When Grief Therapy Can Help

Post by Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW

When Grief Therapy Can Help

Death is a natural part of life, and grief is a natural response to the death of a loved one. It makes sense that we might be able to move independently through the experience of grief as we adapt to the reality of life after loss. Sometimes, all we need is the gentle understanding and acceptance of those in our circles as we adjust to the absence of a loved one.

There are times when grief feels overwhelming, and begins to interfere with our ability to function. We can be caught in painful patterns of grief that are beyond the support our family and friends can offer us. Some signs that we might benefit from professional help include:

Suicidal thoughts. If you’re actively thinking about suicide, with a plan to die, please call a crisis line to talk with someone who understands and can give you the non-judgmental support you need when your loved ones are too worried to remain calm as you express your thoughts and feelings to work through them.

On-going, uncontrollable symptoms of distress including crying, insomnia, irritability, panic attacks or depression. These symptoms are all very common in grief, especially in the early days and weeks after a loss. As you adjust to the absence of your loved one, you should find that these symptoms decrease. Counselling can help if they continue, and if they interfere with your ability to work or take part in typical activities such as grocery shopping.

You’re relying on substances like drugs or alcohol to help you avoid your thoughts and feelings. This behaviour can cause additional difficulties with your health and your ability to function in life, and while it’s a common coping mechanism it can quickly escalate with negative consequences.

You don’t have family or friends who are able or willing to support you. It may be that you’re alone in the world after your loved one has died. Alternatively, it may be that the people in your life can’t support you in the ways you need. Maybe they don’t understand, or maybe they are too deep in their own grief.

You blame yourself, or you’re experiencing intrusive thoughts of reliving your loved one’s death. These symptoms of grief are associated with trauma and can benefit from professional support in your recovery.

Remember that while it’s natural to grieve, and grieving takes time, if you find yourself experiencing some of these more difficult situations as you try to cope with the loss of a loved one, there is help available. You can find supportive grief therapy that works for you through a referral by family and friends, your doctor or an internet search for grief therapy in your geographic region. Your grief has a real impact and you’re worthy of good support.

Care and Well-Being for Grievers and Their Supporters

Post by Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW

Care and Well-Being for Grievers and Their Supporters

Grief can be all consuming. It can monopolize our attention and drain our energy. When we are grieving, we can forget to tend to our well-being. This is also true when we are supporting someone who is experiencing raw, deep or complex grief.

Factors that support well-being become important as we work toward recovering in grief. We need ways to help us find our balance again as we adjust to a world without our loved one.

Be gentle with yourself, and with others. We are all generally doing the best we can do under difficult circumstances.

Acknowledge the Pain and Suffering
Pain is inevitable. Suffering happens when we resist the reality of the pain. When we are able to admit that a situation is terrible and hurts us deeply, we shift into facing it and may begin to heal.

It’s important to be able to be honest, and to expect honesty in return. If you feel like you have to hide facts or feelings, it can be distressing. Be mindful that being honest doesn’t mean we must be blunt or harsh; we can be tender and kind in our honest moments.

Self-care for Stress Management
Eat well. It will help you fuel your mind and body and prepare you to handle whatever comes next. Move more. You can discharge some of the tension and use up some of your emotional energy when you move. Make sleep a priority. We heal, physically and emotionally, when we sleep. Connect with others who accept and understand your situation. When you feel acknowledged and validated by someone it can help you accept your situation.

Create a Safe Space
Whether it is a room in your home, just a corner of a room or some other place in your community, the availability of a safe space is important for a sense of well-being. This place will feel comfortable, and you’ll be able to let your guard down here. Perhaps there is a comfortable chair or bench for you to sink into. Maybe it is very private, allowing you to release your feelings with tears or other expressions of emotion without worrying about judgement.

Know Your Limits
It’s a good idea to try to notice your stress signals. Pay attention to what happens in your body. Do you get headaches, a knot at the back of your neck, tightness in your chest or clenching in your gut? Does your mind begin to race, distracting you and increasing your tension? When you become self aware, you can take steps to care for yourself at the earliest signs of distress rather than waiting until you are close to breaking down.

Ask for Help
Whether you are grieving, or trying to support someone you care about as they grieve, don’t be afraid to ask for help. We all need someone caring on our side sometimes to walk with us through the difficult parts of life and death.

