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Seeing grief as companion, not enemy, key for hospice volunteer

Joanne Byrick, who lost her son Ben when he was 24, says bereavement is about learning to live with grief and share in the sadness, joy and laughter of the life the person lived
Joanne Byrick works the front desk at Huronia Hospice in Penetanguishene. She has been a volunteer in hospice for more than 13 years and comes to the work after experiencing the loss of her son, Ben, who drowned at the age of 24.

Joanne Byrick says her volunteer work at Huronia Hospice is a natural fit that was not expected.

The 71-year-old spent her career helping others. She transitioned from working as a medical secretary, to an educational assistant, and ultimately worked in the special needs department at Trent University before retiring.

Her love of helping others is apparent and a part of who she is, however, it was the loss of her own son that led her to work in a hospice in Peterborough.

Byrick’s son, Ben, drowned when he was 24 years old.

While grieving the loss of her son, Byrick turned to a bereavement group at a hospice in Peterborough where she was living at the time.

After finding the program helpful for herself, Byrick began volunteering her time with the hospice providing respite care for caregivers of people with life-threatening illnesses.

“It allowed me to go into an environment with other families who were struggling, and gave me  an opportunity to witness the joy and love in the family,” says Byrick.

“I found that very powerful,” she says, “It filled my time. The work supported me.”

Byrick’s volunteer responsibilities morphed into front desk work, kitchen work, and visiting people at home.

She began forming strong relationships with families.

Then, she was asked to co-facilitate a bereavement group for parents.

Byrick says she was hesitant at first, but found it very beneficial in the grand scheme of things.

“It was scary. At first, I was in a room with parents that had lost their children six weeks earlier. I was in awe,” says Byrick explaining that she didn’t leave her house for more than six weeks after she lost her son.

She was inspired by the parents searching for ways to work with their grief.

“When parents experience the loss of a child who they’ve loved so deeply, their world is gone forever.”

Hospice and bereavement groups provide “a safe space to talk about our children just as parents talk about their children that are still here.

“We laugh. We cry. We tell stories. It is such a privilege to hear these intimate stories about their children, their dreams and what they’d accomplished.”

Recovering from the loss of a child or any family member is a work in progress. It looks different for everyone. Hospice provides the space for people to come and find community.

Byrick says some people come and listen to others simply sharing the space with others grieving.

“Grief looks for companionship because you do feel alone, and that leaves you vulnerable. When the unthinkable happens, you’re not alone, and hospice always welcomes you,” says the devoted volunteer.

After more than thirteen years of working in hospice here at Huronia Hospice and in Peterborough, Byrick says she resents hearing people say that those grieving are strong.

“Strength doesn’t have anything do with it. It’s not about recovery. We don’t recover from grief. We learn to find life again with grief as a companion not an enemy.”

Byrick says educating people about hospice work is hard.

“The volunteers and staff are here to walk with you,” explains Byrick, who notes that they help you navigate the system, whether you’re dealing with loss or with a loved one with a life-threatening disease.

“It helped me heal, but it’s also kept me real,” says the retired educator who invites anyone to come into the facility and take a tour so you know what is available before you need it.

“This kind of work as a volunteer allows you to be human,” says Byrick, “It’s real life.”

Of all the time she’s shared with others who have experienced loss, or families dealing with a dying loved one, she feels it’s a gift to her.

“It’s sacred time,” she says of the love and laughter and joy that accompanies the sadness in loss.

If you need people to walk with you in your grief, visit Huronia Hospice and take a tour.

“We’re lucky to have this hospice here,” says Byrick. “Once you step into the building and talk to the staff and people here, you see that it’s more of a feeling.”

Huronia Hospice — Tomkins House is located at 948 Fuller Avenue in Penetanguishene.