By Heather Conn
The fortyish mother of a teenager who has died of suicide cries softly on the faded couch in her living room, in front of an array of photos of her son on a wooden coffee table. A hospice volunteer gently strokes her back and pours her a cup of tea. Within a few minutes, the woman begins to share stories about her son as a boy: his mischievous nature, the sensitivity he tried to hide, his greatest fears. She has never before told anyone some of these tales.
“The trust that families put in you as a stranger at such a difficult time is amazing,” says Jean Rice, a former Sunshine Coast Hospice Society (SCHS) board member and treasurer who started as a volunteer in 2001. “If you were with them for long enough, you got to hear some amazing life stories. You would think, ‘If I walked past you on the street, I would never have known that or thought that.’ It was remarkable in that way to meet the families and the patients and [experience] the appreciation the majority of them showed for the work that we did.”
Many people might think that companioning a grieving family must be depressing and stressful. But most volunteers at Sunshine Coast Hospice Society will tell you how fulfilling it is to comfort others and provide a supportive ear when they most need it.
Active listening, non-judgment, compassionate care, and an open presence are just some of the qualities that SCHS promotes when training its hospice volunteers, whether they provide bereavement support or sit bedside vigils with someone who is actively dying.
Sunshine Coast Hospice Society is one of the few hospices that provides grief support to families in their own homes. Most urban hospices support the bereaved only at their designated facility. All SCHS volunteers must pass a police background check to ensure they will be a secure, trustworthy presence in a stranger’s home.
It’s not all grief: humour and fascinating stories happen too
Such inside access not only enables hospice volunteers to support a grieving family as an objective outsider but also to witness with sensitivity whatever might arise, from a grieving family’s shock, anger, and denial to gallows humour and amusing or fascinating anecdotes.
Rice shares a funny story one husband told her about his dying wife at Shorncliffe, who was in her seventies. “She looked to be almost dying probably about four or five times and then she’d pick up. So, the family would go away until she’d decline, then they’d all come back again. This went on for quite a while, even to the point where they called the priest in to give her the last rites. But she wakes up and goes, ‘Where’s the ice cream?’ Ice cream was one of the few things she could still eat.”
Rice recalls several fascinating stories she heard while companioning grieving people who came from other countries.
“I remember meeting a man in Gibsons who’d lost his wife. Way back, he had come to Canada from Germany. He was forced to join Hitler’s army right towards the end of the war. He wasn’t in the army very long when the war ended. I think he was 15 or 16. When the war did end and he want back to his home, it was now a divided Germany, east and west. His home was now in East Germany. He escaped into western Germany and got a job.
“In the [German] newspapers all the time were advertisements for people to emigrate to Canada. All his group of workers used to talk about it. ‘Yeah, yeah, we’re going to do that.’ He ended up being the only one that did. In those days, you were told where you were going [by the Canadian government] once you got here. He went to Kitimat. His wife, who was from Germany, but they had not met at this point, she had come to Alberta. You can imagine this, just after the war, a young single woman, she’d gone to a farm in Alberta. Somehow, she made her way to British Columbia and left the farm. That’s when they met.”
Rice continues. “I met another man in Gibsons. They thought he was palliative and he actually picked up and lived for awhile. He also had an amazing story where he was forced into the Vietnamese army. He told me about his trying to escape from the Vietnamese army. You come away thinking, ‘Wow, what amazing stories that people have to tell you.’”
Grief support groups fulfill diverse needs
Sunshine Coast Hospice volunteers began offering bereavement support in 1989, two years after volunteer training had started. No other organizations were providing such services at the time on the Sunshine Coast, says Heather Blackwood, a Sunshine Coast Hospice co-founder and long-time volunteer.
“People said, ‘I need support after the death,’” said Blackwood. “So, I was involved with childhood suicide, and a young family whose child had drowned up here. At the beginning, I was doing that kind of thing just because of my [pediatric] nursing background. It was a need. [Sunshine Coast Hospice co-founder] Rosemary [Hoare] said, “We can’t just say no’ because there was no other support.”
She adds: “Rosemary and I were taking courses all over the place. We were going into Vancouver. When we saw a need that we felt we didn’t have enough knowledge for and there weren’t people here who could help us with it, we kept talking to Lions Gate [Hospice]. They were one of our biggest resources. We never felt alone. We felt that we were still learning about this whole field.”
In 1990, Anne Moore began a support group for bereaved parents in her Sechelt home, as a Sunshine Coast branch of the international group Compassionate Friends. She had lost two sons in separate accidents 20 years apart.
“Perhaps nobody can support a parent who’s lost a child better than another parent who’s been through it,” says Blackwood.
Today, Judy Lynne continues this tradition through her own local chapter of Compassionate Friends. She offers a free grief support group at Hospice House in Davis Bay for parents who have lost a child. Her son Neil Falkner, a Whistler ski patroller, died in a whiteout in the Alberta Rockies in 2002.
“It’s not a club you want to belong to,” said Lynne in the June 17, 2005 issue of the Coast Reporter. “[But] when you can get together with people who have had a similar experience and talk about your child, you can still keep [the child] with you.”