Once a Daughter, Always a Daughter

Mary E. Schulz is a Social Worker and writer who loves dogs, opera and stories that take her
breath away.

We all have roles in our life. For me, I have been a wife, best friend, health care professional
and daughter. All of these roles have brought me joy and some heart ache and I am grateful for
the chance to have lived all of these experiences.

But in 2017, my husband died, followed by both my parents within a year. In one year, most of
my family was gone. I felt like I was in a row boat and suddenly had no paddles, just drifting,
with very little to help me stay on course.

After my husband died, I threw myself in to providing support and care to my two elderly and
increasingly frail parents. I had more time to visit and to help them with their day-to-day lives.
If I could never be a wife and best friend to my husband again, at least I could be the best
possible daughter.

And then, quite quickly, Mom and Dad died within months of each other.

I remember saying to a friend, “I am an orphan now. I will never be a wife or daughter again.
Who am I? How will I ever find anything to do – to be – that will even begin to fill those shoes?”

My friend wisely told me that I will always be a wife. I will always be a daughter. Nothing ever
changes that. Yes, my husband and parents will never be with me in the same way that they
were when they were alive. But the love we shared – while very different- would never die.
Love never dies. So being a daughter or a wife doesn’t die with them.

Being a daughter and a wife helped me to grow into the person I have become. Having these
wise and loving people in my life shaped my beliefs, my experiences, my personality. My
husband and parents, each in their own way, guided me through tough times and celebrated
with me in the good times. Now that they have died, I am part of their legacy and everything
we experienced together is part of me.

This perspective helps me a lot. I grieve these three wonderful people in my life. But I talk to
them each quite regularly (yes, out loud!) about how grateful I am to be their daughter. To be
his wife. Yes, I use the present tense because I still feel I am their daughter and I am his wife –
and always will be.

I find this comforting. I have lost a lot but I have not lost my relationship with my parents and
my husband. Love never dies and that helps to keep them close.

Gratitude and Grief

Mary E. Schulz is a Social Worker and writer who loves dogs, opera and stories that take her
breath away.

I call them “ambushes”. I am going about my day – tidying up the living room, doing some cooking or driving the car, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, I am brought to my knees by grief. It can be quite cruel, especially when I think I am doing ok. That today is not too bad. Then, boom! Something happens and I feel like my heart is going to stop beating from grief.

I used to feel angry and resentful when these ambushes happened. How unfair! Just when I am feeling a little bit proud of myself for getting through today in one piece and maybe even accomplishing something, I am side-swiped by grief.

What brings these ambushes on? It can be anything and is usually something so small that I don’t even realize it is there until it hits me. For me, it is something that reminds me of my husband, who died. It happens when I am rummaging through the junk drawer in the kitchen and I come across a scrap of paper with his handwriting on it. Or when I am cooking and a piece of music comes on the radio that we used to dance to in our kitchen. I now understand what the term “a broken heart” really means because it feels like my heart breaks into a million pieces all over again when these ambushes happen.

I have learned not to fight back when grief jumps out at me like this. I try to stop what I am doing for a minute, pull over if I have to when I am driving, and let my grief wash over me. Cry if I feel like it. I try not to talk myself out of my sadness but just let it come and be. Gentle and quiet. I let images come and go in my mind – what it felt like to be with my husband when we heard that music or how much I miss finding a note from him when he went out unexpectedly.

I have always been very grateful for all the many blessings I have had in my life, so I used to think it was ungrateful of me to feel grief. After all, I consider myself a very lucky woman to have shared such a wonderful life with my husband. So many people don’t have half of what I had, no matter how long they live. How can I allow myself to feel sad when I have had so much? I tell myself to pull up my socks and be grateful for what we had.

I am learning that grief and gratitude can go hand-in-hand and co-exist. I will never stop missing my husband. How could I? But at the same time, I am so grateful for every minute we shared together. After all, isn’t that what love is all about?

With time, these ambushes are less frequent. And when they do happen now, I find myself smiling at the memories almost as often as I cry.

Grief is Not the Enemy

Mary E. Schulz is a Social Worker and writer who loves dogs, opera and stories that take her
breath away.

