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Brave on the Rocks

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

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180 Degrees of Life

By: David Kennedy, Bereavement Coordinator at Hospice Peterborough

He stood in the chaos of boxes and paper – the reminders of the holidays that brought a trail of family and people into his house. Everyone was trying to make this Christmas better than it could be. “It’s over and I survived.” He spoke it slowly out loud not because anyone was there to hear it but as if congratulating himself.

It was true what his grief group leader had told him that the expectation can be worse than the reality. The worry and anxiety of this first holiday without his partner of 15 years had certainly brought more than its share of anxiousness and dread. But here he was – a survivor. It was not all easy sailing though. It is true that Christmas day passed without a major meltdown and in some ways it was great to have his siblings come and go that day. There were times of laughter and expressions of love that made him realize that he still had things worth living for. What he wasn’t ready for was New Years. In his mind, getting through Christmas was the challenge. He never really thought about New Year’s Eve. Oh not the question of what to do – he had all kinds of options given him. There were private family functions he was encouraged to be part of, there was the party from work that he was invited to and there was the regular gang that he and his partner had shared this night with for the past 10 years who had encouraged him strongly – perhaps too strongly, to join them again this year. Even the option to be alone and do nothing was there for him. No it wasn’t the question of what to do that caught him. It was only as he thought about it later that he realized why he was blindsided by this and so unprepared.

Jack had met his partner 17 years ago after each of them had come through a marriage breakup. His was bad enough, but his partner’s story was enough to fill a chapter in a therapist’s book and to pay for a house in the Caribbean for the lawyers involved. Neither of them had been looking for a relationship but when they met at a party of mutual acquaintances there was a spark that just wasn’t about to go away. They tried – both of them – both gun shy but the love they found in each other was finally the kind of relationship they had longed for. Two years later they made the commitment and the past 15 years have been without a doubt the happiest years for both of them. Then that dreaded “C word” and within 14 months here he was alone again, only this time the pain of being alone was almost unbearable. It had been 6 months since he had said goodbye to the love of his life. Six months and now he felt the obligation from others that he should be okay and that while Christmas would be difficult it should be manageable.

It was only on reflection that he realized the depth of the challenge of this season. Christmas was connected to the past – all the memories and shared experiences with his partner – the collective joys, laughter, tears, hopes and disappointments. They were shared with someone and now that someone isn’t here to share, to reminisce, to recall, to laugh and to remember. New Year’s is about the future, a turning of the calendar, the writing of new digits to reflect the new time frame and it is the fact of facing this New Year without that partner by his side, in his bed, creating memories – that he will have to live this coming year without his beloved partner – that is what blindsided him. He spent all his energy bracing himself for Christmas and the flood of memory that accompanies that holiday, but he wasn’t ready for the gut wrenching awareness of a new year to be lived alone. That almost did him in.

That is the journey of grief. When we are first thrown into the chaos of a person dying we are flooded with the memories, the experiences and the relationship that we had with that person, no matter if it was wonderful or dysfunctional. Grief for a while is looking behind us at that moment of death, that moment of ending of all that we had known. But grief is a 180 degree experience. Soon we find ourselves oscillating between the pain of what can no longer experience and the pain of “what now,” how can I go on living without that person here? Eventually and moments such as New Years, put that future right smack dap in our face and we are forced to look at the reality that I will need to live this year without that person here. Then the weight of this perspective turns our attention to now facing ahead. Every now and then we will need to look back and remember and so this back and forth of grief. Finding a healthy way to live and carry our grief will mean that we will always experience this 180 degree living to some extent.

In time we will find our way again and look ahead but it will always be accompanied by those times when we choose, or are chosen for us, to remember, be thankful and be sorrowful. Yet even in those moments we are reminded that we have life to live and that we can and we will, be open to all that life may bring with gratitude, grace and 180 degree perspective so we will never forget, but we will continue to live.

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The Memory Tree

By: David Kennedy, Bereavement Coordinator at Hospice Peterborough

Life just didn’t seem to matter anymore; each morning was a struggle – one that John had to do, not for himself but for his family who still needed him.

Since their mother had died his adult children were terrified that he would give up and die too. It was something that he couldn’t talk about because of this fear, so he just pushed it down and trudged on.

Joan, the love of his life, died in March and people expected that he was better now. If he were honest with himself he could never have imagined that this grief thing would hang on the way it has, or as long as it has and wondered if maybe there was something wrong with him.

The holiday season has put increased pressure on John to be what he can’t be – but the expectations are very clearly out there – even if they haven’t been spoken. His kids and grandchildren had told him, not asked, that they were coming this weekend to get things ready for Christmas. Today they were putting up the tree, something John would be more than happy to skip but realized this is an expectation that he probably needs to fill, so here we are.

The house was quiet as everyone else was still sleeping and he used the quiet to open the boxes piled on the floor that contained the tree ornaments. He opened the box marked fragile. It had the special ornaments – the ones that Joan had deemed fragile and significant so she always handled the task of wrapping and putting them away herself with great care. As he opened the box he jumped. It came out of nowhere, he wasn’t prepared for this reaction; the realization that the last hands that handled these ornaments were Joan’s.

