Michele King is an End-of-Life Doula and Expressive Arts Grief Support facilitator. She companions people through serious illness and at end of life with a passion for normalizing conversations around death and dying.
I can still vaguely remember the day like a fuzzy picture in my mind. I was playing on our front lawn with the neighborhood kids. My friend’s mom came running up the driveway. I could tell something was wrong as she had a serious look on her face. She said we needed to go into the house and pack up some things as we had to go to go to our grandparents. It was July 1976, and little did I know my dad had just died as a result of injuries from a motor vehicle accident. I was nine years old and my brother two years younger.
The next memory I have is laying on a mattress on the floor in my grandparent’s basement with my mom and my brother. It was morning and my mother announced she had something to tell us. I can’t even imagine how hard it must have been for her to tell us our father was never coming home again.
Right after she told us my dad had died, she also told us we had had an older brother that died when I was one and my younger brother had not been born yet. This turned out to be a huge revelation in my life decades later.
I was devastated at the loss of my father. He was my rock, my everything. Although he was away working all the time, he was the parent I had a secure attachment to. My relationship with my mother was complicated then and throughout my life. Later in life I learned that when my older brother had died from a tragic accident and my mother’s depression affected me at a very crucial stage of my development. Her neglect of me resulted in an insecure attachment and we always struggled in our relationship.
To process my grief and make sense of my deep feelings of loss and grief I connected deeply to creativity. At that time, I don’t think people thought children really grieved over death, and there was still a strong stigma attached to seeing a therapist. I was very fortunate to have two grandmothers who were also very creative that taught me to knit, crochet and sew. I sketched cartoon figures from magazines that I still have to this day. I gravitated toward anything that involved creative expression. Only very recently, with scientific studies being done around trauma, toxic stress and creativity, has it come to light that as a child with few resources for expressing and processing grief, that being able to color, draw and create can help heal. Through creativity I was able to cope and process my emotions around my loss. Creativity saved my life as a child and I share it so others may find healing, too.
Post by Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW
Getting Comfortable Talking About Grief
There was a time when death was part of everyday life. People didn’t tend to live long, and there was often a great deal of suffering while they were alive. Birth happened in the home, and death often happened there, too. If death happened elsewhere, the body was returned to the home whenever possible, for tender care and burial. Family members, and sometimes a trusted member of the community whose role it was to help, took care of the business of death.
We’re a long way from that now and in many cases death is turned over to the authorities. Medical diagnosis and treatment is often involved. We talk about battles, and fight to prolong life as much as possible. Death may be seen as a failure in our medical system; the enemy. This approach can sometimes create the illusion that we can defy death, when in reality death is inevitable for each and every one of us.
Since death can’t be avoided, it benefits us all to learn to talk about dying and death and grief. We need language for this universal experience. We need permission to ask our questions and share our stories. We need to know that what we are living through as our loved one dies, and in the aftermath, is a natural response to the loss we feel. We can get comfortable talking about it.
Be gentle. When you ask someone how they are, be mindful that they may not doing well, even if they seem to be managing. Try to use sensitive language and a softened tone when you check in with them.
Be kind. Let them know you are thinking about them and you’re available if they need support. Ask if you can help with specific tasks such as picking up some groceries or doing some yard work.
Be open. Share stories about their loved one’s greatest traits, or your best memories of them. Say their loved one’s name.
Be willing to listen. Let them tell you the parts of the story of death they feel comfortable sharing. If there’s something you can’t handle, offer to help them find someone who can be there for them as they talk about that part. Invite them to share stories about their loved one. Be prepared that they may repeat themselves as they try to adjust to the reality of the loss and hold on to their memories.
Be honest. If you don’t know what to say, tell them. They would likely rather hear that than have you stumble through platitudes that might dismiss their grief or hurt their feelings.
Be comfortable with silence. Once you say you’re sorry for their loss, it’s just fine to be quiet with them. You don’t need to fill the space with words or try to coax them to talk. Your presence is sometimes enough.
Everyone will experience death eventually, and being able to talk about it helps normalize this universal experience.
