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Helping the ‘forgotten mourners’

Former Hants County woman bringing youth grief workshop to Windsor


As West Hants residents struggle to try to make sense of the sudden death of four community members, the tragedy weighs heavily on the community’s hearts.

For the region’s youngest citizens, they may be having difficulty expressing that grief. That’s where support organizati­ons, like Bernie’s Buddies, come in.

“My heart is just twisted up for the community,” said Angela Blenkhorne, the founder of Bernie’s Buddies, a registered charity that offers free workshops for youth, in a peer support environmen­t, where participan­ts connect with others who’ve experience­d a death in their lives.

“It’s devastatin­g watching the news from here,” added Blenkhorne, who lives in Calgary, Alberta, but is originally from Three Mile Plains, N.S.

Blenkhorne is referring to the intense storm that ripped through Nova Scotia July 21-22, resulting in flash flooding in West Hants that claimed the life of an adult, two six-year-old friends, and a 14-year-old girl.

Blenkhorne knows all too well the sting of losing someone when you’re young. She was 14 when her father died. She said at the time there were next to no resources to help youth navigate the grieving process.

“There are still not a lot of grief resources, especially in more rural areas across the country,” said Blenkhorne.

Throughout her career, she has always found a way to connect with youth, whether that be through teaching skiing or yoga or facilitati­ng peer support networks, and when a “silly Saint Bernard” bounced into her life while living out west, Bernie’s Buddies was born.

Each Bernie’s Buddies workshop features a therapy dog visit, yoga movement and relaxation techniques, and age-appropriat­e activities that help launch a creative grief conversati­on.

“The reason we’re doing it is to help kids know they’re not grieving alone. Isolation in grief as adults is rampant for sure, but in kids, it’s even worse because they become forgotten mourners,” said Blenkhorne.

“Kids grieve just as deeply as adults but they can show it very differentl­y. We might not recognize that they actually are grieving,” she said.

Blenkhorne said some children lash out, others may break down and cry only to head outside to have fun with friends a few minutes later.

“Their brains, as they’re developing, can only sustain intense emotions for short periods of time,” explained Blenkhorne. “Even though they look fine outwardly, there’s still lots going on inside.”


Earlier this spring, Blenkhorne began planning a summer trip to Nova Scotia where she would host the first Bernie’s Buddies workshop outside of Alberta. It was already scheduled for August when the July 21-22 severe flooding turned West Hants upside down.

She said the response to the Aug. 10 workshop was overwhelmi­ng, so much so that she had to cap registrati­on at 25 participan­ts.

“That’s larger than what we normally do but given the exceptiona­l circumstan­ces, we adjusted our model so that we could accommodat­e more,” she said.

With a growing waitlist, she’s planning to return in September to host another session, though the date is still to be determined. She’s also hoping to host one or two summer camps in Nova Scotia yearly going forward.

As the community mourns the loss of life, Blenkhorne encourages people of all ages to seek support.

“There is convention­al

counseling and therapy, which is hugely important for kids that need it. But for kids that it doesn’t resonate with, they kind of don’t really have an alternativ­e, which is where we come in,” said Blenkhorne of Bernie’s Buddies peer support model.

She said it’s vital that children be given a chance to grieve on their own terms. She says that it helps them as they grow into adults.

“For the kids to have an opportunit­y to support their bereavemen­t now while they’re in childhood helps them as they develop,” she said.

“There’s research around the outcomes of unsupporte­d childhood bereavemen­t that show that kids and youth may develop unhealthy behaviours as they get older to deal with their unsupporte­d grief,” she continued.

“If we can provide them healthy supports and a sense of community early on, we have a chance to help them develop better coping skills… in dealing with adversity. That’s why it’s so important

to give them the supports that they truly deserve.”

Blenkhorne said it’s never easy talking about loss, especially sudden traumatic loss, particular­ly involving children, but it’s beneficial.

She encourages people who are struggling to contact Nova Scotia Mental Health to get connected with supports.

Additional­ly, she said there’s a wealth of online resources that can help people cope, and how to talk to others. On Bernie’s Buddies Facebook page, for example, she’s provided a list of tip sheets for caregivers to use when talking about grief.

“They need to make sure that what they’re saying is age-appropriat­e and developmen­tally-appropriat­e, and that’s where these tip sheets can come in handy,” she said.


A tree in downtown Windsor is currently serving as a monument to the flood victims. People continue to stop by and add stuffed toys, musical instrument­s and glittery

ribbons to it.

Funerals for all four victims have now been held. The final funeral, which was for 14-year-old Terri-Lynn Keddy, was on Aug. 12.

West Hants Mayor Abraham Zebian said the community is in mourning and it will take some time to process the profound losses. He said having options like the peer grief workshop is helpful for the community.

He said three of his children, who are ages eight, nine, and 10, had questions about flash flooding and how it could sweep people away. After a discussion, Zebian took them to the St. Croix power dam to illustrate just how fast and dangerous rushing water can be.

“They were blown away with the noise and the velocity and how the water was just hitting the rocks,” said Zebian, noting it helped them realize the difference between a rapid flooding scenario and swimming in a serene lake or pool.

Zebian said it’s important for people to take the time to answer children’s questions and find ways to communicat­e with them, and with each other.

“The community is going to have to heal. I personally believe that the communit is going to have to heal together,” said Zebian.

 ?? CONTRIBUTE­D ?? Angela Blenkhorne, pictured with her beloved dog that inspired her to launch a registered charity to help grieving youth, is the owner and founder of Bernie’s Buddies.
CONTRIBUTE­D Angela Blenkhorne, pictured with her beloved dog that inspired her to launch a registered charity to help grieving youth, is the owner and founder of Bernie’s Buddies.

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