The loss of a loved one is a difficult thing to process at any age.
And explaining grief to children can bring on a whole new wave of emotion.
It’s a situation Calgary Flames alternate captain Mikael Backlund and his wife, Frida, have found themselves in as their kids, Tillie and Oliver, start to get a little older.
When four-year-old Tillie recently started asking questions about her maternal grandma, Frida paused.
She wasn’t ready to tell her daughter about the long, sleepless nights on a high school foreign exchange trip, frantically searching the internet for any explanation her mom Ann’s worsening illness wasn’t ALS.
Tillie wasn’t old enough to understand the devastation of Frida returning home and realizing just how quickly the disease had already progressed.
Or the pain of saying goodbye just three years after Ann’s diagnosis of the rare neurological disease also known as Lou Gherig’s Disease.
Instead, Frida wanted her kids to know about their charismatic grandmother who never failed to make her laugh.
“I just started trying to explain that she’s always with you. She would never not be with you. This is where she would want to be,” Frida said.
“We love reading to our kids. They love it. They both love books.
“And so when my daughter when started asking about her grandmother, I really just thought there should be a picture book to show them that they’re always there with them, even though they’re gone.”
Now, Backlund’s first book, Our Guardian Angels, is complete.
The rhyming children’s book took about a year to finish, with most of the time spent on illustrations of Ann with the grandkids she never got the chance to meet.
She hopes it can provide comfort and be a tool for families as they navigate grief.
“For kids who’ve lost someone, it’s just that reading to them and showing that they’re still with you, you just can’t see them,” Frida added.
It’s a sentiment that brought Frida comfort in the initial months after her mom’s passing, especially when she began dating Mikael and started to navigate life in an unfamiliar Canadian city.
With Ann in mind, the couple immediately started looking for ways to give back.
The Backlunds met with the ALS Society of Alberta to share Frida’s family’s experience and express regret and frustration at how difficult it was to receive timely in-home care and tools in Sweden.
“We met with (executive director) Karen Caughey and we were at their location,” Frida recalled “They were like, ‘Well, look, here’s our storage. When our clients, our families need something, they get it right away.’
“It just was like, ‘Okay, we’re doing this.'”
The ALS Society of Alberta’s equipment loan program lends items like powered wheelchairs, stair lifts, hospital beds and communication devices to families in need, free of charge.
“One piece of equipment that they can get is an AI computer. So when (patients) lose their ability to speak, they can write with their eyes what they’re trying to say,” Frida said.
“That took so long for us to get in Sweden that by the time we got the computer, it was too late, she couldn’t speak at all. Thinking back, how much it could have helped the frustration of not being able to communicate that last full year or two… that was fresh in my mind.”
Frida has since set up annual raffles and events like Uncorked for ALS.
Mikael has long pledged $250 for every point he records — matched by the Flames Foundation and KPMG Consulting — to ALS support and research.
And who would’ve guessed: he’s on pace for a career-best season at 34 years old with 17 goals and 32 assists through 72 games.
All told, they’ve raised more than $500,000 to fight the disease and improve the quality of life for those living with it.
The Backlunds have also hosted more than 70 families impacted by ALS at Flames games in hopes of creating long-lasting memories.