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Bragg Creek Swan Song Festival honours experience of grief and loss

“Your grief might be different, but we’re all grieving,” said end of life doula Julie Handrahan. “You don’t feel alone.”

BRAGG CREEK – Nestled in the picturesque beauty of Bragg Creek Provincial Park, guests gathered for the National Swan Song Festival to begin the process of healing from loss and grief.

Saturday (Oct. 17) afternoon was a day of meaningful conversations, tears and laughter, said end of life doula and host Julie Handrahan.

“It was quite healing,” she said. “Our hope, in all of this was, to create hope for people to move on and continue in this world.”

Handrahan hosted the National Swan Song Festival Bragg Creek event with fellow end of life doula, Louise Piche.

The ceremony was one of many taking part across Canada during the National Swan Song Festival. As part of the festival, to honour the experience of grief and loss, Handrahan and Piche created a sacred space to cleanse and encourage healing of the mind, body and spirit.

Guests were invited to write messages of loss in any way they chose and then throw the notes in a campfire and could participate in a smudge to help ease the negative feelings of loss.

Piche added guests were able to participate in the ceremony in any way they felt comfortable. This included sharing stories during blessings, or quietly listening to others speak.

The ceremony offered a chance for guests to be vulnerable, while sharing in the communal experience of loss.

“With COVID, it has brought on so many losses, whether it’s the loss of a loved one or losses in general, like losses of employment, losses of hope, of normalcy,” Handrahan said. “I saw relief when people would put their notes into the fire – I observed a sense of relief, a sense of letting go. That was really beautiful.”

The year 2020 has been an unprecedented and challenging time for many people. People have no idea how long COVID-19 will be affecting communities and the globe, or how long its associated losses will last.

Handrahan said she hoped the National Swan Song Festival rituals and ceremonies empowered people and help them find a sense of peace during the pandemic.

The ceremony sparked an interest in talking about the end of life, Piche said, and she hopes people carry forward the conversations they had to help normalize talking about death and loss.

The festival was an important learning opportunity, she added, because the conversations around the campfire allowed guests to chat about their experience with death.

“People are a little wide-eyed," Piche said. "Our goal here is to start the conversation and then all the good things can come from that."

Handrahan added more importantly people learned the experience of loss was not their’s alone.

“Your grief might be different, but we’re all grieving,” Handrahan said. “You don’t feel alone.”

As end of life doulas, Piche and Handrahan share a common passion of working to help people feel better talking about end of life plans.

End of life doulas are “navigators” that can serve as a constant guide during someone's end of life journey, Handrahan explained. They serve to help families and those who are nearing the end of their life navigate, the emotions and systems they encounter and serve as a sounding board and advocate when plans are being put in place.

“We’re the advocate and we make to sure it's what the person who is dying wants – it’s their journey,” Piche said. “Sometimes when you’re dying, there are certain things you want, but you don’t know how to ask your family for it. When it's someone who’s not family, it's really easy to say I would really like this.”

Handrahan said the doulas learn the wishes of the dying person and communicate with family members and the health care system to ensure requests are honoured.

“We both believe that being an end of life doulas is being a very individual experience – I might be good for somebody, or not, and Louise might be good for somebody, or not,” Handrahan said. “Working together we can really provide a really good service deepening on who we are working with.”

The duo are united by the core belief that nobody should die or navigate the end of life journey on their own and together they hope to grow and normalize talking about end of life care.

She said events like the National Swan Song Festival are pioneering conversations about death by providing the opportunity to remove the taboo nature surrounding the subject.

The duo hopes to build on the experience and forge forward with more events in the community, including Death Over Dinners and Death Cafés.

“This is important,” Piche said.