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 Richard Quodomine
Starting on sundown, July 26th, some Jews will begin to fast. Unlike the more well-known Yom Kippur, which is for atonement, Tisha B’Av is a specific holiday for mourning and grief. Its exact date varies with the ancient Jewish lunar Calendar, but is sometime in July or early August. All Jewish commemorations begin in the evening due to this lunar calendar.
Observant Jews will abstain from sexual relations, all forms of frivolity, wearing of leather, and work on this day. Just before the evening that begins the holiday, a “separation meal,” called seudah hamafseket,is eaten.It consists of bread and a hard-boiled egg dipped in ashes, accompanied by water. Talk about a meal to remind one of sadness. Once the evening of Tisha B’Av commences, one fasts for a full 24 hours. Please note that life and health are more important than fasting in Jewish tradition. If a doctor says a person should not fast, such as a woman who is pregnant, then fasting is forbidden.
Those of us of the Jewish faith also ascribe several sad events as having happened on the day of Tisha B’Av. For example, it is traditionally believed that both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed on Tisha B’Av. In more recent history, the last Jews of Spain whom did not convert to Catholicism were said to have left Spain forever on Tisha B’Av. Spanish Judaism had been a critical component of the Islamic culture there and was part of its unique pluralism and beauty. Some of those events may not have happened “on that day” exactly. The point of the holiday is not to take dates literally, but rather to remind ourselves that grief is a life cycle event, and we all grieve at some time.
Further, there is grief over loss of life but also grief for losing ways of living, of culture, of beauty or perhaps our environment and our friends who are not well treated by society. Tisha B’Av is a Jewish holiday, but it is also a holiday that is universal. No, we shouldn’t all fast or refuse to wear leather. But we should recognize that mourning is important. Feeling loss and grief is a part of whom we are. In facing that loss and accepting that grief – along with emotions such as anger, sadness or resentment – we are able to process them. We’re able to find a part of ourselves. For example, when dealing with a person who has passed, the grief we bear is knowing that we must carry that which we have lost because the person who carried them with us can no longer do it. We must grieve, and then bring about again the joy that that person created. The prayer for the holiday concludes with the verse “Restore us to You, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old.” In accepting grief, we can be restored to joy.
By Richard D. Quodomine
When you lose a person in the generation before you, you begin to think about what they meant to you. When you lose a parent, you think about all they meant, and you hoped you either lived up to the best of yourself, or in some cases where the parenting was not as instructive or kind, you hope you’ve raised yourself beyond difficult circumstances. If you’re fortunate, Dad pushes every endeavor and delights in your successes and constructively scolds you when you fail without ever making you feel embarrassed or willfully stupid – unless of course, you were actually willfully stupid.
Did we have our differences? Absolutely. My father was more conservative than I am politically, though he rejected hateful politics and would not vote for it. We come from a mixed religious family, and my father was Christian, I am Jewish. We had philosophical differences and we approached life differently. But we also valued accomplishment, kindness for its own sake, and service in the public good. He is part of the reason I have chosen a career in civil service. I believe government can and should serve at the behest of its citizenry, and while he mistrusted government intrinsically, he had respect for my approach in working for it.
As part of my research in the public interest, I went to India for a conference. While en route, somewhere between Zurich and Delhi, my Dad suddenly passed from a cardiac arrest. I couldn’t return home for several days, so I soldiered on without telling anyone at the conference. I figured the way to honor his memory was to do my very best. He was gone – and weeping in my hotel room wasn’t what he would have wanted.
Dad had a heart condition, but he had had corrective surgery and was otherwise in outstanding physical shape for his age. He was my Mom’s primary caregiver. This was especially tragic because she has dementia. Sometimes, I get angry that Dad is gone because the burden is much greater on myself and my family. Sometimes, I am so grateful that he gave me the strength to help care for Mom. Most of the time, even months removed, I’m just missing talking to my Dad.
The first father’s day without Dad is the hardest, or so “they say.” I think that is true, but it’s harder not because I am sad, but because there’s nothing that can replace all that he was. It’s trite to say “he lives in me.” I think it’s better to say “I take what he has given me, and I will grow and make this life my own.” I don’t think anyone should strive to be “just like” their parent. They should strive to be their own authentic selves, using the best of their parent as the cornerstone, not the ceiling. In Judaism, we say “May their memory be for a blessing” as a condolence. Dad’s memory is, for certain, a blessing.
By David Newland
The following blog post is a reworking of a post originally written in 2005 under the same name on his website.
This spring, I turned fifty-four. I have now outlived the father I never knew: my biological father. It’s been almost twenty-three years since we spoke; eighteen years since I learned of his death. I’m still dealing with the strange grief of his loss.
