Phoebe Rose Rocks Ronald McDonald’s House

Grief is a deeply personal experience and journey. Everyone goes through it differently. It’s not something you get over, but rather something you live with. It’s even more apparent when death comes too quickly. Phoebe Rose Doull-Hoffman was born in 2010. She had been diagnosed with mixed lineage (MLL+) infantile leukemia since she was two months old. This is an aggressive and difficult to treat and cure leukemia with a very poor prognosis – just 20% of babies with high risk disease survive five years. Phoebe passed away in November 2015 and would’ve turned 6 this week.

To honor Phoebe, and as part of the Phoebe Rose Rocks Foundation to raise awareness and funds for childhood cancer research, Marion (Phoebe’s aunt and my close friend), her family and friends organized a dinner last weekend for families staying at the Ronald McDonald House. I felt really honored to be invited to join in this activity. Not only because it’s a special thing to be included in someone’s journey through grief, but it’s also how I’ve been living with my own grief – by doing things that Muriel would find fun and for a good cause.

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For prep day at the Pacific Institute for Culinary Arts (PICA), we met Marion’s husband Scot who works at PICA and was the leader of our group “Team Vancouver”. It was my first time at PICA and I was seriously impressed by the facilities and makes me want to take a class there, especially when Scott revealed the meal we would be serving. My mouth couldn’t (and still can’t) stop watering.

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Here was what was on the menu:

  • Home-made BBQ sauce marinated pulled pork sandwiches topped with fresh coleslaw.
  • For the vegetarians, grilled summer vegetables on a bed of salad in a spinach wrap.
  • Caesar-salad (I made the dressing from scratch, with help from the chef.)
  • 3-bean salad in a lemon-infused vinagarette.
  • 100+ hand-made chocolate cupcakes topped with icing and sprinkles.

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I’d heard of the Ronald McDonald House before but never new it played such an important and critical role for families and children. For over thirty years, Ronald McDonald House BC and Yukon (RMH BC) has been providing accommodation for seriously ill children and their families when they must travel to Vancouver for their child’s major treatment. Originally located in a 13-bedroom home in Shaughnessy, the House is now in an amazing 73-bedroom complex, including multiple kitchen facilities, lounge areas for families and children, indoor and outdoor exercise gyms, and a very cool indoor slide, on the grounds of BC Children’s Hospital.

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We were so prepared that the team set up and was ready well before families trickled in for dinner. With a little bit of time to spare, we were given a tour by the friendly volunteers who showed us around and even let us try the slide. The highlight of the night was serving dinner to the families who were staying at the House. It’s a humbling experience to see that a small gesture of cooking for someone can bring relief to many of the moms, dads, siblings, and families who were there for their sons or daughters.

Grieving is different for everyone. And that there good and not-so-good milestones along the way. Doing something like this really helped me with my grief and I wouldn’t hesitate to get back in the kitchen to do it all over again!

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Let’s give moms a break when it comes to breastfeeding

It’s World BreastFeeding Week and UNICEF and WHO are running full-steam ahead with their campaigns. Yet, while breastfeeding is an ideal, this kind of campaign is adding extra pressure on new parents, particularly moms, if they can’t or decide not to breastfeed based on their needs and situations.

Breastfeeding is an ideal – and this campaign clearly wants people to support it – yet for most moms and dads who’ve gone through the realities of ‘natural’ feeding, it’s not such a rosy picture. There’s the difficulties of latching, the pumping, the sleepless nights, the constant social pressures of equating breastfeeding to being a good parent.

While there’s been some alternative perspective on the week-long campaign, this recent study published in the Maternal and Child Health Journal highlights that women with unmet expectations about breastfeeding may be at higher risk for postpartum depression (PPD).

According to Maria Iacovou, PhD, a sociologist at the University of Cambridge in England and an author of the study, the benefits of breastfeeding is not new information. “But what is new – and urgent from a public health perspective – is that there is increased PPD risk among women who plan to breastfeed and then are not able to.”

The study suggests that women who wanted to breastfeed and did not may be in the most vulnerable position, possibly because they feel disappointment and guilt in addition to not getting the physiological benefits of breastfeeding.