When Your Friend Has a Miscarriage
Alyssa Warmland is a content artist whose work focuses on fumbling towards an ethic of care and empowering people to share their stories in a way that keeps them well.
When my partner and I decided we were ready to have a baby, we thought it would be easy. Turns out, we were wrong. After six months of hoping, our first pregnancy was a chemical pregnancy. Two months later, I was pregnant again. When an ultrasound at 7 weeks showed no heartbeat, the loss was drawn out and difficult, requiring multiple interventions. I got pregnant again a few months later, and lost that one too.
We wanted to be open with people close to us, since these losses were huge in our life. When we told people, we found that most women we knew had their own miscarriage stories, and we found that, like with any loss, people rarely know what to say.
There’s nothing that can be said to change the fact that someone you care about has experienced a loss. Still, here are some ideas about what can help after a miscarriage:
1. I’m sorry you’re going through this.
As someone who has experienced several significant deaths, I feel pretty confident saying that this is a solid way to respond in any situation where someone is grieving for any kind of loss. It’s appropriate to acknowledge that they’re going through something.
2. Do you want to talk about it?
If you’re fairly close with this person, it’s worth asking if they want to talk about it. Be sure you have the emotional capacity and physical time to take that on. If you don’t have that emotional capacity or physical time, just don’t offer. Some people don’t process grief by talking about it, or they may just not want to in a particular moment. By asking, you’ve given them the option, letting them know you will hold space to talk about it if they wish.
3. Do you want some company? I’m available at [time, days].
This is another way of identifying a way you feel capable of being supportive. It can be lonely when you’re grieving and it helps to have people around physically. Sometimes it’s nice to have a distraction and talk about completely unrelated things. Miscarriage can be an intense experience, both physically and emotionally, at times, but it’s important to consider that even grieving people are whole humans and their grief isn’t all that’s going on for them.
4. I get that you’re going through a lot right now. Take whatever time you need.
It can be helpful to know that people realize you need a little gentleness or time or space or care. We live in a society where we put a lot of pressure on women to carry on with their lives during their pregnancy, especially early pregnancy, which people are typically expected to hide. It can be pretty challenging to carry on with everything in your life when you’re exhausted and nauseous. Miscarriage can be painful, physically and emotionally.
5. What kind of soup do you like?
Bringing people food is rarely a bad idea, especially if they’re sad or not feeling well. Soup is warm, comforting, and most people like at least one kind. Be a friend. Bring soup.
Post by Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW
Grief and Secondary Loss
Secondary losses are those that often accompany the death of a loved one and may go unacknowledged beside the more recognized experience of that primary loss. Secondary loss includes such things as role, family structure, support systems, identity, faith, purpose and security. These connections are related to the relationship between the griever and the deceased, and will be different for every griever.
Secondary losses are complicated because they vary so much, and because they are often unspoken. It can be difficult to understand and accept these losses as they are often intangible. People are less likely to acknowledge that the griever might feel pain because of a loss of confidence related to the death of their loved one. We tend to see these issues as challenges to navigate rather than as losses worthy of grieving.
What can help?
Identify these losses. Recognize the many intangible ways that the death of an important loved one changes your life. When we acknowledge these losses it helps us understand why we’re feeling such deep pain and finding it hard to heal.
Seek validation. If your family and friends can’t accept that these losses are just as real and have a significant impact on your grief, look for other avenues of validation. Talk to a grief counsellor, or find a grief support group or an on-line forum where your thoughts and feelings about your secondary losses can be understood and accepted.
Take time to grieve these losses, too. You’re expected to grieve the absence of the person who died. Give yourself permission to feel this grief, too. Create rituals to honour the changes in your life and how they are impacted by and impacting your grief process.
Trust yourself to carry on. You can carry the grief you feel. In time, as you adapt to this reality, it will shift and you will feel ready to develop new strategies, roles and identities. You will create support systems that meet your needs as you are now. You will find a way to rebuild your confidence and re-establish security in your life.
