By: Rachelle Kennedy, Hospice Peterborough Facilitator and Volunteer
There was a biting cold and wild wind that was gusting off the shores of the great lake that day. The waves were wicked and relentless. It was as though all the pent-up coldness of the season had risen to unleash itself on the tiny beach. It was hardly the sort of weather that makes one want to ramble and beach-comb, but that was exactly what we had come there to do.
I had driven to the lakeside town to meet with Annie*, a 10-year old girl I met through Hospice Peterborough only a month earlier. Annie came to Hospice with her mom, in search of grief support after the death of her best friend, Lara*. Lara had waged through a lengthy battle with a rare form of cancer – a struggle that brought with it long stays at Sick Kids hospital, the amputation of her leg, and eventually the inability to speak. Annie was by her side every step along the way.
I have been continually humbled and amazed by the bravery of the children I meet through my work at Hospice. Meeting Annie was no exception. From our first session together, as we sat on the floor of the hospice library, surrounded by paper and pastels and shelves of books; as she walked me through her experience of Lara’s diagnosis and illness and death, it was clear that Annie was a brave heart. At ten years old she had made the choice to walk through the fear and the unknown that cancer brings; to brave hospitals, to push wheelchairs, to sit bedside. She chose to learn to name the disease that was killing her best friend, to talk about it and to face it. Even after Lara’s death, Annie was brave enough to want to reach out for someone to help her make sense of what she was feeling, what she had lost.
So, on that day I drove an hour to meet brave Annie on the beach in her hometown. The weather was wild but we were both feeling strong. With all the force of the wind against us, we struck out with faces down and hoods pulled tight, searching the blustery sand for smooth pebbles and ever-treasured sea glass. Annie wanted something physical she could touch or do with her hands to help calm her mind when it started to burst with grief, especially when at school. A stone in the pocket is a simple idea that can be surprisingly grounding. Rather than give her one that had no context or meaning, it felt right to search for one together in a place she could return to whenever she needed.
With our fingers turning frosty red and our cheeks whipped with wind, we paused only once from our pebble hunting, to stand side-by-side as close to the waters edge as we safely dared. I have learned that sometimes the unwieldy storms inside of us can only be outdone by the rugged wildness of the natural world around us. Sometimes turning my cold face to the blowing wind and crashing waves can bring a breath of calm to my unsettled mind. So, Annie and I stood face-to-face with the waves, and counted to three, and yelled together at the top of our lungs, trying to loosen some of the anger and sadness that settles in our bones, and release it to the billowing wind.
When our pockets were full and faces too cold, we found a bench with some shelter and spread out our beach-combed treasures: a mighty handful of smooth colorful stones, a generous trove of sea glass, and even one rare big pebble with a hole worn right through the center. Annie thought she might tie one to a string so she could wear it around her neck, have it with her all the time. I kept one for my pocket so I wouldn’t forget the brave and wild beauty of the day.
Hospice work is about many things – some of them practical, some of them painful, some of them incredibly challenging and exhausting. Too often, when people have learned of my work with children and hospice, they have responded by praising me for “being a good person”. If only they knew.
If only they knew what an honor it is to keep company with someone like Annie. If only they knew how humbled I am by her courage, by her willingness to trust; if only they knew how lucky I felt to stand beside her and yell into the wildness, knowing that the story she carries inside her is sacred and huge.
That time with Annie on the shore of the great lake was a potent reminder for me that sometimes courage is all about just showing up, and that maybe the strongest thing we can do some days is to not turn away from the wildness around us, but rather count to three and howl our story into the wind.
*All names have been changed for confidentiality
Raechelle Kennedy is a Hospice Peterborough Facilitator and Volunteer who has worked with our children’s grief group program for several years. She is an expressive arts practitioner and spends the winter months in Australia with her partner, writing and enjoying life down under. You may read more of her writings by checking out her blog http://www.blackbirdstudio.ca/?p=3167