If moms who are depressed fail at breastfeeding, that is another strike against their perceptions of being a good mom.

The study ultimately underlines the importance of providing expert breastfeeding support to women who want to breastfeed, but also to provide compassionate support for women who had intended to breastfeed, but who find themselves unable to.

I’ve been told that World Breastfeeding Week is trying to target developing countries because breastfeeding is the best way to provide infants with the nutrients they need. If this is the case, the message could be more specific, otherwise it might inadvertently be perpetuating social pressures leading to unnecessary stress and anxiety for parents who have the choice to decide how they want to feed their child.

Ride Don’t Hide

Living with grief definitely affects my mental health and it’s made me realize that despite the “norm”, everyone at some point suffers from a mental health issue. It’s pretty easy to think about our physical health and take steps to keep in shape – like exercising, watching what we eat, or even wearing sunscreen to protect our skin. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), safeguarding our mental health is just as important.

Many of us don’t consciously make an effort to stay mentally healthy. Mental health isn’t just about mental illness, its about feeling good about who you are, having balance in your life and in your thinking, and responding constructively to life’s highs and lows. Everyone should practice good mental health.

Because my grief is linked to mental health, I jumped at the chance to volunteer for the Ride Don’t Hide movement to support and raise awareness about why mental health is so important.

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My family and I teamed up to be route marshals for an important segment of the 60km route of the event. This “hair-pin” turn off the No. 2 Road Bridge in Richmond was a tricky one because the cyclists needed to come off the bridge and immediately turn onto a small bike path that led them to a residential area just across from the Vancouver International Airport. Of the 1200 cyclists that registered for the event, half of them (around 600) passed our post.

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As the crew for the No. 2 Road Bridge and Dover Park, we cheered riders on and directed riders to keep to the route… I even had to help someone fix their bike chain! All in all, waking up early to volunteer for a couple hours on a Sunday morning was really rewarding – the sunny weather definitely made the day much more enjoyable!

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The Ride Don’t Hide movement began on 1 August 2010, as Vancouver teacher and newspaper columnist Michael Schratter cycled 40,000 km, crossing six continents and 33 countries. In addition to raising funds for CMHA, Michael’s mission was to circumnavigate the world, sharing stories with people in different countries, to bring awareness to the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Here are some interesting stats about mental health in Canada:

  • 1 in 10 Canadians will suffer from a mental illness in their lifetime.
  • 1 in 7 Canadian women experience depression in their lifetime.
  • 1 in 8 Canadians experience a mood disorder like depression in their lifetime.
  • About 1.2 million Canadian children and youth experience a mental illness, but less than 20% receive help.

One of the world’s largest events about maternal mental illness

The more I get involved in postpartum and mental health issues, the more I see that there are lots of awareness-raising events about them (at least in Vancouver). After the interview with CBC, I was pleasantly surprised when I was contacted to join this year’s “Climb Out of the Darkness” events in British Columbia.

I supported the Vancouver event (Facebook page) and joined the walk organized by Kristen Walker, an instructor at the University of British Columbia, who decided to raise awareness about postpartum issues after the death of someone she knew and their family suffering from postpartum psychosis.

Kristen Walker being filmed by CBC welcoming participants of the Vancouver event
Kristen Walker being filmed by CBC welcoming participants of the Vancouver event

Climb Out of the Darkness is one of the world’s largest events raising awareness of maternal mental illness, like postpartum depression. It is held on or near the longest day of the year to shine the most light on this issue by getting people to join together to climb mountains and hike trails to symbolize the rise out of the darkness of maternal mental illness into the light of hope and recovery.

In addition to fundraising more than $3000 to support postpartum support services, the Vancouver event also brought together around forty people who braved the rain and cold to come out for the morning walk. It was also great to see CBC interviewing people and covering the event.

I'm just to the right of the white umbrella on the left side of the photo (Credit: Ciara McDaniel)
I’m just to the right of the white umbrella on the left side of the photo (Credit: Ciara McDaniel)

The turnout was great and it was nice to see that there was this grassroots support for postpartum issues. But definitely more is needed to raise awareness and get people to talk about and share their experiences. The statistics are too real to ignore.

