Jun 01, 2011
By Ann Silversides

When loss leads in new directions

Jane Simington shares hard-won lessons about healing

More than a quarter century has passed since Jane Simington’s 13-year-old son, Billy, was killed in a hunting accident, an event that left her overwhelmed by grief and shame. “I was a nurse and I knew about safety, and yet I had allowed him to be in that situation.”

Teckles Photography Inc.Simington uses the term soul pain to describe the effects of trauma and grief.

In the aftermath of her son’s death, Simington started walking — every day, outside, for miles. She also set out on an extensive educational and experiential journey to learn about healing and to heal her self.

“The death of my son totally robbed me of my grounding and what I believed to be true. It was definitely the catalyst for my searching,” Simington explains. “I felt, if I had enough information I could figure out the journey between my head and my heart.”

Simington’s quest took her away from direct care nursing, where she had worked in emergency, intensive care and long-term care settings. Although she has kept up her registration and continues to identify as a nurse, Simington says she feels she works outside the mainstream because she uses healing techniques that are different from those used by most nurses.

Today, she runs Taking Flight International Corporation, an Edmonton-based company that provides resources and workshops on healing, designed for lay people, and training programs in grief support and trauma recovery for health-care professionals.

At the time of her son’s death, Simington was doing grief counselling on a volunteer basis for her church and was working toward her BSN and a BA in psychology. After the tragedy, she completed her nursing degree and immediately enrolled in the master of nursing program at the University of Saskatchewan. The focus of her degree — therapeutic interventions for individuals and families living in traumatic and difficult life circumstances — was of direct personal relevance.

Although a deep desire to help others was where her interest in nursing began, she remembers standing on stage in Humboldt, Sask., to accept her RN diploma and an award for top marks in theory, and thinking, “Nice, but I wanted to be a nurse to learn how to heal people, and no one has taught me that.” She had similar thoughts as she crossed the stage to receive the BSN and, later, the master’s degree. “By that time, I knew I needed to learn how to heal because I needed to heal myself.”

“I became very interested in alternate forms of healing,” Simington says. “I knew there was something helpful in there for me.” Embracing new therapies led her, eventually, to blend them together into her own approach to helping people deal with trauma. It’s her conviction that trauma cannot be healed with traditional talk therapy alone: “You have to engage both sides of the brain.”

Simington has earned credentials in a wide range of healing techniques. She studied therapeutic touch with one of its developers. (She later co-authored “Effects of Therapeutic Touch on Anxiety in the Institutionalized Elderly,”which was published in Clinical Nursing Research and has been widely cited.)She is certified as a clinical hypnotherapist and a Reiki master, is a qualified teacher of spiritual healing yoga and has taken courses in acupuncture. She has also studied both neurolinguistic programming and neoshamanism as well as art therapy and dream interpretation.

In 1990, Simington was hired to teach at Hawaii Pacific University’s school of nursing, which was offering courses in holistic methods. Moving her family to Hawaii provided a needed change of scene. Simington worked on her doctorate while she was teaching, and received her PhD in health sciences from Honolulu University.

She returned to Canada in 1992 to join the University of Alberta as an assistant professor. She taught community health and therapeutic communications and spent five years on the development and delivery of the university’s program in parish nursing.

But it was her experience with prisoners at a federal penitentiary — the Edmonton Institution for Women — that inspired her to move her work into the community. Correctional Service Canada was looking for someone to do individual and group trauma recovery work with the inmates, many of whom were First Nations. Simington developed an intensive program (three days a week for seven weeks) that incorporated many of the healing techniques she had learned.

The women “were such good teachers; they taught me a lot about trauma . . . they had experienced family violence; being out on the street was part of their existence, using drugs to numb the pain. They taught me about all those things and showed me the effects on the body. And they were so much more comfortable using the words healing and spirituality than anyone else I was aware of.”

The inmates encouraged her to “step out in courage” and use with them the variety of approaches — dream therapy, art therapy, guided imagery — that had helped her.

Simington began to use the term soul pain to describe the effects of trauma and grief. “About 70 per cent of the work we do is in First Nations communities, and when I use that term the people identify instantly. It’s something I don’t think you can connect with unless you have experienced that depth of spiritual pain.” In the late 1990s, with the encouragement of the Edmonton branch of the Victorian Order of Nurses, she made her first video, Listening to Soul Pain, which garnered awards from the Alberta film industry. Some of her academic colleagues had trouble with that title. “But,” asks Simington, “do you listen to the worries of those who say, ‘Soul pain is too touchy-feely. We can’t quite connect with that,’ or do you listen to what your clients are telling you?”

Some of that skepticism has been dissolving, she says. During the 1970s, when nursing was working hard at becoming more scientific, spirituality was seen as too intangible a concept. “Now, I think a paradigm shift is occurring,” she says, and more attention is being paid to patients’ spiritual needs.

Although she still holds adjunct professor positions at two universities and supervises some master’s-level students, Simington has more or less stepped away from academic life. But it is her academic credentials that give her credibility with her more mainstream professional colleagues and allow her to “walk in both worlds.”

Her credentials also gave her the necessary background for developing programs in trauma and grief that are transferable credits toward graduate-level courses at the University of Alberta. She explains, “I have taken training with many gifted healers and learned a lot, but many of them couldn’t package what they know into a program that is acceptable at the university level.”

Simington has been published widely in the lay and professional literature and is a contributing author with The Compassionate Friends, an international organization that supports families after the death of a child. She was honoured with a Global TV Edmonton Woman of Vision Award in March and was recently nominated for a YWCA Edmonton Women of Distinction Award.

Now, she is facing a problem familiar to other recognized healers and successful self-made entrepreneurs. While she would like to step out of her role as a trainer and leave that work to the facilitators she’s prepared, clients continue to ask to train with her. She wants to devote more time to developing her business for an international audience. The two books she’s published have been well received, and her keynote presentations at conventions across Canada are beginning to pay off. A recent marketing trip to New York City led to inquiries from as far away as Australia and Africa.

When Billy died, Simington had a poignant dream about priorities. “I saw myself in this dream, rushing in, in a business suit and with two briefcases in hand. Just as he was coming off the stage — he had been in a performance or something — I ran up to the teacher and asked, ‘Oh, will they do it again?’ and she said, ‘There are no second performances.’”

Simington says she wishes she could have learned this lesson “any other way. But I would not give up the wisdom I have gained.”

Ann Silversides is a freelance journalist in Perth, Ont.
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