HHA 2018 Changemaker of the Year Nominee:
Written and Submitted by Terri Viola-Wilson
Imagine a Canada where the end of life receives the same amount of compassionate care as the beginning of life, regardless of where it occurs. For Merri-Lee Agar, who began her volunteer journey with HHA in 2015 that would be the ultimate success of Home Hospice Association.
Merri-Lee marks her mother’s “beautiful and peaceful” death as part of the reason she later became involved in her mother had wanted to die at home surrounded by family and friends.
Fortunately, Merri-Lee and her family were able to provide the care and honour her mother's wishes, which brought them peace and healing in their grief. The care that her mother received, Merri- Lee says, is the care that everyone deserves, and so she began volunteering with both community and residential hospice agencies, as Merri-Lee was well familiar with the services that were and were not available when her mother needed them. Years later, when she learned about HHA, Merri-Lee decided that she would become a volunteer because “It isn’t about brick and mortar structures, but rather, (about) turning any bed, anywhere into a hospice bed through their Hospice at Home Program,” she explains.
As a professional Death Doula and Bereavement Specialist, Merri-Lee has worked with others to develop and deliver curriculum for Home Hospice Association. She acknowledges what she describes as “(an) abundance of compassion, knowledge and expertise” within HHA. Merri-Lee has been a critical part of the development and delivery of professional programs such as Infant and Pregnancy Loss Doula, Death Doula, Palliative Personal Support Worker, and community projects such as Our Babies, Our Grief, Death Café, and C.A.N.D.Y. Club. Most recently, Merri-Lee has become the Chapter Champion for the Niagara Region where they hosted their first Moonlit Memory Walk in 2018.
Merri-Lee is a self-proclaimed introvert. However, it has been through her volunteer work in these programs that she has grown outside her comfort zone and is now able to speak publicly, something she never thought she could do. Achieving this has been particularly special, as it has come about while “contributing to the greater good” by bringing care to the dying.
Merri-Lee finds her inspiration in the people she “walks with” as
they take their final journey here, on Earth. “They are my very
best teachers of not only how to best support others,” she
explains, “but how to be present in my own life and not take
anything for granted.” And in her personal life, Merri-Lee finds
inspiration in her daughter, Reillee, who “has always inspired me
to keep growing as an individual, as a mother, and as a friend.”
Understanding what is needed as one begins their final journey
isn’t an easy topic for many people to bring up in conversation.
To that end, in January of 2017, Merri-Lee brought Death Cafés
to the Niagara region. She has found that many people want to
talk about dying and death. At Death Cafés, participants explore
feelings, fears, beliefs, and questions in a safe, non-judgemental
space. She has found the response to the Death Cafés has been
very positive and now holds them bi-monthly.
If death is a difficult topic, how much more so is the death of an
expected child? While the beginning of life care offered by our
society is endemic, how much support do we offer to those
parents who lose a child? Last year, Merri-Lee participated in a
Home Hospice Association pilot project in her community called,
“Our Babies, Our Grief” and has since run the program two more times. In the 6-week progressive healing peer-support program, parents who have experienced an infant or pregnancy loss gather together to receive and give support. Volunteering in that capacity has allowed Merri-Lee to work closely with some individuals even after the program has concluded.
To those who are considering volunteering with HHA, Merri-Lee says: “I believe that anyone can do this. If you are drawn to end-of-life care, please reach out to us- we will help you gain the confidence you need through our Compassionate Caregiving Online Training Program and simple conversations.” She encourages others to become a part of Home Hospice Association in order to help the goal of bringing compassionate care to everyone who is knowingly on an end-of-life journey, no matter where they call, “home”. You never know what you will find out about yourself and life. In her words: “I’m not sure I was fully alive until I got involved in end of life care, but now I am awake and aware and grateful for it.”