Virtually all women can develop mental disorders during pregnancy and in the first year after deliver.

According to the World Health Organization, virtually all women can develop mental disorders during pregnancy and in the first year after deliver – about 10% of pregnant women and 13% of women who have just given birth experience a mental disorder, primarily depression, and this is even higher for developing countries (15.6% during pregnancy and 19.8% after child birth).

Despite the emphasis in society on the postpartum challenges and struggles women and mothers face, this is also an issue for men whether it’s suffering from similar depression or having to support their partners. More dads need to be involved and speak out about their experience.

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The World Needs More Love Letters

There’s something about getting real mail, letters in particular, that can’t be replaced with emails, tweets, WhatsApp messages, SMS, etc.

When my friend Joya asked me last summer if I wanted to participate in ‘The World Needs More Love Letters‘, I thought sure why not. I wasn’t in the right state of mind to be thinking too deeply or analyzing what for – instead I just thought whatever could be done to ease my pain and loss would be ok. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about getting letters from total strangers, but if it could somehow fill a little bit of the hole that I felt I had or just to brighten my day, I was all for it.

Not only did the editors accept my story for letter writing, but they also featured it on Day One of their ’12 days of lover letter writing’ campaign over the Christmas holidays.

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I wasn’t expecting such a response. I received over 450 letters from 11 countries including the USA, Canada, France, Netherlands, UK, Switzerland, Australia, Sweden, Denmark, Italy and Mexico. Letters came from 49 out of the 50 States in the USA (no letters from Wynoming). Every letter was read before it reached me because we weren’t sure what to expect. What Joya found was that not only were the letters overwhelmingly positive, they also contained love from afar, encouragements, prayers, thoughts and motivation for me to succeed.

People are wonderful. I was blown over by the responses and the inherent goodness in people, young and old.

Children, teenagers to adults from around the world sent letters that were poignant, sweet, raw, and insightful. I couldn’t stop reading them. People shared similar tragedies in their life, others wanted to reach out with words wrapped in a hug, and others just wanted to show that they care for another fellow human being. The letters are full of words of wisdom, philosophy, heartbreak, art and poems.

It’s nice to know that people are inherently good and everyone shares a life of struggles, love, joy and humour. These real emotions somehow get lost in translation with all the digital ways we can communicate so it’s nice to know that ‘The World Needs More Lover Letters‘ exist.

Getting a letter (i.e. words on paper, drawings, photos, postcards, etc.) in the mail is real, tangible, and more supportive and comforting than you know.

The box of letters of 450+ letters I received.
The box of letters of 450+ letters I received.

A refugee’s story and his “guardian angel”

Muriel’s passing has not only shook my core but to those closest to her. This is particularly true for Quesney Buledi, and his family, who considered Muriel as their “guardian angel”. His public story of being an asylum-seeker and refugee in Thailand is well-known – less so is his more personal story of Muriel’s instrumental role in saving his life and the lives of his children. Muriel and I worked in the background to do what we could to help and never wanted to be in the spotlight. So I was very moved to read Quesney’s tribute in the January 2016 newsletter from the White Rose Group who helped him and his family settle in Canada.


This is Quesney’s tribute to Muriel in his own words.

It’s very difficult to believe that someone so special, so kind and almost perfect is no longer here to start that chat on the web or to send that text message.

I came to know Muriel soon after I arrived in Bangkok in February 2008. I arrived with nothing but a few clothes. I was destroyed – I had suffered unspeakable abuses and had no hope I could reconstitute my life. I was in the country illegally, without a passport or a visa. Like other asylum seekers, I had no rights and under the constant threat of arrest. What little money I had was gone in two days. With nowhere to sleep I sought shelter in a mosque.

I found my way from one agency to another until I met Ms Ali Collier at the Bangkok Refugee Centre (BRC). Ali realised I spoke French and introduced me to Muriel. Her smile met mine and we started to talk as if we knew each other for ages. Muriel quickly restored my lost hope. Finally, after more than four years of darkness there was a light! Someone cared and would help me. Through Muriel I met many others at Asylum Access Thailand who have remained good friends. Muriel helped me find a safe place to stay, even paying for my first rent. However, my status made it difficult to find work. Finally Muriel was successful in securing a volunteer teaching position for me and over the course of the next six years I helped many refugee children and adults maintain and improve their educational skills.