Last January, even though desperately weakened by cancer, Joan was determined to carefully pack these treasures away safely and she spent a couple of hours carefully wrapping the glass balls and packing them into this box. 

As John picked one up he could almost imagine her hands gently holding this ball. He realized his hands were trembling and he almost dropped it. He was so close to leaving a note and just running away – telling his kids to do it all – when he felt a hand on his shoulder and a soothing calm come over him. He thought maybe he was going crazy but he swore he imagined Joan’s voice telling him it was okay and to spend some time remembering.

That is what he did, as he carefully unwrapped each of the fragile ornaments, packed so carefully by his wife. He spent time with each one remembering. For some of the ornaments it was where they had purchased it. For instance when they were on a vacation, the beautiful glass pineapple ball from their trip to Hawaii; he laughed out loud when he remembered that he wanted to buy the hula dancer but Joan had threatened to make him wear a grass skirt if he did. He spent a long time with the snow globe bulb they had bought in a Christmas store in Arizona one year when they had gone south for a break. He remembered how they had laughed because the girl that sold it to them, on a 95 degree day, had never seen snow and wanted them to tell her what it felt like. They had pictures on their phone of the big storm that had happened back home only weeks before they left for Arizona, so they spent an hour laughing and talking with her about snow.

Each ornament had a memory; one that he had been afraid of facing but what he discovered was that these memories, while painful were also healing. That remembering the life they had experienced together was a good thing and that to try and forget these memories would be to forget Joan and he wasn’t going to do that.

He lost track of time and it was an hour later when he realized that his daughter and granddaughter were standing looking at him strangely wondering if he was okay. By now his memories were no longer kept inside and he was laughing and crying and talking out loud as if Joan were right there with him and it must have scared them as they arrived at the doorway.

Are you ok Dad?” His daughter asked hesitantly. John looked up with tears and smiled and said reassuringly “I’m fine, oh yes just fine.” He told her to go get all the kids and grandkids and to come downstairs – he had something to tell them.

They all came not knowing what was happening and as they sat on the floor with him in the midst of all the ornaments. He started with the first ornament saying ”As we put these ornaments on this tree I need to tell you the story of where they all came from, and why your mother and I want you to know that all of life is making memories – just so we can have times like this to share.

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Death is a Life Changer

By: David Kennedy, Bereavement Coordinator

“I can’t believe it has been a whole year!” She sat in the same chair she did a year ago, but she is not the same person. “I must admit,” she added sheepishly “I really didn’t think I would last a year. I am pretty sure that without Hospice I wouldn’t have.”

These words spoken by a woman, whose husband of 30 years had died suddenly, have been expressed by many who have found themselves lost after the death of someone they love. Life is hard to imagine and time doesn’t slow down to allow us to catch up, nor does it speed up to allow us to escape.

I asked her what had changed in her. ”Literally everything. With Bill not here I had to learn to do things I took for granted that he looked after. I have had to find myself in a new way. I lived at home until we were married and I have never lived alone. This year has defined ‘alone’ in a completely new way. I have found that I can do and I can be, and that is important. I wish I had Bill back, but I know I can’t, and I just know he is proud of me for the changes I have made.”

Death changes us, and while we struggle with those changes, there is hope. Taking life a day at a time – sometimes moment by moment, gives us the chance to deal with life without being overwhelmed and Hospice is here to help people make that journey.

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Angel’s Words

By: A Hospice Client

My entire life changed four years ago. Since that tragic day, I’ve had an extremely difficult time sorting through so many emotions – blame, anger, confusion, crippling sadness – and struggling to answer the question WHY? Why me? Why us? Why this? But this past year, changes have started as I’ve adjusted my questions to what now? Where do we go from here? How can I squeeze something positive from something so horrible? How can I honour the life that was lost? I’ve discovered that these answers don’t come overnight – and some of them will never be answered entirely. But I’m realizing that I have to believe that it’s possible to carry-on and to grow as a person, life doesn’t stop for my grief. If I can enlighten even one person to be more positive when looking at and hopefully living their lives, then I feel there is hope – for me, for us, for others.

Firstly, be grateful – cherish what you have even in your grief. Remember that all of us have something that someone else mourns the loss of. Also, take a look at your priorities – it’s not about having the best of everything; it’s about making the best of everything you have.

Second, the loss will never go away but you don’t have to disappear with it. Choose to make positive changes in yourself, in your actions, in your life. By doing this, you honour the life that was lived.

I would like to leave you with one final thought, “it doesn’t have to be the end!” Your loved one’s physical life may be over, leaving sorrow, sadness and an empty space in our lives, but in our hearts, minds, and memories they are still abundantly full and gladly so. It is only in our surviving that we can choose to share their gifts with others as we were so very lucky to be witness to their greatness. You are never alone in your struggles. Seek out the help and get through with the empathy of others. And in doing that, share pieces of the person you lost…for they may be gone, but they will NEVER be forgotten!

