By Alyssa Warmland
I pulled the photos out of their envelope one at a time, turning over each one to carefully record the date, place, and people in the photo. Sometimes, I included comments. “Apple picking in Hamilton with Pop Pop, Fall, 2023. You loved the wagon ride!”. I slipped each picture into an empty pocket in my son’s photo album.
Next, I pulled out the baby book I’ve kept since before he was even earthside. I flipped to a page at the back to record an appointment, a new adventure with a forest homeschool group, and milestones.
When I tell other people my age about these rituals, they tend to share that they wish they were better about printing pictures and writing in their kids’ baby books. I’ve always enjoyed documentation, an avid journalkeeper as long as I’ve been able to write. I’ve considered this another extension of that interest. It wasn’t until earlier this week that it hit me- I keep these records so that if I die while my kid is young, he will have access to this information.
When I was 14, my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I remember the day my dad picked me up from school and told me the results of the biopsy. I remember riding beside him in the passenger seat and thinking, “She’ll never meet my kids. She won’t be at my wedding. She won’t see me graduate.” All the milestones we would spend apart ran through my head. In the years since her death, I’ve consulted my baby book and read, over and over, the notes she wrote to me.
When my son was born and I became a mother, I read the notes in my book. When he started getting teeth, I turned to my (and my brother’s) books to find out when we got our teeth. I’ve looked up when we potty trained, what our sleep was like, about her breastfeeding experiences, when we started going to the dentist, and, most recently, upon learning that I was expecting another baby, what it was like when my mom brought my brother home. Not all, but some, of my questions I wish I could ask her about were answered in this record she lovingly kept.
As I write in my son’s books and caption the photos I’ve printed, I honour her, my child, and my own mother/child self. I hold space for my grief and for her memory. I continue a tradition of mothers keeping records to pick up when our babies need them.
By Jessica Milette, MSW, RSW
November is considered Bereavement Awareness Month, and this year November 16 commemorates Children’s Grief Awareness Day. 1 in 14 children in Canada will experience the death of a parent or sibling by age 18.
The first funeral I attended was at the age of 7 when my Nana, or paternal grandmother died. My family buried my maternal grandfather 7 years later after he experienced a stroke when I was 14 and my mother was still in treatment for cancer. 13 months later, I would be burying my mom at age 15 after dying of cancer. She was 49. We would be gathering again less than two months later to bury my godmother and aunt who died suddenly and unexpectedly. Every time I felt like I had found footing on the shores of my grief, another loss would crash over me like a wave, dragging me out to a sea of unknown.
Navigating puberty can be an exciting and challenging transition in our life that also can have us feeling grief from non-death losses as we figure out who we are becoming. Not only was I trying to make sense of hormones and changes during this time of life, but my mom – the person who I would have gone to for support was no longer a phone call or hug away. Parents or trusted adults are people children often turn to for support, but my circle of trusted adults was shrinking. My peers were focused on what to wear on civvies day (a day where we didn’t have to wear a uniform), while I was focused on just surviving.
I felt so alone in my grief, although my twin, younger brother, dad, and other relatives in my life were also grieving. Friends would try to show up for me, sometimes it didn’t land well. There are friends who had never been to a funeral that walked with me in the depths of my grief who still hold a special place in my heart and life. I felt like I was in a sea of students in the hall between class with a flashing neon sign that read “Human with all the dead people in their life”. At times I could tell how awkward both peers and adults in my life were when approaching me – what do you tell someone when you’ve never experienced a death? And the person who is grieving can’t even legally drive a car!
There was no right or wrong way for me to grieve, but I had to find my own way to grieve. Sometimes they were helpful, and other times the things I did I thought helped me with my grief were not so helpful.
I am fortunate that despite the not-so-careful caring people in my life that made me feel invalidated, I had many caring adults in my life who let me know that grief is natural, and let me share stories of my loved ones. Within the first year of our loss, each of my siblings, my father, and I attended a grief support group. Walking into my first group was both scary and exciting: other teens like me?! The peer volunteer who co-ran these groups was actually someone I knew personally, but had no idea that they had been touched by death too.
