a lilac is stuck in the sand of the beach at a memorial.

What I know about grief

Post by Alyssa Warmland, artist, activist, well-practiced griever.

I earned my “grief card” at 15, when I lost my mother. Since then, I’ve experienced other instances of loss and have become a well-practiced griever. Most recently, I lost a friend in a tragic way. She was deeply connected within our rural Ontario community and as I grieve her loss, I’m watching many other people around me grieve. Some, like me, are experienced in grief. Others are newer to the experience.

The following are some things I know to be true about grief for me, based on my lived experience. Some of them may resonate with you as well. Grief is unique to the people experiencing it in each moment, so please take whatever makes sense to you from this share and leave whatever doesn’t.

– Give yourself space to just feel the waves. Sometimes it feels like it’s not quite so intense, and then sometimes it feels like you’ve just been punched in the stomach. And it’ll cycle around. And it won’t feel this way forever.

– You’re totally allowed to feel whatever it is you’re feeling. Last night, while I spoke with sobbing friends on the phone, I was absolutely furious. Today, it’s that gut-punch feeling. it’ll cycle around. And it won’t be this way forever.

– Sharing stories can be helpful. Celebrate the reasons you loved whoever you’re grieving. Look at the pictures. Watch the videos. Sing the songs.

– Be patient with yourself, but keep going through the motions of what you know you need to do to maintain your wellness while you grieve. Eat something, even if you’re not hungry. Sleep or lay down, even if you feel like you’ll never fall asleep (podcasts can help make it less overwhelming). Drink water. Go for a walk outside. Write about it. Work, if you want to work (and plan for some extensions on stuff if you can, so you can work a bit more slowly than usual if you need to)

– Your brain may take a little longer to process things. Your memory may not work as well. You may feel irritable or overwhelmed. It’s okay.

– If the death part itself was hard, try to avoid focusing on the end, and instead think about the person you loved and who they were when they were well.

– Connect with other people who are grieving, it may be easier to know you’re not alone.

To learn more about collective grief, please read Maureen’s post on the topic.

Collective Grief

Post by Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW

When the death of a person affects many members in a community, city, country, or across the world, people will experience collective grief.

Some things that can help people through the experience of collective grief across a community include:

– Holding gatherings that allow people share the pain of loss and to remember and honour the person who died;

– Sharing reflective and supportive posts on social media that address the loss and grief being felt by so many;

– It can be helpful to tag the person who died, so it shows up on their page where people can look through for solace. It may be a good idea to avoid tagging the family members of the person who died so that they can
choose when to opt into engaging with these memories without overwhelming notifications;

– Encouraging opportunities for community members to give and receive empathy and compassion;

– Respecting personal differences in the experience and expression of grief among community members, as everyone
grieves in their own way.

While many people across a community may be feeling the loss, it’s important to respect the privacy of those most impacted by the death. Give the immediate family time and privacy. Although many may mourn their loved one, it can be burdensome for the family to have to receive community grief at a time when they are coping with their own grief process.

faded yellow flowers symbolizing grief.

When Death Comes Suddenly

Some types of death we prepare for. If we have an elderly person in our life, one who has lived a good, long life and may be experiencing some health challenges that typically come with old age, then we may well be thinking about the possibility they will die. This type of death fits into the ‘natural order’ of life, and even if we don’t want it, we tend to accept that it is inevitable.

Similarly, we can prepare for death by illness or a chronic, deteriorating condition. We know this is happening and we have time to take action to give ourselves and the dying person some sense of completion as their time comes to an end.

Sudden, unexpected death is quite different. It’s really quite impossible to prepare for, and tends to leave us with a very different experience of grief. It’s important to note that sudden and unexpected death can happen in either of the above scenarios, too. An elderly person may be quite healthy, and die from an injury or sudden onset of a fatal condition. A person diagnosed with a terminal illness may die abruptly from complications or from a sudden event unrelated to their condition.

When someone dies suddenly we often struggle with grief that is raw, unpredictable and powerful. Some elements make it harder to cope, including:

The death feels out of the ‘natural order’ of life. Children are not supposed to die. Young people are not supposed to die. Sometimes, one partner is not expected to die before the other. It can make it hard to adapt when we feel that death is not “supposed to” happen at this time.

We have no chance to say goodbye or have a sense of conclusion to the relationship. We may have thought we had plenty of time to heal old wounds, to make up for neglect or take care of business with the person who died. It can be difficult to accept these missed opportunities, and they can bring a sense of guilt and regret.

The death may be violent, potentially painful and causing significant physical trauma. We can be left with terrible images. Whether we see the damage to our loved one or not, the human mind has a great capacity to imagine, and we can review the circumstances and the harm over and over again in our grieving mind.

We may worry that our loved one did not experience dignity in the circumstances of their death. We feel that the death is completely out of our control, and we may feel like we failed our loved one in some way due to their experience or the circumstances.

When someone you love has died suddenly and unexpectedly, it may feel quite different than any other type of loss you have experienced. Try to keep these factors in mind, and be gentle with yourself as you adapt to this sudden change in your life and adjust to their absence.

Helping Others Help You Through Grief

Post by Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW

When you’ve experienced the death of a loved one, one of the most difficult things you will go through is trying to find out what helps you adjust to the loss. This can be compounded when others around you don’t understand what you’re going through, and don’t know how to help you. Although you may not have much energy, and you may be reluctant to become a teacher, it may be just what your family and friends need to help you through your grief.

The concept of “pocket phrases” can be quite useful in helping others learn what you need as you grieve. These are statements that you practice ahead of time so that they come to you effortlessly in the moments when you are upset but still need to ask for someone’s help or understanding.

“That’s not helpful.” Usually, our friends and family are trying to help, however their actions may have the opposite effect. With practice, you can develop the ability to say this in a calm, confident voice that halts comments or behaviour that you find hurtful.

“Grief isn’t easy, but it is necessary.” Well-meaning people sometimes want us to move through grief quickly when that is just not possible. You can remind them that it’s normal to feel a full range of feelings after a loss and you don’t need to ‘cheer up’.

“I’m adapting. It takes time to adjust.” When someone in your circle of acquaintances asks how you’re doing, you can use this phrase to remind them that grief is a process. You can ask them directly to have patience with your intense feelings, the changes in your routines and at the same time let them know you’ll never be quite the same again.

“I’m not strong. I’m just doing what I must.” This phrase can be helpful when people praise your ability to function in routine tasks and situations. You may want them to understand that although you may look well on the outside, there’s still a whirlwind of emotion and distress raging unpredictably inside you.

“I like it when you say their name and we talk about them.” You can let people know they don’t have to be afraid to mention your loved one. If you want to share stories, and hear stories from others, you may need to give permission with a clear, direct statement such as this so that people aren’t afraid they will hurt you more by talking about them.

These sample statements can be a good starting point for developing your own useful “pocket phrases” to help teach the people in your life how to help you as you grieve. Remember that the more you practice the things you wish you could say, the easier it will become to pull them out in a peaceful and positive way when needed.

Creativity Helped Me Cope as a Child

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.

When Your Friend Has a Miscarriage

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.

Grief and Secondary Loss

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.

Forgiveness at the End of a Life

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.

Finding Forgiveness

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.
Mark Twain

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.

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.

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:

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/broken-heart-syndrome/symptoms-causes/

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.