Grief is all encompassing. Understanding secondary losses opens a door to a deeper appreciation of the complex layers of grief that we experience when someone we love dies. Although it can be a challenge to identify these intangible losses, the time we take to consider them may help us understand the ways that grief touches us in so many personal ways and that can help us have patience with your unique path to healing after loss.
Post by Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW
Forgiveness at the End of a Life
One of the most difficult things about death can be the experience of unresolved conflict. When we’ve had a turbulent relationship with the person we are grieving for, it can really complicate our feelings. Forgiveness is a good goal, but it can be hard to navigate.
When a Person is Dying
It may be that a person who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and is moving toward the end of life wants to tend to unfinished business. They may feel remorse, or have a strong desire to make amends and set things right. If this is the case, it may be that you welcome their overtures and feel ready to forgive them.
If you don’t feel ready, you are not obligated to forgive. Some damage is deep, with far-reaching consequences. Your healing will not necessarily happen on a timeline that works with the time that is left to the dying person who seeks forgiveness.
Alternately, it may be that you want to forgive their actions and look for opportunities to mend the rifts but they continue whatever attitude and behaviour caused the wounds you feel. It’s important to know that some people do not seek to redeem themselves in response to impending death. That is not your fault and you can’t control it. You can still do the work of releasing yourself from the cycle that has harmed you.
When a Person has Died
When someone dies suddenly, there may be no opportunity for conversations or actions that might have happened to help heal emotional wounds in a relationship. You’re left with unsettled feelings that may include anger, guilt, regret and shame, with no way to address them directly with the person.
Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.
It may be helpful to remember that forgiveness is for you. It is a personal process of releasing the pain of past wrongs against you. Forgiveness can happen whether or not the other person shows regrets or tries to make up for past wrongs.
Acknowledge your pain.
Accept it as your response to the other person, and allow yourself to feel the wound.
Seek some understanding of their motivation. What led them to those hurtful attitudes and behaviours?
Consider the possibility that they were doing the best that they could, even if their best was not very good and may have caused you to feel quite hurt.
Release yourself from the pain.
Give yourself permission to forgive them.
When you are ready, forgiveness is a great gift that you give to yourself.
Post by Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW
Grieving Through Another Pandemic Holiday Season
This is our second year collectively facing a crisis across the globe that has kept us living with some level of anxiety and feelings of isolation. The COVID-19 pandemic has been very hard on so many people in many ways. It can feel endless and overwhelming. When we are also living with grief after the death of a loved one, it compounds the difficult feelings.
Grief can feel like a heavy blanket that weighs everything down. It can come in waves, relentlessly battering your broken heart, or like a rogue wave it can arrive in an unpredictable burst of sudden pain. Intense grief reflects the deep love we have for the one we have lost.
You are not alone. So many people are facing difficult circumstances and feeling like you are. As you move through these painful times, look for small ways to soothe yourself, even for a moment at a time. It seems endless, but this too will pass, and if you are able to soothe your self for a few moments today, that will help fortify you for the next wave of feelings.
Honour Your Experience
Your thoughts and feelings are perfectly normal for you as navigate grief against the backdrop of a pandemic. You may be surprised at some thoughts and feelings that seem unusual, but they are likely quite natural under the circumstances.
Speak honestly with family and friends about the impact of loss. Together, you can negotiate ways to feel connected while still keeping safe. Spend time with the people who support and respect you in your grief.
It is ok to change your traditions. Decide what feels right to you right now. These times call for changing our routines, so consider activities that may offer a fresh approach to the season that reflects your new reality.
Take care of yourself. Exercise. Eat well. Rest.
Take time to remember and honour your loved one. Holding a private ritual acknowledging your loved one can offer an outlet for adults and children alike to express feelings of loss. Light a candle, play their favourite music, or look at old photos.
Breathe. When it feels very difficult, take a breath. Pause. Then take another. Deep breaths with long slow exhales help to activate the calming centre of our nervous system. As you breathe deeply, you will notice that something shifts.
There is no one “right” way to grieve.
Be gentle with yourself. Trust yourself. Follow your instincts and try different things to soothe yourself as you adjust to your loss.