Grief support experience helped in volunteer’s own tragedy
Blackwood said it was gratifying to see her local community recognize the need to recover from grief and loss, especially since a grin-and-bear-it philosophy was commonplace in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “So many of us had no education in that [bereavement support] in our upbringing. In our nursing education, there wasn’t enough.”
She adds: “Some of the most poignant support I remember giving was to a man that lost a dog.”
Blackwood acknowledged how witnessing others’ grief and supporting families as a hospice volunteer helped her immensely in dealing with her own tragedy.
“When my father killed himself very tragically and violently, I knew that I was in for a really difficult ride with my whole family,” she said. “I knew that for my kids and nieces and nephews, this was going to be a very difficult situation. I wouldn’t have known to what depths if I hadn’t experienced what other people went through. I couldn’t have processed it like I did without the experience I had in hospice.”
Hospice volunteers recognize that the holiday season is particularly difficult for those who are grieving, and so they created two significant and related rituals for the community that continue to this day: Lights of Life, in 1992, and Lighting the Memories in January 1993. (For more details on these events, including participants’ reminiscences, see the web feature Lights of Life and Lighting the Memories: evocative hospice rituals make grief tangible and public.)
SCHS “touches hearts and transforms lives forever”
Due to budget constraints, SCHS was unable to provide grief support groups for many years. However, around 2001, hospice volunteer Jim Elliot began to facilitate grief and bereavement groups at the Kirkland Centre in Davis Bay, later to become the home of the Hospice Society.
The Society offered an eight-week bereavement support group starting in December 2010 and January 2011. This was held at Kirkland Centre, where SCHS moved permanently in March 2011.
Since none of the hospice volunteers at that time had experience facilitating such a group, they received training for a day and a half from an organization in Vancouver. The Ruby Slipper Fund provided funding for this.
Esme Stokhuyzen and Keith Brind were the first facilitators of this SCHS grief group. Together, they developed a program for the weekly groups. Subsequently, Linda Smith and a team of volunteer facilitators, further developed the program and provided support. Barb Crombie also did a lot of work in this area. Regular grief support groups continue today, facilitated by a variety of hospice volunteers.
Marion Prochnau, a mother who said her son’s sudden death in 2014 “left a gaping hole in my heart,” shared her appreciation for SCHS’s bereavement support in a Feb. 19, 2015 letter to the Coast Reporter: “This circle of support allowed me to learn the stages of grief, acknowledged the need to mourn in my own way, meet others who suffered loss, and experience deep healing through the cathartic process of telling our stories.”
She added: “The Sunshine Coast Hospice Society became a lantern of light, instilling rays of hope back into my life. We are fortunate to have Sunshine Coast Hospice as an invaluable resource that equips and engages its volunteers, touching hearts, and transforming lives forever within our community.”
Prochnau went on to train as a hospice volunteer herself. By the fall of 2015, she was co-facilitating a new grief and loss support group for people aged 19 to 35, using story-telling and art. One participant wrote of the free, six-week program: “The small group felt intimate so we bonded well. It was very meaningful and helped me understand my grief more.”
In January 2014, the SCHS hosted two grief support groups: Loss of a Loved One and Loss of Life Partners. In May that year, SCHS hospice volunteers and staff attended a Sechelt presentation and workshop by leading grief counselor and U.S. educator Alan Wolfelt.
At that event, Wolfelt told attendees he didn’t agree with today’s emphasis on hosting a Celebration of Life at the time of someone’s death. He felt that this did not allow people to fully access and release their grief in the same way as do funerals.
Partial proceeds from his presentation, sponsored by Latimer & Company and Devlin Funeral Home, went towards supporting SCHS’s grief and bereavement programs.
Tea and Company: “Hospice people understand grief”
Since 2013, SCHS has hosted drop-in Tea and Company sessions at Hospice House every Friday afternoon from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., for all who are grieving or missing a loved one and who want the freedom to talk in a comfortable, safe setting with others in a similar situation. Trained hospice volunteers take turns loosely facilitating the conversation, questions, stories, and concerns shared.
Hospice co-founder, benefactor, and long-time volunteer Rosemary Hoare said in 2014, when interviewed at age 93, “Hospice is a group of people who understand grief, who are comfortable with their own death, because we’re all going to die. The fashion now is not to talk about death. It used to be, you didn’t talk about sex, now it’s death. It’s a scary thing. I can’t really understand that because it’s inevitable.”
Some Tea & Company attendees continue to return years after their loved ones have gone, particularly on the anniversary date of the deceased’s death, and also because they appreciate the camaraderie and support the group offers. Facilitators emphasize that there is no right or wrong way to grieve, and that the period of grieving differs for each person.
Hospice House offers a quiet room for one-on-one grief support. Inside it hangs a quilt of squares with bold butterflies, made by local quilter Nancy Climie. Many hospices around the world use the butterfly as a symbol for the transition between life and death.
Note: Any opinions expressed in this content are those of a specific individual. They do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Sunshine Coast Hospice Society (SCHS) or any SCHS volunteers, past, present or future.