Dad, Death, and a Giant Deaf Dog
You started a WHAT?
Seven years ago as Bernie’s Buddies was being developed, almost no one I spoke with about childhood grief support alternatives knew what that meant or looked like. Given all the recent focus on youth mental health, how could this possibly still be an unknown topic?
I know how it feels to be a child and lose a loved one. I know how isolating it can be. I know what it’s like to measure time as before a death, and after. I know what it is to wonder how I could ever possibly move forward with my life without falling in the massive crater that grief created.
When I was 14 years old, my father died suddenly from heart attack. No warning - just POOF gone. My sister was only 9 years old. My Mom became a single parent literally in one last heartbeat. Our family structure, safe, secure world, and childhood as we knew it were over.
Chances are many of us know of a child or youth who has experienced a death loss. According to research by Dr. Kenneth Doka, palliative care physician and editor of Omega - Journal of Death and Dying, before the age of 18, one in five children will experience the loss of someone significant in their lives. In Alberta alone, that means there are over 195,000 grieving children.
When I returned to school a week after Dad died, I felt lonely and like an alien among my peers. Even though statistically there were at least 20% of my classmates experiencing a death loss, I actually knew of only two other people in my grade who had – but we didn’t discuss it. And if we weren’t talking about it, certainly there were more students trying to cope in silence.
To make a tough situation even harder, barely anyone – teachers, friends, family – acknowledged or talked about Dad once his funeral was over. I used to wonder if I was doing grief wrong because it seemed like I was supposed to just magically be over it. That didn’t make any sense to me considering how much I felt the presence of his absence every single day. I always will.
During the months that followed, Mom helped us try conventional therapy. For me, it didn’t quite offer what I needed and when our therapist moved to another province a few weeks into our sessions, no one filled her role. We were back to square one grieving as a family and as individuals, navigating the shock of a new reality on our own. Being in a small town meant no alternate grief resources were available. The situation today is still much the same in many of our rural areas and even in our cities.
Death is an awkward topic for a lot of people. In that discomfort, well-intentioned but insensitive sentiments are often said. Or, as mentioned earlier, people may not speak about the death at all because they’re concerned it might upset those of us who are grieving that loss. I can attest that the paint-a-smile-on-and-pretend-nothing-is-wrong approach is not a sign of healthy adjustment to loss. It is a maladaptive behaviour that can have consequences reaching far into adulthood. I didn’t understand back then that the vulnerability I was feeling wasn’t actually a weakness.
In the 30+ years since Dad died, I searched for how to offer unconventional child bereavement resources so no child has to grieve alone. But I don’t have psychology or counseling letters after my name – so how on earth did I become the founder and chair of a youth grief support charity?
An abandoned, deaf, Saint Bernard puppy, with no tail, named Bernie - that’s how. Bernie’s unusual physical attributes and exceptional connection to children was the bridge linking my lived grief experience, kids’ ski and yoga instructing, education, and professional background together to help grieving children.
Along with an enthusiastic board of directors, Bernie’s Buddies was formed and has been offering unique peer support workshops since 2018. Each session features a therapy dog visit, yoga movement with mindfulness, and creative grief conversation. Everyone in the workshop room – participants, facilitators, and volunteers – has experienced a death loss. This helps us build a sense of inclusive community to give grieving kids and youth a voice while learning and practicing skills with each other to live more fully after a loss.
We intentionally designed our model to be offered at no cost as a death often impacts family income, leaving very little money to access bereavement resources.
As current public health restrictions begin to ease, we look forward to offering our in-person workshops again when it is safe to do so. While we wait, our upcoming blogs will explore more aspects of childhood grief, giving an honest look inside the world of how and why we should support our grieving kids and youth by offering alternative supports.
Help us keep the conversation going – please feel free to share this blog with parents and caregivers who may be searching for grief resource options but are not sure where to start. Bernie’s Buddies is the sort of resource you don’t know you need – until you need it.