After her brother died, Sardis secondary student Michaela English said there weren't a lot of people at school who could help her deal with her loss. She wants to make sure that doesn't happen to anyone else, so she's joined a new pilot program developed by the Chilliwack school district and Chilliwack Hospice designed to equip local high school students with skills to support peers experiencing grief and loss.
Fifteen students from all three of the district's high schools started weekly training sessions last month with Hospice co-facilitators Colleen Rush and Lucy Fraser.
Over five intensive sessions they'll learn all about grief and bereavement and how to talk about them, especially to people their own age.
"We've done other training in the community around grief and loss and how to support people who are facing an end-of-life illness," Rush said, "but this is new in the sense that we're working directly with a group of young people."
One reason for the pilot project is that it's hard to find meaningful work experience placements for kids looking to pursue careers in counselling or social work, School District No. 33 work experience co-ordinator Chris Reitsma said.
"Inherently those kinds of careers are riddled with confidentiality issues and privacy concerns, so having a high school student tag along is often not an option," he said.
The solution developed by his department and Hospice was to provide a program that would give students tools they could use with peers now and take into their careers down the road.
Like many students in the program, Chilliwack secondary Grade 12 student Adrianna Lunt joined the pilot to learn more about grief and loss for herself, but she also wants to learn skills she'll be able to bring into a career in the medical field later on.
"When you're working in a hospital, you're going to be around a lot of death and tragedy, and I want to know how to comfort patients or someone who's just had a loss and is in that kind of shock," she said.
A few of the students, like English, have experienced major losses of their own, and would like to bring the kind of support to schools they wished they'd had.
"Maybe kids who've gone through a loss could help kids who are just going through one," English said.
Official support networks could be a possibility in the future, but it would be up to individual schools to develop their own peer grief-support programs, according to Reitsma, and no such plans are in place yet.
But students in the group who've gone through a death in their families say peer support is crucial.
"When my mom passed away it was a lot easier to talk to people my age because I could be more open about it and tell them how I was really feeling," said Grade 12 CSS student Taylor Collins.
Although a number of students bring their own first-hand experiences to the Hospice group, there is still plenty to learn.
"You would expect someone to be sad all the time, but we learned, some people are just numb," said Sardis Grade 11 student Nadia van den Berg.
Grade 12 CSS student Stephanie Bales, meanwhile, was surprised to learn about "disenfranchised grief," which prevents some people from expressing their grief openly because others think it's unacceptable-a person, for example, who isn't allowed to visit a dying same-sex partner because his or her family disapproves of the relationship.
"That just blew my mind," Bales said. "I'd never even thought about that."
After the program wraps up at the end of this month, some students plan to put their new knowledge and skills to work right away by volunteering with Chilliwack Hospice's children's grief support groups.
For Sardis Grade 12 student Max Gardner, it'll will be a way to give some other child something he wished he had when he was younger.
"As a kid who went through grief, it would have been nice to have somebody that was still young to talk to because you can still kind of be a kid at the same time as you get support."