Muriel introduced me to her then fiancé Vincent Fung and he and I became very good friends. I had two people that cared for me and I considered them my new family. They introduced me to the modern world, made sure I had a safe place to stay, food to eat and activities to do. This kept my morale high. They took me to cinemas, to evening “get-togethers”, shopping malls and bought me new clothes.

They introduced me to new people who would be friends. I could never have dreamed these people would open the doors to freedom for my children and me. I now had people around me with whom I could share my pains and sorrows, people who vigorously fought for my happiness and my freedom.

When Muriel and Vincent left Thailand they ensured I was living in a secure area and that all my basic needs were met. I cannot forget that night. Vincent handed me an envelope with enough money to cover all my needs for months. I could hardly comprehend their kindness. It was difficult to say good-bye but we kept in touch through e-mail and on-line chats. She always wanted to know that I was well and safe. She sent books for me to read, she suggested movies to watch, music to listen to, she asked her friends in Bangkok to take me out, she sent others from abroad with gifts. Whenever Muriel and Vincent came back to visit Bangkok, I was always first to greet them.

Muriel helped me focus on my future rather than my past and present. It was impossible for me to study in Thailand without my papers and she knew I wanted to go back to school. To my astonishment, she paid my tuition for law school. I completed the 3-year program and became a lawyer all because of Muriel. What an angel she was!

I had been separated from my children for more than six years and could not even expect they were still alive. When they were located in 2010 and we were reunited in Bangkok, Muriel and Vincent came to welcome them. They encouraged the children and helped them to focus on the future by providing them with so many new experiences. Muriel’s confidence that we would all have a bright future never wavered.

In 2012, security became a concern throughout the refugee community in Bangkok and many people were arrested. Once again it was Muriel who took action to ensure we escaped arrest. With the help of her friend we moved to a house in a middle class neighbourhood. She reasoned that the authorities would overlook us if we weren’t living like refugees. Muriel and Vincent paid for the house until we were resettled to Canada.

Muriel and Vincent came to see us again in Bangkok in November 2013. We had wonderful time together and when it came time to say goodbye Didier, Lauraine and I could not stop the tears from flowing. Muriel hugged us and cried. We could not know it would be our very last time together.

Muriel always wanted us to be free. Today, through the efforts of Muriel, Vincent and other friends I came to know through them, we are free. When I look back over the past eight years, I can’t imagine what my life would have been if I hadn’t met Muriel. Thanks to her, I am a resident of Canada, I am working, and furthering my studies. My children are free and happy; they are going to school and see a bright future. I feel so blessed.

In our last video call, Muriel and I went through the events of past and present. She said: “I am so happy you have your life back. I am so proud of you my brother.”

Muriel and I had many dreams and it is sad she won’t be here to see them realized. We dreamed of starting schools that would educate girls in Africa, we had my books to publish, a movie of my life story to be shared with the rest of the world…

She wanted her daughter Thea to be a happy girl and wished that Didier and Lauraine could be Thea’s godparents. Muriel and Vincent had planned to visit us in Canada, introduce Thea to us, and celebrate our freedom. Mother Nature decided otherwise.

I miss Muriel very much. I will do everything I can to ensure Thea understands the great woman her mother was.

The Muriel Lauvige Foundation will be created in her memory. This nonprofit organization will pursue Muriel’s vision of educating vulnerable women and girls. I trust Muriel is happy that we will carry on her dream.

Quesney Buledi


An interview with CBC Radio about Postpartum Depression

Like every postpartum depression story, Muriel’s one is unique and deeply personal. It isn’t black and white or clear-cut because many factors and triggers make it different for everyone going through it. I’m glad that CBC Radio invited me to share a part of her story and our experience… While what Muriel (and I) went through was very different from who she was and the outcome isn’t what anyone expected, I’m glad that part of her story can be told and I hope that it can make a difference for both moms and dads.

