No parent should ever have to bury a child.
Unfortunately, Bob and Shirley Hickman had to when their son did not come home from work one fateful day in March 1996.
Tim Hickman was 21 when he was fatally injured in an explosion at the arena where he worked part-time as an ice-resurfacing machine operator for the City of London in Ontario.
“Beyond our shock and our grief was that we just didn’t really know the world we had been put into,” Shirley Hickman recalls. Tim was in hospital for 10 days following the explosion before he finally succumbed to his injuries.
Those last 10 days of their son’s life was spent praying and hoping for his recovery. Amid the shock and grief of losing their beloved son — and brother to Shirley’s other son, Michael — were also questions about what transpired in that tragic incident.
It was months after her son’s death when Hickman finally got some answers to what happened at Tim’s workplace when the Ministry of Labour came calling.
“(The ministry representative) explained to me minimally what had occurred in the arena that morning when Tim died,” Hickman says. “When I got off the phone, I can remember just really being angry and then I decided then that I was going to do something productive and positive with our love for Tim.”
Perhaps one of the most frustrating parts of the ordeal for the Hickman family was the lack of organized support within the system for the families of victims of workplace tragedies. Hickman felt they had no voice in the legal process that transpired following their son’s accident.
“The legal system was between the Ministry of Labour and the City of London. There’s no voice in that whole system for families anywhere,” she says.
Throughout the whole ordeal, families of other workplace accident victims started reaching out to Hickman. The Ministry of Labour presented an opportunity for Hickman to get involved in an initiative to increase awareness on young workers’ safety.
That became the first of what would be a series of speaking opportunities for Hickman to talk about her story and raise awareness on young worker safety and workplace injury prevention.
As she got to know more families that went through the same experience, Hickman became more determined to do something about it.
“And yet, to go out and be an advocate in a negative way, that’s not how I would ever live my life,” she says. “I had never been one of those people holding placards and protesting.”
“We talked about it as a family and we decided that if anybody approached us regarding the use of Tim’s story or any lessons learned, as long as it’s going to be in a productive way for the betterment of others, then we would participate.”
This advocacy became one of the catalysts for the foundation of Threads of Life, an organization that provides support for families surviving a workplace tragedy — something Hickman believes is greatly lacking when these tragic incidents occur.
“If Tim had died from cancer, we would have had support while he was dying,” Hickman explains. “After he died, we would have had an opportunity to create awareness or be part of fundraising, so we would have lots of volunteer opportunities.”
Founded in 2003, Threads of Life aims to offer that kind of support to families of workplace tragedies. To date, the organization has trained more than 50 family members to become volunteer family guides. These volunteer family guides offer peer support to family members and friends who have suffered through a workplace tragedy.
Threads of Life has also trained more than 60 family member and workers to be part of the speakers’ bureau, sharing their stories at schools, workplaces and other educational events across Canada.
Now in its 10th year, the organization relies on grants and donation to sustain its operations. Its annual Steps for Life — a five-kilometer walk for families of workplace tragedies — is the organization’s biggest and primary fundraising event. This year, Steps for Life was held on May 5 with more than 30 communities across Canada participating.
Volunteering for a cause is nothing new for Hickman. Even when she decided to leave her job as a nurse to become a stay-at-home mom to her two young boys, Hickman had always found time to help at various organizations.
Her professional training as a nurse also came in handy when they decided to become foster parents to numerous children with special medical needs through the years.
Today, Hickman dedicates all of her volunteer time to Threads of Life as the organization’s executive director and family program manager. She trains volunteers and continues to support family members experiencing what her own family went through 17 years ago.
Every time there is a new family to support and console, Hickman says it tugs at her own heartstrings. But these families take comfort in the fact they are in the company of those who have gone through and survived the same ordeal.
“That is one of the richest values that Threads of Life can show a family,” says Hickman. “When I connect them with a volunteer family guide, they know that volunteer family guide had lived through some kind of a similar situation — a fatality, a life-altering injury or occupational disease.”
Peer support is critical, says Hickman, especially for families faced with traumatic fatalities. Studies have shown that without appropriate support the risk of family members turning to drugs or alcohol and the likelihood of divorce or separation become higher, she says.
Turning tragedy into something positive, productive
Hickman believes Threads of Life is now part of that network of support, helping families heal while promoting injury prevention. In many cases, family members who received support and guidance from Threads of Life volunteers become volunteers themselves.
“Because when a tragedy occurs, when you are dealt with a dramatic fatality, you have multiple choices,” says Hickman. “You can remain a victim — and nobody would blame you — or you can make a choice and a conscious effort (to say), ‘how am I going to be a survivor.’”
That is exactly what the Hickmans have chosen to do — survive. They decided to turn a tragic moment in their lives into something positive and productive.
Although her husband is now retired, Hickman does not see herself retiring from her work at Threads of Life anytime soon.
“My plan is to ensure that Threads of Life is here as a solid organization, recognized across Canada as the go-to organization for peer support and an organization to partner with on awareness and prevention,” says Hickman.
“What gives me the energy for that are my grandchildren and my family,” says Hickman, who now lives in Stirling, Ont., a short distance from where her son, Michael, lives with his wife and daughters.
In January 2013, Hickman received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for her “outstanding contributions in the field of workplace health and safety.”