I felt deep sadness, guilt, and anger in that group. I also felt deep connection, joy, and even laughter. We got to talk about our sibling, parent, or other close person in our life we were grieving. Talking about grief didn’t make me feel more alone, or worse, it made me feel LESS alone. That we all grieve what we are connected to. That’s it’s okay to not be okay. That sharing our stories of our person and our pain can be healing when we have the right kind of listener in our corner. And that we never have to walk alone at any age or stage of our grief.
By Claire Irwin
When your child dies you are thrown into a nightmare. None of this is expected to be easy.
Even after several months, it still isn’t. There have been some things that have helped us during
our grief. Maybe they will help you, too.
1. Let someone organize a meal train. The community rallied, making sure we had meals
delivered to our home for weeks after our daughter died. I have zero idea what we would have
done without this. Right after this traumatic loss I couldn’t even think about eating, let alone
cooking and meal planning.
2. Grief counselling. Our counsellor comes every week since the second day. Some may not agree, but honestly, we have learned some great survival tools and have our feelings validated.
To be able to talk about it all in a safe environment is very helpful, and just talking about
3. Find something to keep you busy. Mind you, we haven’t found our way to any gym yet or back to work, but we find other ways to move our bodies. Gardening, cutting grass, walks,
landscaping, anything really to get our bodies moving has really helped us.
4. Try journaling. I wish I started this earlier. If you can find it in you to do it, I recommend it. For me personally, it helps get whatever is in my head out on paper. I document how I’m feeling. I also get my anger out on paper too. I’ve been learning that you can let it build up inside of you. This energy needs to get out. I find writing very helpful for me. I journal daily. Plus, it helps me keep my days in order because they tend to blend.
5. Let your support system hold you. This has been a huge help. I don’t know where I would be today if I didn’t have the people closest to us. Lean into them and let them help. Use them as sounding boards. Whatever it is you need, if they are willing and able to be there for you, let
them. It’s not easy asking for help or accepting it, but it’s helped us feel loved and seen. It’s also
helped us back on our feet a bit.
At the core of it all, just remembering to breathe is sometimes all you can do. Something our
grief counsellor has taught us right from the very beginning:
Inhale 4 seconds…Hold 7 seconds…Exhale 8 seconds. Repeat as needed.
Like I said, surviving this grief and trauma isn’t easy, and it doesn’t come with a handbook. We
are all just doing the best we can, and it’s sucks all at the same time. Our loss cannot be fixed, it
can only be carried, and these are some of the things helping us to carry it now.
By Josh Abel
I met Holly riding the bus in our community. She is very attractive with a winsome smile and piercing eyes that I would trade anything for. She was also the bus driver. At that time Holly went to school to become a nurse. After becoming a nurse, Holly didn’t drive the bus that much, but one of her fellow bus drivers mentioned to me that one of Holly’s patients had died and it had a negative impact on her. It brought back ghosts from my past as I also had a job in which people died which had a negative impact on me.
I used to help people deal with their addictions. One former client relapsed and overdosed leaving a one year old child behind. I couldn’t begin to describe how sorry I felt for that one year old. Then there’s the second guessing (guilt). Could I have done more and why didn’t I see this coming? Another former client on one Mother’s day killed two of his next door neighbours. Since that time, Mother’s day has never been the same for me. I felt similar emotions for the family of the two victims. My heart went out to them and although I never met them, somehow this was one of those occasions where saying sorry just isn’t enough. The police did catch my client who wasn’t “at risk” (he came from a nice home, wasn’t involved in gangs) of committing such a crime but it still got to me anyway.
As a caring person, those incidents affected me just as Holly’s affected her. You just can’t take the human part of you out of the equation. I did tell Holly I was sorry for the loss of her patient. Holly is also a caring person and I don’t want her to experience the same negative impact as my situation did with me. They can teach you every aspect of how to perform your job except one: how to deal with second guessing. The guilt will get to you if you let it, especially if you are a perfectionist at your job. Your work ethic teaches you to be the best at your job, but there are things you are going to encounter that you just can’t control. When I started my job I wanted to help people I wanted to make an impact on people’s lives, an idealist. In my case that’s what made the guilt even more of a challenge to overcome. Although I can’t control someone else’s behaviour, Mother’s Day will never be the same for me especially since my own Mother passed away last year.
