Heidi and kids at home
Heidi at home with daughter Brooke, 10, and son Zachary, 6. (Photo: Courtesy Heidi Wilk)

Heidi Wilk's husband Matthew died two years ago this summer, after seven years of living with brain cancer. Heidi is a dietitian at Toronto Rehab and became a single mother to her three children at 38.

Through Matthew's illness, end-life-care and later his death, she has shared her story with UHN News. She is continuing her journey to heal and has now taken on the role of mentor to other widows.

"Peer mentoring for people who have lost a loved one can provide a safe space to normalize feelings and a way to avoid isolation," says Suraj George, Spiritual Care Practitioner, Toronto Rehab. "It also allows for the mentor to transfer learnings onto others from emotional processing to the more practical knowledge, like wills.

"I think it also allows for some of the mentor's emotions of loss to surface and helps them process what's happening in their own experience of loss as they continue on their healing journey."

Below Heidi shares with UHN News her experience as a peer mentor.

Q: Who are you mentoring?

A: Other widows mostly, but also anyone dealing with an ill spouse. It can include listening, helping them sort out financial paperwork, or linking them to social services. I pull knowledge from what I have learned through my own experience.

Most recently, a colleague's husband was very sick and I helped her understand what is to come, what kind of questions to ask the doctor, the emotional state her husband might be in and advice on extra childcare to consider.  I just wanted to take away some of her anxiety.

Q: How did you become a peer mentor?

A: It happened naturally – other widows reached out to me as a result of my involvement in social services like Chai Lifeline, and through my personal blog. My contact has also been given to people in my community by word of mouth.

I've loved the mentoring role because it not only helped me reach others but it also led me to gain my own support system of widows.


Three kids together
A recent weekend photo of Heidi's kids: Brooke, 10, Joshua, 4, and Zachary, 6. (Photo: Courtesy Heidi Wilk)

Q: What main messages do you share with other widows?

A: You need to take care of yourself and to let others help you. Sometimes it can be easier to isolate yourself than to reach out. Personally, I found it easier to reach out to organizations like Chai Lifeline or Dr. Jay Children's Grief Centre because it was their job.

When I speak to other widows, I also focus on the message that they are not broken. People will often try and fix their grief, with good intentions, but this is not always the right approach. I never liked feeling like a project to be fixed.   I remember the first year after Matthew passed away, friends always wanted me to go out socially or start therapy or medication because they cared so much and wanted to make everything better.

I think people can feel uncomfortable with grieving and in my case they wanted to stop my pain by providing solutions or distractions. But, what I needed was their support while I went through my healing in my own way. This is what I try to reinforce to other widows that they need to go through their grieving process at their own pace with the supports they feel most comfortable with.

Q: What value do you provide the people you mentor?

A: The biggest value I provide is letting others know I have been there and survived it.  Reassuring them it gets better and there is light at the end of the tunnel –  and even many moments of happiness.

I try to share everything I have learned from a practical standpoint, such as finances. After Matthew died, I had to make a financial plan in order to reduce my anxiety. It is stressful going from supporting a family on two incomes to one.

I also stress the importance of not being hard on yourself about doing everything perfectly. I had to accept that as a single parent I couldn't do it all and this was okay. My kids just wanted me around and it didn't matter what we were doing.  Once I relaxed and took this pressure off, I was able to enjoy my time with them again.  

Kids in capes
Heidi's kids wearing superhero capes made by Chai Lifeline. (Photo: Courtesy Heidi Wilk)

Q: You've started mentoring other during your own grieving process. How is this beneficial? What have you gained from the mentorship experience?

It has empowered me and helped me reflect on how far I have come. It is proof that I am doing well and I am stronger. All the social connections I have made have invigorated me. I now have a new set of widow friends with whom I can be myself and who just get it. I feel less lonely. 

I think not being over the grieving process has made me more relatable and realistic. Grief is a lifelong process that just hurts less with time. Helping other widows helps me see some good in all this bad. I finally see some meaning in it all.

Heidi will be participating this Sunday in a Spin for Chai in Matthew's honour to raise money for Chai Lifeline.  Further details are available here.​

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