo is rebuilding from a tough couple of years.
She and Ross (56) were devastated about losing their business – Seagars at Oxford,a cooking school, café and kitchenware store – in the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquakes.
Jo also farewelled her mum Fay, who practically lived next door to them.
"We've had a rough run," she says.
"But we're also incredibly fortunate. Our daughter Kate (30) lives close by with our two little grandsons Leroy and Lucas. Ross is in the fire brigade in Oxford and works in Christchurch, so we're not far away. If we saw a car on the way to work, it would be exciting!"
Plus, she gets to go to gorgeous locations taking cooking tours.
"I'm like a godwit – winter comes and I take off overseas. I take cooking tours to Europe and this year, I'm about to go to Italy, which I go to most years. I'm off to Morocco later in the year and I've got a couple of other ones, which is lovely.
"I've got my column for the Australian Women's Weekly and I'm writing cookbooks. It's great. Being part of hospice is a privilege. I've been with them for 20 years, not that I'm counting! As long as I can be of help to them, I'm there for them."
Hospice Awareness Week is from May 13-19.

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