Holly if you’re reading this you are going to have a lot of success in your job and you probably won’t give it a second thought. Please give the successes more attention than the failures because that’s what makes the job enjoyable (helping people).
Holly’s true reflection is beauty and she made the bus fun to ride.
By Jessica Milette, MSW/RSW
August 31 is International Overdose Awareness Day, a day where we honour and remember those who have died by drug poisoning.
We lead multifaceted lives, and the deaths of those we love who have died by drug poisoning contain multitudes. The death of a loved one can bring intense grief, shock, anger, shame, or guilt. People who use drugs, and those who love them that they leave behind, face stigma in North America’s dominant, settler culture.
It is this stigma of drug poisoning deaths, the othering of another’s valid grief, that places a barrier to one of the greatest things we can offer to ourselves and each other: connection. Those who have died by drug poisoning are parents, children, siblings, aunts, and friends. Those who welcomed us with open arms for an embrace, those who worked alongside us, and those who have faced much suffering and marginalization.
Grief can be an isolating experience; having opportunities to heal in community and share the stories of those we love who have died are so important. It is never about HOW they died, but WHO they are. Saying their name out loud, listening to their favourite music, and sharing stories of joy can help. Sometimes we need to share our stories of frustration, guilt, or sorrow with others who have experienced the death of a loved one.
We don’t have to be impacted by the death of a loved one by drug poisoning to support others in our community who are in pain. Grief and the losses we face cannot be fixed. We can feel helpless in the face of seeing someone we care about in the depths of grief. One of the biggest things we can do as supporters is to not shy away from grief – those grieving can feel supported when others ask them about their person or use their name in conversations. Sometimes telling grievers to “call me if you need anything” can feel overwhelming. By offering specific, practical support like mowing their lawn or dropping off groceries gives grievers a choice. If they do not accept the support you offer, be open to listening to what support they do need as what you may have found helpful might not be the type of support they need. A helpful phrase I’ve used to communicate to people in my life when I need some grief support, or when I’ve offered support to those in my life grieving has been: “Would you like help (with a task or to brainstorm), would you like to be heard (where I will sit and listen without judgment and sit with you in your grief), or would you like a hug (sometimes we need a hug through a tough moment)?”
In addition to these personal losses, we also face these losses as a community. State of Emergencies declared by public health authorities due to the drug poisoning crisis are more common than they were before. The Canadian Healthcare system is still reeling from a pandemic and is unable to meet the current demands to address this health crisis. Drug poisoning deaths are highest for those in our community that face high levels of marginalization, oppression, and stigma despite human beings’ universal needs for safety, connection, community, and care..
People who use drugs, like all human beings living on Stolen Land on Turtle Island deserve access to care, community, connection, and safety in all areas of their wellbeing. Harm Reduction is an important but often underappreciated pillar in Canada’s healthcare system that offers safety, community, compassion, and care while keeping the dignity of the person who uses drugs at the heart of this work. Harm Reduction workers create community for those who may feel isolated or have been excluded from other communities they belong to due to their drug use. They provide spaces for people to learn new ways to be in relationship with drugs, how to be safe when using drugs, and getting connected to other supports for their whole health. Not all drug use is inherently problematic, and harm reduction support can look like many things: from helping those wishing to be abstinent from drug use to helping those who are still using drugs to use them in safer ways.
Just like we come in community to honour those who have died, through community we can continue to hold systems accountable and advocate for equity, justice, safety and health for all.
By Alyssa Warmland
Shadowloss is a term developed by Cole Imperi, a thanatologist and the founder of The American School of Thanatology. It describes the types of loss we feel in life, rather than the loss of life. Shadowlosses are things like divorce or the end of a long-term relationship, infertility, a medical diagnosis, losing a job, or the loss of some other relationship or thing. It’s a loss that impacts the life of an individual, as well as their social network in their life.
