Climbing an emotional mountain

Ian shares the stories of two parents who have lost children — and how a facility in Ottawa provided them with the grief counselling to help them heal.

Sophie Rosa and the Rogers House team reach the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.

If you had told Sophie Rosa that she was going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro after her son tragically passed away, she never would have believed it.

“I wanted to just go curl up and die. You couldn’t even try and tell me something like that could happen,” she says.

Sophie lost her youngest son Simon in a drowning accident during a school trip in 2009. When he passed away, Sophie had been training to climb the African mountain. Those plans were put on hold indefinitely, as she dealt with the emotional burden of losing a child. Reaching the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro was the furthest thing from her mind.

In January of 2010, Sophie joined a bereavement group at Roger’s House — a facility in Ottawa that is dedicated to providing palliative care to children and grief counselling to parents. In that group she met Angelo Garcia, who had recently lost his oldest son Misha to brain cancer. The parents formed an instant bond and remained in contact even after they each left the bereavement group.

About a year later — in March of 2011 — Sophie and Angelo were both helping to answer the phones during the annual Roger’s House Telethon, which is broadcast on Sportsnet. As they were chatting during a quiet moment, Angelo revealed that it was his son’s dying wish to have his ashes scattered on top of Mount Kilimanjaro. He and his son had wanted to climb the mountain together, but Misha’s illness made that dream impossible.

Sophie admitted that she was also training to climb Kilimanjaro when Simon passed away. This was far too powerful to simply be a coincidence. So that night, the two parents pledged to climb Mount Kilimanjaro together and raise funds for Roger’s House.

Sophie sent out an email to a handful of other parents and volunteers at Roger’s House. She was surprised at how quickly she received positive responses.

“Just 48 hours after we sent out the invite, we had our team. That’s how devoted people were to this cause.”

A group of 10 people set out in October of 2012 to climb Kilimanjaro in an effort to raise funds for Roger’s House. There were three parents on the climb who had lost children: Sophie, Angelo and Ian Butcher, whose daughter Jovie had passed away due to a congenital heart condition as an infant.

It took them a week to reach the peak of the mountain and Sophie said the final portion of the climb was the most exhausting, both physically and mentally.

“We all just dropped to the ground and started crying. We were all climbing for someone, so it was very emotional,” Sophie says. “We all huddled together. One of the team members tried reading a poem and he had to fight through the tears to get through it. We listened, but we were all crying ourselves.”

When they reached the summit, each parent had a quiet moment to reflect about their lost children. And each paid a tribute in their own unique way. Angelo scattered Misha’s ashes, fulfilling his dream of one day standing at the top of Kilimanjaro with his son.

Ian Butcher buried a cedar carving, with a picture of his baby daughter and a poem. And Sophie laid down a couple of special rocks in honour of her son Simon. In their bereavement groups at Roger’s House, parents were told to hold onto a special rock during their counseling sessions. And since Simon loved to pick up rocks from around the neighbourhood, she took one from his collection and left it at the top of the mountain.

It was a journey the parents will never forget. It helped them through the most difficult time in their lives and it has created a bond that will last a lifetime. The group ended up raising more than $60,000 for Roger’s House and cheques are still pouring in for their fundraising efforts. The group will appear on the Roger’s House Telethon on Thursday to recount their climb and how they were able to find something positive from tragedy.

“Walking out of the hospital on the day he died was the hardest thing, because that’s when I left him behind,” said Sophie. “But I said to myself, ‘Nothing worse can happen to me.’ But what you don’t realize is that amazing things like this can happen to you as well. I’m not the same person I was three or four years ago.

To hear more about Sophie’s story and tune into the Rogers House Telethon on Sportsnet East this Thursday, March 28 at 6:30 p.m. EST.

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