This fall, a number of grief and bereavement services will be offered at Hospice Peterborough, including Children and Teen Grief Groups, Grief Recovery Groups for Adults (levels one through three), a Lunch Group for the Recently Bereaved and the Bereaved Parents Support Group. One-on-one grief counselling is also available. For a complete, listing of our fall program and service offerings, please check out our calendar of events.

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Thelma and Louise

By: Sue Stinson, Visiting Volunteer

Originally published in the August 2016 Ontario Caregiver Coalition (OCC) Newsletter. Sue and Kay’s sister Tracey have given permission for the story to be published by Hospice Peterborough.

It was a week or so before Christmas and I packed up my bag of goodies and set off to meet my new client. I didn’t really know what to expect, so I brought my adult colouring books, markers, coloured pencils, finger labyrinth, hand held labyrinth, worry egg and a smile. When I got to the garden home at the seniors residence, I knocked and a thin voice welcomed me in.

I’ll never forget that small body, blanketed in her lounge chair, her voice was weak and she was tired and unwell. During this first visit, she was not able to get up and move around comfortably or speak much louder than a whisper, but she took command of the room and I soon found myself flustered and reciting my resume trying desperately to come up with a credible response to her question, “What can you do for me?”

“Well, I have been volunteering with Hospice for about 5 years and have worked in counselling for over 30… I worked at Hospice for a while assisting their ED and for a few months filling in for her…”

Nothing seemed to be impressing her.

“I brought some things that might interest you?,” I entreated lamely as I pulled out various colouring books.

“Oh yes, I have one of those, someone brought me, but I don’t really use it. It’s supposed to be relaxing, isn’t it?”

I took the hint and packed them up.

“How about labyrinths, have you heard of them?” I asked hopefully.

“Oh yes, I have walked many.” She responded as she accepted the small brass 12-circuit model. After a few minutes, she let me know this wasn’t working for her so we moved on to the hand-painted finger labyrinth. Again, this didn’t do the trick and when the worry egg also failed, I told her we were just down to me and my sparkling conversation. Somehow we found our way into a conversation that would last about nine months and cover dreams, memories, family and the ever looming question of “had I found a house yet?”

It was a struggle at first for her to fit me in between chemo appointments and after-chemo sick days. Finally I asked her how she was getting to chemo. When she said that she took a $7 cab ride there and back (about two kms away once a week), I found my in! And thus began the adventures of Thelma and Louise. Okay, no Grand Canyon jumps or robberies, but sometimes when we “did errands” after chemo, we were late for dinner! Every Wednesday, we managed to add some little adventure to her appointment; shopping for some new spring/summer clothes, dropping off income tax information, stopping for a cup of tea by Little Lake or just driving around. At the end of each trip, she would hug me and say with such earnestness, “this was a good day.”

Over the months, she constantly pushed herself to walk farther, or faster or without the use of her walker. She had very strong opinions on what clothes were appropriate and what colours suited her. One day while walking down by the water where she would often recount past Hikes for Hospice and pause to remember former members of “the group”, I wrapped my purple scarf around her neck. She was delighted having found a new colour that suited her.

When fractures in her femur resulted in what would be her final trip to hospital, we continued our visits there, sometimes taking a break from the rehab unit telling the nurse that we “might” be back, looking down on the courtyard labyrinth, rolling through the rooftop garden outside palliative care or having a cool drink in the cafeteria. Kay always was on top of her game, remembering each medication and when it would need to be taken again, feeling frustrated that the doctor’s weren’t responding to her quickly enough, mostly frustrated with herself not being able to get up and walk like she used to.

To combat her frustration one day, I asked her what she felt was really important to her? “To get back to Royal Gardens,” was her response. So we decided she would need to be able to get out of bed and walk to the bathroom using her walker, once there she would then need to be able to stand long enough to wash her face and brush her teeth. We set a plan for Thelma’s next adventure and she worked really hard to try to accomplish this goal. But it was not to be.

As long as I had known her she talked about wanting a party. She would be 80 this September but didn’t imagine that she would live till her birthday. So this became our next goal. I told her about the theme parties I had been throwing for my mother including funny headwear, food and goody bags, and she quickly enlisted me as an aid to her sister to get this party organized. One day, she was particularly down about how little progress she was making physically, so I left her with an assignment – she had to pick theme colours for the party. When I came back a couple of days later, she smiled and said, “yellow and blue.” A few calls with her sister and niece and a low key party complete with balloons, colourful plates and napkins, her favourite carrot cake and wine took place in her room in the palliative care unit. As Kay would have said – it was a good day! Bright and very aware of all the festivities, Kay received her guests, cut her cake and beamed with delight! As I hugged her goodbye that day, I said, “Thelma, you put on quite a party.” She just held me extra-long and whispered, “thanks Louise.”

The next few visits were quiet, with mostly me talking or making offers of sips of water or pushes to the rooftop garden or the window overlooking the labyrinth, which were all refused. Our last adventures were quietly holding hands listening to the strength of her breathing. When her family called to tell me she died, there were tears, but so much gratitude at having had the chance to meet her and be a small part of her life.

Goodbye Thelma.