Sometimes, the loss of a being coexists with shadowloss. For example, when a loved one dies, families are often tasked with sorting through the person (or animal)’s belongings. When my dog died, I remember packing her bowls, her toys, her leash, and her collars away in a box I made space for in my crowded apartment because I couldn’t stand the loss of throwing them out. I remember holding her favourite toys and feeling deeply in grief. The “big loss” was my beloved dog, but the shadowloss was when I got rid of some of her belongings and how hard that piece was. It felt like a tug in the pit of my stomach when I turned towards the wall where her water dish used to sit, only to see an empty bit of wall.
Another example of shadowloss in my life was when I was fired from a job at a women’s shelter. I’d thought, all through my undergrad, that I would work in one. I worked hard to get my gender studies degree and to volunteer with feminist organizations that targeted violence against women. And, after applying four or five times, I finally got the job. I loved it, although the rest of the staff was far more conservative than I am and I sensed that I was not a great fit, in spite of my knowledge and my passion for the work. I was fired, just before the end of my probation, and refused an explanation as to exactly why. I was devastated. Not only was I losing a job, I felt as though I was losing a dream and a sense of self. Years, and a whole career, later, I still experience huge waves of grief related to that loss.
What we know about types of loss is that we experience grief related to them in very similar ways. Waves of sadness, anger, and the sense that something/someone is missing are a few things that can come up with “big loss” and with shadowloss. As with any type of grief, it’s not particularly useful to rank and compare types of loss or experiences of grief. But having language to describe the experience of grief associated with the loss of a thing or part of someone/their life can be useful. This allows us to acknowledge those losses as ones where we leave ourselves some space to grieve. It can also be another opportunity to connect in this life where there are shared human experiences like the complex plurality that is grief.
Craig – My Story
Craig’s story is one of resilience and triumph. In the span of just 18 months, he lost his marriage, his mom, two dogs, a cat, his job, and his house. But rather than give up, he picked himself up and started over. He went back to school to become a therapist, and now he’s helping others who are struggling to overcome adversity. Craig’s story is a reminder that no matter how bad things seem, there is always hope. With hard work and determination, you can overcome any challenge.
Craig – My Cumulative Grief
Craig shares his story of experiencing a series of significant losses over the course of two years. He talks about the shock, grief, and uncertainty he felt during this time, and how he coped with the accumulation of loss.Craig’s story is a reminder that grief is a normal and natural response to loss, but it can be overwhelming when it comes in waves. If you are experiencing grief, it is important to reach out for support from friends, family, or a therapist. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and everyone experiences it differently. The important thing is to be patient with yourself and to allow yourself to feel your emotions.
Craig – How men process grief
Craig talks about his personal story of grief and how he learned to process his emotions in a healthy way. He discusses the challenges that men face when grieving, and offers advice on how to find healthy ways to cope with loss.Craig lost his wife, his mother, his job, and his home in a short period of time. He describes how he felt pressured to be stoic and strong for others, and how this made it difficult for him to grieve. He eventually realized that it was important to allow himself to feel his emotions, even the difficult ones.Craig shares some of the things that helped him to process his grief, such as talking to a therapist, writing in a journal, and spending time in nature. He also emphasizes the importance of finding support from friends and family. This video is a powerful and moving story of how one man found healing after experiencing a series of devastating losses. It is an important reminder that grief is a normal and healthy emotion, and that there are healthy ways to cope with it.
Craig – Supporting Someone in Grief
Craig discusses his personal experience with grief and how he felt when people didn’t reach out to him during a difficult time. He offers advice on how to best support someone who is grieving, emphasizing the importance of simply showing up and letting them know that you care.
Craig – Grieving as a Single Parent
In this video, Craig talks about the challenges of grieving as a single parent. He shares his own experiences and offers advice on how to cope with grief, talk to your kids about what’s happening, and ask for help from others.This video is for any single parent who is grieving the loss of a loved one. It is also for anyone who knows a single parent who is grieving and wants to offer support.
Craig – Resilience in the Face of Adversity
Craig how he overcame a series of challenges, including the loss of his marriage, his job, and his home. He talks about how he found the strength to keep going and how he learned to be more resilient.