In time you will adapt, accepting this reality as you find ways to allow the joy and peace of the season and warm memories of your loved one to co-exist with the feelings of grief, gradually helping to ease the pain you feel now.
Post by Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW
Disenfranchised Grief – When It Feels Like Your Grief Doesn’t Matter
Grief that is acknowledged, validated and supported is grief that has access to pathways for healing. There are some losses that don’t receive this attention and respect. Disenfranchised grief is the name for what we experience when a loss is not acknowledged in our community.
Disenfranchised grief occurs with any loss that remains unspoken and is not validated. Some of these types of losses include pregnancy loss, LGBTQ2S+ partnership losses, suicide, overdose death, the loss of a co-worker, neighbour or pet. These losses tend to be considered less valid and less important than losses in some of our primary and close relationships. There is often no acknowledgement and little support for people who experience disenfranchised loss.
This grief is just as real and powerful as grief that is accepted by society. You’ll feel powerful, unpredictable emotions, you’ll find yourself shifting through the experience of grief as you adapt to this loss, just as you would with any validated loss. The primary difference is in the sense of isolation you’ll feel, and the minimizing indifference or disbelief so many people in your circles will express if you talk about your grief.
How to Take Care of Yourself
Validate yourself. Your loss is real, it is important and you can trust your experience of grief. You don’t need someone else’s permission to grieve.
Seek the support of others who validate your grief. There may be a peer support group, or a professional who is informed and experienced in the area of your loss who can share information and insights about your grief based on others who have walked this path before you.
Create ritual and ceremony to honour your grief. There may be an activity that is meaningful to you and helps you feel you are acknowledging the importance of this loss. Light a candle. Make art. Engage in an act of kindness in memory of your loved one.
Share your story and offer validation to others. If and when you feel strong enough to bring your grief to the world in a way that may help others who experience this type of loss after you, you can offer the wisdom gained from your own pain to guide others to the knowledge that their grief is real, and worthy of attention and support, too. Although it is not necessary, helping others can help you further your own healing, too.
Post by Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW
Caring for Someone Who is Grieving
When someone you care about is grieving, it can be hard to know what to do. It may be that you haven’t been through a similar experience and you feel unsure what will be helpful. It’s also quite likely that they’ll be unsure what they need themselves, or that in their grief they may not have the energy to educate you. There are endless possible ways to offer support and comfort to someone who is grieving.
Make meals or bring groceries. It helps if you know their preferences and can respect any dietary needs or allergies, but if you don’t know them that well you can stick to basics options such as pasta and sauce.
Create remembrance items such as a framed photo, or something special that holds meaning related to the person who died and their relationship with the griever.
Prepare a care box including comfort care items such as tea, hand lotion, cozy socks, music, magazines or books.
Take care of some basic chores. Rake their leaves. Put the garbage out. Offer to walk the dog, or take the children to lessons.
Run errands. If you’re going to the grocery store or the pharmacy, text and ask if they need anything while you’re there.
Invite them for tea or coffee (or beer or wine) and let them know that they can come as they are, tears and all. When they cry, or complain, or sit in silence, be patient and just allow their process.
Accept and Encourage Both Pain and Joy
Don’t be afraid to sit with them as they roll through the difficult emotions of sadness, fear, guilt, anger, regret and more. But don’t be afraid to laugh with them, too. Remember, grief involves the FULL range of our feelings, often in unpredictable bursts.
Keep It Up Over Time
Grievers are often surrounded by people offering care and condolences in the days and weeks following a loss. In time, all those supporters return to their regular routines and carry on with their busy lives, because the loss was not theirs and did not disrupt their lives the same way it does for the bereaved person. When you reach out to let the mourner know you are thinking of them, whether by text, with a phone call or a note months later, and continue to reach out from time to time, you can trust that it will be appreciated as they will know they are not completely forgotten as the world moves on without their loved one.
Whatever actions you take, pay attention to the person. Try to notice what they might need and show up for them in ways that make sense in their life, rather than simply doing the things you would want if it was your grief. A little kindness, acceptance and understanding can go a long way to support someone you care about as they grieve.