**A web article and the interview can also be found on CBC’s Website.**

The interview highlighted some of our struggles. Here are few other things that we went through as a family and that some of the callers also brought up:

  • It felt like riding an emotional roller-coaster which was both draining and tiring.
  • The feeling of helplessness for not knowing what else to do and the frustration for being unable to see the end of the illness was very real.
  • Muriel reached out to friends, family, psychologists, and the hospital for help. Despite trying to find other ways to address her depression, anxiety, and struggles, we were at the mercy of doctors and the healthcare system because we thought they had the answers.
  • As Muriel’s condition deteriorated she became more recluse, but we also felt more isolated because of the stigma around postpartum depression (PPD) and the lack of understanding to address it and how to reach out to Muriel.

The on-air portion on the interview was only five minutes, but Gloria Macarenko and I talked a bit about what more could be done.

  • For one thing, it’s important for both moms and dads, as well as people in the support network, to realize that “it’s ok to not be ok”. There’s too much pressure, from society and between moms and parents, to be “good parents” or to do everything “right” (ex. breastfeeding).
  • Society must realize that it’s not only the person directly suffering from postpartum depression, but also their partner and child(ren) and they also need the support.
  • A mother’s physical and mental well-being is as important (maybe even more?) as a baby’s well-being.
  • Treatment for postpartum depression should include a mix of medication and therapy, including being in a supportive and appropriate environment for PPD-sufferers and babies, and communication between the medical team and families to understand the history, character and coping mechanisms of moms (and dads) who are suffering. There is no one-size fits all solution.
  • It’s important that soon-to-be new parents are aware of the possibility of postpartum depression and the causes and reasons for it. This includes changes in hormones, social pressures and expectations, and the ability for parents to cope with anxiety issues, lack of sleep, and the stresses associated with parenting. If there are pre-natal classes, why aren’t there post-natal ones?

Love is beyond words.

When writing my wife’s tribute, one of the hardest things to do is to figure out what to include or not include. Despite the best attempts, writing cannot capture everything, like the details of her determination, her presence and personality, quirky qualities or just the feeling of being by her side.

A person and a feeling can be described, it can be dissected, and it can be projected… but it can’t be fully understood using words. Even though this is true, I still wanted to put together my ‘hommage’ to Muriel.

Thankfully I had help and it started out as a group effort from friends and family who wanted to include a tribute in her hometown magazine last September. This gave me something to work with by translating it into English and then expanding on it with more personal touches which included videos and links I could find online.

Muriel’s tribute is a snapshot of the wonder and strength known to her friends, family, and the people who were fortunate enough to meet her. It includes things that makes me laugh and cry and reminds me of who she was: an amazing and beautiful soul and the love of my life.

Read the tribute here:
http://www.vincentfung.ca/blog/muriel-mon-amour

Helping a Congolese family

Two years ago, we met our dear friend Quesney who was still in Bangkok with his children after five years in limbo trying to be recognized as refugees. We had a meal together and reminisced about our time together in Thailand, the years we kept in touch since we left the country, and what they thought about becoming Canadian citizens.

His journey and story is a complicated yet inspiring one that started long before 2008 when I first met him. In early 2008, after being introduced to my wife, who welcomed him as a fellow French speaker and gave him a purpose while she managed the education department at the Bangkok Refugee Centre, Quesney fought to get him and his children recognized as refugees – people are considered “asylum seekers” before they are officially recognized as a refugee by the United Nations – fending for themselves and trying to live a ‘normal’ life while keeping a low profile.

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Rejected by the UN to be recognized as refugees in their first few years in Bangkok, Quesney and his children sought help and support outside of the typical channels. While we had left Thailand in 2008, we continued to support Quesney by helping him find a safe place to live, helping his children to go to school, connecting him with friends who were in Bangkok, and finally finding a way to get him resettled in another country as a refugee. Ironically, this help came from Canada.

In 2014, seven years after Muriel took Quesney in, Quesney and his two children landed in Winnipeg – their new home as new Canadians. We were so happy and proud of them. I continue to be amazed by their persistence and hope for a better life.