Bears That Lift Burdens and Offer Comfort

September 2022

Marguerite had her first interaction with Hospice 28 years ago, when her husband was diagnosed with cancer. “They were so wonderful, and not only treated my husband, but helped me so much as well,” says Marguerite.

Never forgetting the memorable care provided by the Hospice team, years later Marguerite was on a trip to Florida, where a friend told her about a program she had discovered at a nearby hospital. They were making small stuffed bears to give to cancer patients, as a way to share their “burdens.”

So, Marguerite went home with lots of inspiration and a pattern to try out. She made the first batch of 15 bears all by herself, with the intention of sharing them with our Hospice in Windsor.

“I took them in to show the team, and I explained that these would be given as gifts to anyone who needed a place to put their burdens,” says Marguerite. “The team was immediately on board, so my friend Dorothy and I started sewing and stuffing bears.”

The Burden Bears project quickly became more than two women could handle on their own, so Marguerite recruited a sewing team, including her sister Annette, and began to request donated materials. “We were inundated with donations of materials, threads, buttons and trim, even sewing machines! It was amazing!”

Now approaching their 20th year, the Hospice Burden Bear group meets every Monday at the Windsor Campus, with as many as 30 individuals bringing their talents and skills to support this project. “It’s quite a production line, we have some using sewing machines, some hand sewing, and a team that’s stuffing the bears,” explains Marguerite. Each bear comes packaged with a small matching blanket, and the Burden Bear prayer printed on a card for the recipient.

“Since we started in 2003, the group has provided more than 7,000 Burden Bears to patients and families. Some of the current volunteers are even part of the original group from 2003.”

“One of our volunteers came in for years, until she simply couldn’t anymore, and she unfortunately passed. At her funeral, Annette presented her three grandchildren with bears that their grandmother had made for them. They were so happy to have that precious gift from their Grandma.”

The Burden Bears are created to support anyone who may be carrying a “burden.” “One gentleman at the Windsor Residence thought he ‘didn’t need a teddy bear,’ until he was presented with one that was custom made from a John Deere tractor fabric, and he was thrilled. Turns out he was a hobby farmer, and a big fan of John Deere,” says Marguerite. “We’ve also had a special request to make bears from a patient’s own t-shirts as a memorial.”

The group is also responsible for the signature blue blankets that cover each patient as they make their way through the traditional Honour Guard as they leave the Residence. Embellished with the iconic Hospice Dove, the blankets are a beautiful, dignified way for patients to transition away from our Hospice. Annette also hand-paints Hospice blue boxes (stenciled with the Hospice dove) that enable family members to pack up a patient’s belongings and their personalized room décor as they leave the Residence. She has been responsible for hundreds of these custom-painted boxes over the years, and even set up a small paint shop in her home to continue supplying the “Dove boxes” during the pandemic.

Not only does our Hospice Windsor Campus offer stuffed friends, but so does our Hospice, Erie Shores Campus, in the form of Comfort Bears.

The Hospice Comfort Bear Group started creating handmade bears in June 2014, which is actually two years before the Erie Shores Campus opened!

“Our volunteer knitting group was meeting regularly at the time,” explains Caroline, the group leader. “The Volunteer Manager from Hospice came over to ask if anyone was interested in helping launch the ‘bears’ initiative in Leamington – and so Comfort Bears began.”

Reflecting their Windsor counterparts, a Comfort Bear is a small hand-crafted bear, whose goal is to offer “cuddles and hugs” to patients, families and caregivers. Each bear is accompanied by a small blanket, and a card that poetically describes the bear’s philosophy and purpose.

When the Comfort Bears program started up, construction had not yet begun on the Erie Shores Hospice, but the group knew there would be a need. To get themselves off to a good start, they met with the Burden Bear group from the Windsor Campus to chat about their learnings. “Members from Windsor came out and supplied us with the pattern for the bears as well as three sewing machines. We talked to them about how many bears they usually made annually in Windsor, and got started right away making our own bears.”

The Erie Shores group started small but mighty, and launched themselves by word of mouth in the community, talking to anyone who would listen as they searched for donations of fabric, thread all the materials to start this project. “By the time we had our first formal meeting, we were amazed at the volume of donations we received; everyone brought something.”

“We wanted to be ready with a good supply before the Erie Shores Hospice Residence opened in 2016, and within the first few months, completed more than 30 bears. Since that initial batch, the group’s great pace continues – they have produced more than 100 bears in just the first six months of this year alone!

“It’s a great group, we laugh so much, and we’re all good friends.” And, they’re not above gently “encouraging” their husbands to help too! “We have all of our materials and cutting boards laid out on long folding tables, but they’re just not a comfortable working height for stand up work,” says Caroline. “So, my husband came up with a design to lift the tables to the perfect counter height for working. He’s so proud of those things!”

“It is so nice to work on site at Hospice, we often have patients and families stop by to see where all the laughter was coming from. They sometimes stay to watch us work, and to learn about the group. We have had so many donations from family members; materials, supplies, even sewing machines! They’re so appreciative of what Hospice has done for them, they want to give back.”

Caroline told us about one grandmother who asked if the group would be able to give each of her grandchildren a Comfort Bear in memory of their time with her at Hospice…all 21 of them! “We had lots of bears already made, and we were so happy to be able to honour her request and provide a bear for each grandchild.”

The Comfort Bear team meets each Wednesday to craft bears, but Caroline confesses that they sometimes end up having lunch together because there’s “just more to talk about!”

They’re now comfortably settled into the beautiful Welcome Centre at Erie Shores, with lots of room to work and lots of space to store their bears. “We’re so happy to have everyone together, we love the work and we love our Hospice family.”

There’s an amazing sense of community, fun and support for each other in these groups. And, they create much more than these lovely handmade bears. They’ve expanded to create beautiful quilts and lap blankets that are placed in each Hospice Residence suite, as well as fidget blankets, and other items that support our patients and families on their journey. Comfort Bears and Burden Bears provide the care, support, and solace that perfectly reflect our Hospice.