When I was younger, before anyone close to me had died, I thought that grief was something to
be beaten. Conquered. Overcome. That grief is the enemy. I would hear people say things like,
“She needs to get over it soon. It’s been two years since so-and-so died.”

I have always thought of myself as a strong person. I have been very blessed in my life and have
not experienced a lot of hardships. Sure, I have had to work hard for the things that have
mattered most to me but when difficulties came my way, which they eventually do to
everyone, I was always able to manage – with the help of family and friends around me.

Until I experienced the death of my husband. That changed everything.

My husband and I enjoyed a long and very happy life together. We were not only partners in
life but best friends as well. So, when I started to realize that he was never coming back, to
really understand the finality of his death, I put on my armour and prepared to do battle. Grief
was not going to beat me! I needed to pull myself together, find lots of things to do in order to
get my mind off how sad and heartbroken I was and get on with figuring out my different life.
For me, this was absolutely the wrong approach. I had never before experienced anything as
devastating as the death of my husband so why would my usual ways of coping work? Well,
they didn’t.

I learned that grief is not the enemy. Grief is not the bad guy I needed to kick out of my life. I
learned that grief is love. Sounds so obvious now but it took me a while to really understand
that. You only grieve people you love. Grief was the flip side of all that love.
So, I did something that may sound kind of silly. I decided to invite grief in. To open the door
and let it in. Not fight it, push the door shut and try to keep it forever outside. I said to my grief
(often out loud), “Come on in. You are obviously going to be with me for a long, long time so we
may as well get acquainted.”

I saw myself pulling up a chair and saying to my grief, “Have a seat. Make yourself comfortable.
Let’s get to know each other.”

And so it began – my new relationship with grief. I see it now as my constant companion. Some
days it is not as obvious as other days but it is always there, walking beside me, sitting at the
dining room table when I eat my meals, or quietly holding my hand when I listen to music. It is
part of me now. I tell my grief how much it hurts. I tell my grief how I wouldn’t trade one day of
my life with my husband even if it meant never feeling grief again. We are becoming a comfort
to one another.

I am learning to live with longing.

Broken Heart Syndrome

Post by Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW

Broken Heart Syndrome

You may have heard the expression that someone “died of a broken heart”. If you’re grieving a deep and painful loss, you may feel as if your own heart is breaking. If you’re grieving deeply, you may be at risk of experiencing this syndrome yourself.
Broken Heart Syndrome is a real diagnosis of a temporary heart condition that can be brought on by stressful situations and extreme emotions. You can read more information about it here:


When we are grieving, we feel deep emotional pain. That pain is translated in the body. We carry it in tension that contracts our muscles, reducing our mobility and causing pain. We may suffer headaches, breathing difficulties or digestive disturbances related to our emotional experience.

Research on pain tells us that emotional pain lights up the same centres in the brain that are activated by physical pain. When we hurt, our brain doesn’t distinguish between physical causes and emotional causes. Pain is pain, so our systems responds accordingly.
When we are grieving, we are also less likely to be taking care of our health. We may undereat or overeat in our distress. We often struggle to move through daily activities. Sleep disturbances are commonly reported by people who are grieving. All of these difficulties that are common symptoms of grief can also affect our heart health, making us more vulnerable to broken heart syndrome.

The human system is complex. Our brain, nervous system, muscular structure, organs and skeleton work together in miraculous patterns to keep us alive. Grief is a powerful force that can interrupt our usual functioning.

We tend to dismiss grief at times. We sometimes get caught up in the message that we should just get over it. We might minimize our symptoms and try to push our grief down and away from us so we don’t have to deal with it. It’s important to recognize that trying to avoid grief often causes us more difficulty in the long run.

Be aware of the real condition of broken heart syndrome. Be mindful that as painful as your grief is, ignoring it can cause even more difficulties. Be gentle with yourself and take good care of your emotional, spiritual and physical self as you work through your experience of grief. Your heart is tender and vulnerable at this time, and you’re worthy of tender care to prevent the experience of Broken Heart Syndrome.

