What is it that keeps a heart going?

Well, aside from the obvious flesh-and-blood answers, it’s spirit … spirit that lives on when loved ones have passed on. And that is why a former Yukon Quest musher, Michelle Phillips, is preparing, once again, to carry Feelie Hearts in her sled basket as she races for the first time in the Iditarod on March 6.

Barb Evans-Ehricht, co-ordinator of Volunteer Services for Hospice Yukon, says the Feelie Hearts are a public-awareness project/fundraiser for Hospice Yukon.

Of the Iditarod musher, Evans-Ehricht says, “Michelle sees that, in her own life, her losses could have been supported more if she had been aware of what a healthy grieving process was.

“So now she is passionate at getting the word out there, that there are healthy ways to deal with loss in our lives.

“She will be carrying Feelie Hearts on the 1,150-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska.”

“Feelie Hearts are small, hand-sewn, beaded felt hearts that remind people to ‘carry their own hearts gently’ – a tangible reminder, she says, “to be aware of how you are treating yourself and caring for yourself, and being compassionate toward yourself.”

When Phillips is on the trail, she thinks about her two musher friends who died, and also about the special dogs from her team that have died … and somehow, being on the trail, she feels closer to them all.

Evans-Ehricht says that funds will support bereavement programs offered through Hospice Yukon: the walking group, grief groups, the grief discussion group and an art/journalling day.

“The e-mails that we receive from people often mention that buying this heart and giving it to someone who is bereaved is a unique way to honour someone who has passed on and to support those left behind.”

Hearts have been purchased by entire classrooms. “Sometimes people will join together in purchasing a Feelie Heart for someone who is grieving — to show their support.

“At Hospice Yukon, we so appreciate Michelle’s lively personality and deep understanding of the journey of life, and her desire to educate people about healthy grieving. When she comes into the office, she’s a breath of fresh air with her hearty laugh, her hugs and her smile.”

Suzanne Picot has made hand-beaded hearts for the fundraiser. They fit right in the palm of your hand. Evans-Ehricht places one on the table between us. I pick it up and place it in the centre of my hand, then close my fingers around it. It feels perfect there, and – somehow – reassuring.

Noticing the spontaneous embrace, Evans-Ehricht smiles and says that if the hearts could speak, they would say, “Take care of yourself. Handle yourself gently. Each of us [workers] carry a heart.”

One hundred Feelie Hearts will travel the Iditarod with Phillips, in a Feelie Heart bag created by Jeanine Baker, and then they will be mailed, along with a copy of Phillip’s Iditarod journal, the Feelie Heart story and a photograph of Phillips and her team.

“We’re here and it can be very, very helpful.”

Hospice Yukon comes alongside people on their grieving journey. The hearts help make that possible and can be purchased from Hospice Yukon or online at www.hospiceyukon.net.

You can visit Michelle Phillips’ website at www.yukonhuskies.com.