High River grief support group carries on despite AHS funding cut

A grief support group continues to meet in High River and Okotoks, despite losing funding recently from Alberta Health Services.

Critics question why program being discontinued by province

Vi Sharpe has coordinated a grief counselling service in High River for 16 years. (Allison Dempster/CBC)

A grief support group continues to meet in High River and Okotoks, despite losing funding recently from Alberta Health Services.

Laurie Hodson says when his wife of 56 years died last year, the loneliness he felt was indescribable.

He started going to the High River grief support group twice a month.

"It helped me realize that I wasn't alone," he said.

When Hodson learned the program was being cancelled, he was disappointed.

"Why, after 16 years, would you cease funding, effectively, a group like this that has such a track record?" he said. 

Julie Kerr, the AHS senior operating officer for community, rural and mental health services in the Calgary zone, says the province was unable to reach a new agreement with counsellors providing the program.

Until the end of June, the program was getting about $9,600 annually from the province through the High River District Hospital Foundation.

"They could not continue the program, delivering it within the parameters and expectations of the contract," Kerr said.

"It was felt to be that continuing funding that program when other services have been developed in the intervening years since that program started just didn't make sense."

Kerr said those other services include Foothills Community Counselling, local social workers, and other support groups at churches.

She said she could not disclose further details.

Vi Sharpe, left, coordinator of the grief counselling service, sits with Lesley Smith, who has benefited from it. (Allison Dempster/CBC)

Vi Sharpe, who ran the program for 16 years with the help of Henry Friesen, a retired clergyman, was also unable to elaborate about the failure to reach a new agreement with AHS.

"There are many factors, but it just didn't work and… that's all that I can say about that. It just didn't work out," she said.

Now she and Friesen are volunteering their time to keep the meetings going. Each month, one is held in High River and another in Okotoks.

"We saw people's distress, very real, genuine distress and we decided that we would continue this program, even without funding, temporarily, while we could look for funding. And we'll still continue," Sharpe said.

She says she's optimistic they'll be able to find a new source of funding.     

Lesley Smith says she's disappointed because the program has helped her cope with her son's terminal illness and the recent death of her husband.

"You learn what other people have done to cope with their grief issues," she said.

"For many of us — I'm 70 — for many of us, we're living alone for the first time in our lives and that's a huge challenge to learn to live alone again when you're older."