Practical Possibilities for Mourning in a Pandemic

Post by Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW

Practical Possibilities for Mourning in a Pandemic

When someone we care about dies, we have a natural reaction of grief. During a pandemic, many restrictions and precautions we are living with to help prevent the spread of virus can interfere with the ways we are used to coping with the experience of grief. Here are some strategies that can help:

Hold a small, personal gathering and share it with live-streaming. You can use Facebook or Instagram Live to share your ceremony with people who might want to observe it since they can’t participate in person, thus ensuring that anyone who loved the person can honour their passing.

Hold an interactive virtual gathering to celebrate the person’s life. Just about everyone can Zoom these days, and in a virtual meeting you can join in and take turns telling stories about the person who died, or play music and remember together in a more personal and interactive way than by live-streaming a small ceremony.

Create a slideshow using photographs and music. You can tell the story of the person’s life using photos through the years and with music they loved, or you can make a tribute to the things that were important to them or about them in their last years of life.

Create a memory book either using a scrapbook, or an on-line photo-book service. Again, you can show their life over time, or create small personalized books that show their relationship with you, or with other special people in their life.

Dedicate a space in the house to the person who died. It could be a shelf or a corner table. Place their picture there, and maybe a candle or something that reminds you of them. Spend some time in this spot when you want to feel close to the person.

Dedicate a time each day to grieving. You may find that by setting aside particular times of the day or week to miss and mourn the person who died, your grief becomes less intrusive as you go about the tasks of your everyday life.

Bring out their favourites. Watching their favourite movie, playing their favourite songs and eating their favourite foods can bring back positive memories. Wearing their favourite robe or sweater can help them feel close.

Find your own favourites. Choose a movie, music or other sensory experience that reminds you of them in a way that you find soothing. Sometimes it can be too hard to revisit their favourites but it can be comforting to choose your own.

Make art in their memory. Paint or draw a picture. Write a poem or story. Write a song or choreograph a dance. Create a sculpture or needlework. Art helps us express powerful feelings in a wide variety of ways and can help us heal.

Take care of yourself. Be gentle and do the things that bring you comfort and ease. Maybe a long hike. A hot shower or bubble bath. Cuddling up on the couch with a cup of tea and a good book. By giving yourself calming, pleasant sensory experiences you give your heart time to heal.

Losing a Lifelong Family Friend

Written by Arielle Astroff

January 18th, 2020 is a day I will never forget. A day that changed my life, and the lives of many, forever. This was the day that my neighbour and family friend of twenty years unexpectedly passed away.

On that winter day, he and my dad were shovelling snow together when he collapsed on his front steps. My dad ran to call an ambulance, while my sister and his wife came out and began CPR, but it was too late. We found out later that he had a massive heart attack. This was something nobody had seen coming. My neighbour was a man in his early fifties with a very happy family life, and he always seemed to be healthy. Never in a million years did we think this would happen to him.

This death is painful to me for more reasons than I can name. He was such a caring person, and his two daughters are the same age as me and my sister. It’s also very difficult for me to process the fact that my dad was the last person to ever speak to him and see him alive.

What helps me cope with this loss is supporting my neighbour’s wife and daughters by doing small, thoughtful gestures for them. As much as I am hurt by what happened, I know it has hurt them so much more. I can’t even fathom the grieving they are going through. Supporting them any way I can is the least I can do to help them get through this difficult time.

Nothing will ever take away the hurt of this loss, but knowing that I can put a smile on their faces during these difficult times makes me feel like I am helping them heal, which in turn is helping me heal as well.

The Unique Wounds of Ambiguous Loss

Post by Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW

The Unique Wounds of Ambiguous Loss

Ambiguous loss, as it relates to death, happens in two ways.

A loved one may be physically absent, missing and potentially dead, but without definite evidence to confirm a death.

A loved one may be mentally absent due to conditions like dementia or other circumstances near the end of life that make them inaccessible to us even though they are physically still alive.

In either circumstance, family and friends are impacted by the absence of a formal acknowledgement of loss that begins an outward, expected grieving process. Instead, there may be an on-going dance between anticipatory grief, and the possibility of hope.

According to the work of William Worden, the tasks of mourning include a need to accept the reality of death. When you do not have the chance to view a still body, to touch a cheek one more time, and come together with others in a gathering to honour the deceased, it can be difficult to find a way forward. Similarly, when your loved one has good days and seems bright and well, it may be hard to accept the truth of a terminal diagnosis.

