Hannah MacLean: Finding light in the ‘worst darkness’

Hannah Louise MacLean Credit: Emma Spence

It should have been — it was — good news. Excellent news, in fact. 

Mainland Nova Scotia’s Elizabeth Fry Society — “a non-profit, charitable organization devoted to improving the lives of marginalized groups of identified women, girls, non-binary, and gender diverse individuals who have been let down by broken systems that perpetuate inequality” — had just finalized the documents to purchase a cheery Halifax duplex. The plan was to turn the adjoining buildings into a shared communal space where up to seven residents — most young, most struggling with addiction — could live, heal, learn and create their own new futures together.

A small but meaningful triumph in the ongoing struggle for safe spaces for those who need it most.

But that same month also brought the worst possible news. 

On June 11, 2023, Hannah Louise MacLean, a young woman with “a big personality, a mischievous streak and a big laugh,” died of an accidental drug overdose near the train tracks in Dartmouth. She was just 24.

For Emma Halpern, EFry’s executive director, the loss was both professional and deeply personal. 

The professional: Hannah — who struggled with mental health issues, including severe depression, and turned to drugs and alcohol to “self-treat” — had been an EFry client for more than a year. She attended some of the society’s programs and social events. She also worked at The Abundance Store, the thrift shop the society runs in downtown Dartmouth. “She had this amazing sense of fashion, and she would put together these outfits and dress the mannequins,” Halpern says. “Everybody who would meet her would love her. Hannah was so engaged… when she could. She was there, so connected to everybody.”

The personal: Hannah had grown up in Dartmouth next door to Halpern and her own family. “She was my kids’ babysitter and the house sitter and the cat sitter. She was part of our family in many ways.”

The youngest of three children, Hannah’s mother died of cancer shortly after her first birthday. Because her father was “not really in the picture,” she and her siblings were raised by their grandparents, Glenn MacLean, a now semi-retired United Church minister, and his wife, Margaret, a nurse, who were her “Mama and Papa.”

“It was a really loving environment,” Halpern says now. “They are absolutely lovely people.”

Halpern remembers the youthful Hannah as “this outgoing, vivacious, full of life young person. She was very artistic, very creative, and preferred to do things with her hands. At one point, she wanted to be a plumber; at another, an electrician.

But as she grew older,” Halpern adds, “she struggled with mental health issues and drug addiction. And this led her down a path that was self-destructive. She ended up in some very troubling relationships with men who were quite a bit older than her. She would be in and out of the house and in and out of living in homeless shelters and parks. Some of it was typical early 20s, searching for yourself, and some of it was darker. 

“So, she had these two sides to her, this extremely happy-go-lucky, full-of-life, artistic side, and this darker, sadder, more troubled side. If you didn’t know her well, you would never know that darker side because she had this ‘light.’ She would come into the room — big personality, full of light and laughter and love. But then, for those who knew her well, there was a very deeply dark, sad part of her that she struggled with.”

Over time, “she moved from being my kids’ babysitter and a support person to being someone that we were trying to support both in my family and also through EFry. She would come in and out of EFry. We would lose her for long periods of time. Generally, she was with one of the guys that she was with who were not great. I know she experienced violence at the hands of some of the men in her life. She had had a couple of very serious close overdoses before, and she was spending a lot of time down in the housing run by Out of the Cold. There were lots of drugs available.”

Still, there seemed to be hopeful signs too. Hannah had enrolled in the Nova Scotia Community College’s Women’s Unlimited Program, “a really neat trades program for women, which she loved.” She was just two weeks from completing the program when she died. The week before, Halpern remembers, “I was talking to her grandparents. She was doing really well in the program and really excited and meeting new people and really connected to folks.” Her grandparents had continued to support her through her struggles, as did her siblings and “her incredibly loving, caring, massive family.”

In some ways, Halpern says now, “I thought it was a phase, I thought we would get her through this, that her life would turn around. And I still believe that really could have happened, but it didn’t.” She pauses. “For me the real lesson is that mental health and addiction can impact anyone from any community, even folks from really supportive families or middle-class homes.”

The drugs Hannah took that night near the train tracks were tainted. Although the people she was with called 911 right away, it was too late. 

Even as her family prepared for a funeral no one had expected, conversations began about how best to allow Hannah’s legacy to live on. It didn’t take long to zero in on the society’s newly acquired Halifax property. It would be known as Hannah’s House. “Her memory and legacy,” the society said, “will be to create safety and support for those who struggle.”

On Friday, November 24, on the eve of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Hannah’s families, friends, the house’s first residents and Elizabeth Fry board members and volunteers crowded into the house’s new community room to celebrate the official opening of Hannah House. There were tears, but also smiles and laughter, and hope.

In offering a blessing for Hannah’s House, Hannah’s Papa, Glenn, talked about the worst darkness that had followed his granddaughter’s death, but also the light and hope that this new beginning is bringing to the family and those who will find safety and hope within its walls.

Donations can be made to the Elizabeth Fry Society here.


A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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