Terminal illness can be an extremely lonely and isolating experience, but Abbey Retreat Centre (ARC) is trying to flip the script on that and show there can be a positive path forward for people dealing with an end-of-life diagnosis.

Since opening its doors in 2017, ARC has assisted hundreds of cancer patients and their caregivers through their cancer journeys, offering free in-person programming to support people on their path to healing, recovery, and acceptance.

After adding online programming to its portfolio during the pandemic, the facility is bolstering its in-person options this month through a new pilot, Death: Charting Unknown Territories Together. The initiative is more than two years in the making, says ARC executive director Barb Smith-Morrison.

“Some of the comments we were hearing from people attending our retreats was ‘this has been phenomenal, but I’m at a place in my cancer experience where I am… facing end of life. Some of the other people at the retreat might not want to talk about that, but I need to’,” Smith-Morrison said. “That really hit hard and made us think about the types of things we were providing.”

The program, she says, will provide a safe space for people and their caregivers to discuss a variety of difficult topics surrounding death. There will be four facilitators on hand, working on issues surrounding grief and gratitude, love, and legacy. There will be opportunities for people to share their stories, with further programming designed to “reduce stress and anxiety, and deeply nourish the body, mind and spirit.” The pilot will feature eight people and is running Feb. 24 to 26.

Arlene Stiles recently joined ARC as a program coordinator. She knows firsthand how impactful these services can be, having attended a retreat with husband, Bob, in 2019. She said that experience helped change the pair’s perspective, helping Bob on his eventual road to recovery. It was a massive eye-opener for her, too.

“This was the first place that cared for me the same way Bob was cared for. It’s natural that the cancer patient is the focus, but the support person is going through the same thing. They have their own journey,” Stiles said.

A big year ahead

Smith-Morrison said ARC is returning to pre-COVID retreat sizes this year. There are six offerings planned, each including 10 people. The organization is continuing with its online supports too, with its two main programs to each run five times in 2023.

To sustain this growth, the organization is ramping up its fundraising efforts. Smith-Morrison said she hopes to bring in $250,000 this year, up from just over $100,000 in 2022.

“Our in-person retreat applications have increased 500 per cent from January 2020, so we’re trying to do what we can to make sure those that need our services get them,” she said.

It costs approximately $1,700 a day for someone to attend a four-day ARC retreat. The total cost of this pilot is approximately $1,400 per person – so less than $500 a day. Services have always been offered to people free of charge, and that won’t be changing, Smith-Morrison said.

When someone is dealing with a serious illness, usually they have to stop working. Their finances are stretched to the max,” she said. “We hear from people that having the opportunity to experience something like this and not have to worry about the cost is such a restart, it’s a reboot. It’s a piece of hope.”