In either scenario, it’s common to seek information and it’s unusual to find definite answers. The ambiguity creates a storm of mixed emotions quite different than the experience of other death that is as clear and complete as it is heartbreaking. Denial is a common experience. It can be easier to avoid the facts when the situation is uncertain.
Denial can prevent families and friends from adapting to the situation. The unresolved situation of a missing person can leave people stuck, afraid to move on for fear of letting their loved one down. In the case of a family member becoming absent through such conditions as dementia, or decreasing consciousness, denial may mean that people miss the opportunity to be present, to appreciate the person who is dying and to say a meaningful goodbye. Either way, the wounds of ambiguous loss linger, difficult to heal as the mourner struggles with questions and regret.

Healing through ambiguous loss involves the ability to redefine a relationship with the person in their absence. Sometimes this involves adapting how you think about them and other times it involves actions you take to respond to the difference in how things are now. Once you have gathered as much information about the situation as possible, you can begin to make choices about how you will think and act in relationship to this difficult situation.

There is no one right way to adapt to ambiguous loss. Each person must gather relevant information about their own situation, and then set boundaries that help with adjustment. If you face such circumstances with someone in your life, be sure to hold yourself with deep compassion as you move through these steps and tend to your own needs. It will not always be this way. You can make meaning and find hope through your thoughts and actions in such a way that will allow you to rest as easy as possible even under such circumstances.

Guilt and Remorse in Grief Work

Guest post by Sharron Spencer, SSW-G, RSSW

Sharron Spencer is a Registered Social Service Worker working in the field of Mental Health & Addictions since 2014, as a second career. Sharron currently works as the Grief & Bereavement Coordinator at Hospice Georgina. She trained in the Child & Youth Grief and Bereavement Certificate program with Sick Kids Mental Health/Hincks Dellcrest, and is nearing completion of a degree in Thanatology (the study of death, dying and bereavement) with Western University. Sharron is a training facilitator with PalCare Network of York region; providing palliative education programs to volunteers and professionals in Spirituality, Grief & Bereavement and Care for the Caregiver and also a certified facilitator of Powerful Tools for Caregivers. Sharron is also a Certified Funeral Celebrant.

Most of us don’t think about our own mortality. Often, it isn’t until we are affected by a diagnosis or sudden death personally that we have to learn how to cope with the shock, fear, anger, sadness, guilt, numbness and many other emotions that result from a death, or dying. We have become a death-denying society that resists all things related to death and dying. Our loved ones are cared for in hospital and their bodies are cared for by the funeral homes. 
In many ways we don’t know what or how to grieve.

When diagnosed with a life threatening illness, one is often filled with guilt and regrets; their lifestyle, choices they made, becoming a burden to others who will need to help provide care, leaving a family without an income and many other thoughts cross their mind.

Children and youth may be left with guilt and remorse after the death of a parent or other family members. They may believe they caused their loved one to become ill because they didn’t ‘behave’ the way they were asked to, or they may feel terrible because they fought with the person, or they didn’t spend enough time with their loved one because they didn’t really believe they were gong to die. It’s important to explore these possible thoughts and feelings with children and youth, helping them understand the death in an honest, age-appropriate way. This can help prevent them from imagining worst-case scenarios where they are to blame.

A caregiver to a loved one with a disease such as dementia can be filled with guilt for being exhausted and feeling resentful towards their loved one due to the amount care and attention that is required. They may also feel guilt for grieving the loss of their hopes and plans that have been lost due to the illness.

Guilt and remorse can overwhelm us whether we are grieving the death of someone we love or facing the end of our own life. These feelings are normal and very common. The trick is to not let the guilt take over and stop you from grieving your losses.

When we must watch someone we care about as they suffer and decline, we may feel helpless. That powerlessness can turn into guilt that we weren’t able to “fix” things. Even when we understand logically that there was absolutely nothing that we could’ve done differently, our heart takes on this guilt. Professional help can help you find self-compassion and forgiveness.

It can also be therapeutic to write a letter to our loved one who has died. Write about your feelings, including the guilt and the remorse. I often suggest to people to burn or shred the letter to release the guilt, shame and remorse. These painful feelings don’t serve you and won’t change the outcome. You can let them go and trust that you did the very best you could for your loved one under the difficult circumstances you faced at the end of life.