Becoming a Peer Support Worker and Group Facilitator
Editor's Note: I am so privileged to share this beautifully moving and heartful story of love, loss and healing through grief following the death of a beloved mother and dear friend through Medical Assistance in Dying. A special thank you to Alicia for her openness to sharing it with our Bridge C-14 community. Alicia's dedication as a volunteer with our peer support programs and group facilitation, as well as a placement student with both Bridge C-14 and Bridge4You, has been such a tremendous asset to those who look to our organization for support through their MAiD journey. Thank you, Alicia, for all that you do.
A wish for a good death (click to link to video)
Finding a community of people who could speak unabashedly about death, dying, grief, and the process around a medically assisted death helped heal me.
As I shared in the above video, three and a half years ago I had the honour of caregiving for my mother (and dear friend) at the end of her life. This included supporting her through her decision for a MAiD death. At that time, MAiD was still so new in Canada (and in the history of medical procedures it still is), and I didn’t know anyone who had been through it or supported someone who had. It felt surreal, and I felt wholly unprepared to deal with it. Once the decision had been made, and the date was set, the last two weeks were spent in a somewhat dreamlike state (or should I say nightmare?) where I clumsily tried to help my mother make her final arrangements, say and write her goodbyes, while doing everything I could to make her comfortable and to simply survive the lack of sleep/dread.
The pandemic lockdowns remind me a lot of those caregiving days, where every day feels like groundhog day (never ending cycle of the same routine) and the significance placed on resource procurement and management (i.e. calling every pharmacy looking for a preferred type of brief that is sold out everywhere, and micromanaging trips to the grocery store to ensure you get everything needed on your/her list because who knows when you’ll get an opening to go back again).
Then death arrives on schedule, with only a few minor hiccups along the way. I instantly transform from being a full time caregiver, daughter, and functioning adult, to what then felt like an orphan lost at sea. It took many many months for me to process and understand all the additional losses that come with a loved one’s death. Life roles weren't something I had previously much considered as something to lose, but being Roger and Connie’s daughter was such an important part of my self identity that when the last of them passed, I truly felt like my world had been lost, and I was adrift. Enter the existential crisis.
Mental health is the absence or management of mental disorders, with the ability to enjoy and participate meaningfully in daily life. Grief over the loss of one of my best friends (and the person who offered me the most unconditional love, and championed me in everything I did) consumed me fully. I lost the ability to participate meaningfully in my daily life, and found even the most routine activities tiresome and impossible to complete. Yet I was the sibling and Co-Executor to my mother’s estate who lived closest, and didn’t have children, so it was up to me to be the hyper responsible one in navigating the endless amounts of bureaucratic process and paperwork. This crushing weight of responsibility, on top of the pain of grief destabilized my mental health, and I knew I was barely surviving, just treading water trying to keep my head above the surface.
Someone in my family saw that I was drowning in grief, asked me if I needed help and got me connected with a local community resource called Bereaved Families of Ontario. Shoutout to cousin Sue from SickKids hospital for throwing me a lifebuoy! I started attending regular drop-in peer grief support groups at the BFO Toronto chapter, and got connected with other people who were also in the thick of grief. It was here, and regularly meeting with a psychotherapist versed in death and dying, that I began to learn the language around grief and how empowering it is to speak about the experience with others. I discovered terms such as anticipatory grief: grieving before the death has occurred, complicated grief: persistent form of intense grief in which maladaptive thoughts and dysfunctional behaviours are present, and disenfranchised grief: where a loss isn’t openly acknowledged, socially validated, or publicly mourned.
Six months into my grief journey, something in my psyche shifted. I started to appreciate the gift I had been given through this experience of loss, which was the opportunity to connect with others on one of the deepest levels of humanity, and to allow myself to be completely vulnerable in speaking about death, the business of dying, and how unprepared we all are for it. I started to read work from writers who also wanted to explore the experience around death and who I identified with. One quote from Carolyn Baker (author of Islands of Sanity) which I earmarked and read often is:
“Grieving has been banished from our culture, as it’s considered to hold us back
from progress. This is also known as grief shaming. We can’t afford not to grieve.
If we don’t grieve and have support for grieving, we become toxic to ourselves and
others. Grief cleanses us of the belief of separateness and isolation. It opens our
hearts and deepens our empathy and compassion.”
One year later, this gift of community also gave me a new found purpose, and started me down the path of volunteering for a Bereavement Care program at the Scarborough Centre for Healthy Communities, where I was able to train and hone my peer support skills to help other lost-at-sea grievers. I used these newly acquired skills to help create a specific space for individuals grieving a MAiD death (originally called the MAiD Grief Recovery support group) that has now grown into the Bridge C-14 10-week support group program. Three and a half years later, my purpose of helping others to find a safe space and community to process and integrate their grief has never wavered. I’m incredibly proud of how far I’ve come in building this new found identity and resiliency, and in taking the peer support worker and facilitator path with Bridge C-14 and Bridge4You. I would not be here today without the wounded healers that came before me, and who mentored and guided me in this direction. I will be forever grateful to my mentors Nelrene, Betty Ann, Sonia, Marc, Lauren, and Signy.
I am still grieving the loss of my parents, but have reclaimed the role of being their daughter (that will never die) and have worked hard to integrate my grief and heal. I encourage anyone grieving (not just a MAiD death) and needing a lifeline, to search for the people willing to have these enriching and soul fulfilling conversations. We are a community, and I promise you, you are not alone.
~ Submitted by Alicia Freeborn
Peer Support Worker & Volunteer Facilitator
Bridge C-14 & Bridge4You Social Service Worker Placement Student