As an adoptee, I always had questions about my origins that my loving, caring adoptive parents couldn’t answer. In my twenties, I applied to Child Services for more information, and after eight years of waiting on my part, they did a search in 2000. After some effort, they couldn’t find my birth-mother, but quickly produced contact info for my biological father. They offered to put us in touch.
After jumping through a few official hoops, we emailed back and forth a bit, and finally, we spoke on the phone, maybe three times in all.
I can’t even describe what that was like – intense, starkly honest, humorous and deep. Here was a man who had made most of the same mistakes I had, only far worse. Depression, drugs, divorce. Family problems. Anger management. Women. He hid nothing, as far as I could tell, although his stories sometimes conflicted.
I didn’t hold anything back either. I insisted that he honour my experience as an adoptee. It wasn’t easy for me, handling the big hole in my life. He had a hard time understanding that. He said his own kids had it a lot worse than me. He was right, but that wasn’t for him to say. I heard it from them.
It was good to connect, but I knew he wasn’t good for me. I chose not to pursue further connection. I knew he was out there. He knew where I was.
There was no contact for a few years. And then one day, in January of 2005, I found out he was dead. I was online at work, looking for some information on the original (Polish) spelling of his last name, and wham! the first thing that came up was a memorial page. He had died, nearly a year before, in March 2004, aged 54.
I never knew him in life. I still don’t know him in death. But I’ve been grieving him for a long time, in my way.
In 2016, still reckoning with the hole he left, I went to Red Deer to find his grave. I narrated that journey in a CBC radio documentary, The heartache and healing of finding my birth father. I never found a grave: only my own shadow over a four-by-four stake in the ground. I did enjoy a delicious steak sandwich at a local hotel restaurant he was fond of.
I’ve been back to Red Deer twice since then. The last time I went, even the stake was gone. And so was the steak sandwich, restaurant, hotel and all.
The picture on the memorial page linked above is the only likeness I ever saw of my birth-father. I always thought I saw my face in his. Now, having reached his age, I see his face in mine.
By Cee Fisher
I’ve tried many ways of handling grief. I love the challenge of redirecting the negative energy derived from grief, turning it into something positive and useful. Of course, things don’t always go as planned. Still, it feels good to know I have the power to switch things up and try to create more of a sustainable balance in my life. It gives me a sense of control and helps me to feel more hopeful.
One of my most devastating experiences with grief was when I found out my soulmate, Reuben, died. He was the rarest, most caring soul I’d ever met. People respected him. They listened to him. Reuben and I were engaged for a couple of years, and although our breakup was complicated there are a few facts you should know. When we last spoke, we were living in separate countries. He was living on kidney dialysis. I was raising our son alone. They had never met. We were making plans of reuniting. Somewhere along the line, our phone numbers changed and caused us to lose touch. I searched for him for ten years. When he died, a letter that he had written to me was discovered in his belongings. In the letter, he said he needed to speak to me as soon as possible. We never got to have that conversation, and he never got to meet his son.
Googling his name had become very routine, but this time was different. A link appeared. My jaw dropped excitedly until I followed the link and saw the word “late” typed next to his name. That was it for me. That was when my world came crashing down. It felt as if I was violently kicked off cloud 9 and slammed in the gut with a sledgehammer. I opened my mouth and felt my soul wailing, but it was as if I were crying in reverse. I could not breathe. I truly believe that was the day I gained full understanding of what a meltdown feels like.
I hid in my room for about a week, curled up in fetus position, aimlessly crying out Reuben’s name. I felt totally lost and defeated, and knew I needed something else to focus on. Life had taught me that. I needed to engage in something therapeutic, and washing dishes was definitely out of the question. I decided to buy a crochet hook. I crocheted every day, and soon began receiving requests for paid orders. I began selling at outdoor events, surrounded by nature. In no time, I was designing and crocheting custom-made items, including a unicorn my neighbor ordered for her daughter.
Looking back, I had no idea how to even continue to live. A simple attempt at something therapeutic sent the negative bereavement energy into a positive direction. It made me realize my strengths, at a time when I felt I had none at all. It provided a space where I am now better able to manage grief when it hits.
By Jessica Milette, MSW, RSW
The signs of spring start to show up: the bird calls, sleepy daffodils and tulips waking up from their slumber, the trees beginning to bud ready to shade us with their leaves all season. And then, the flood of Mother’s Day emails start crashing into our inboxes.
Mother’s day is a holiday where we show appreciation and care for the maternal roles in our lives. However, this holiday can feel very overwhelming for those of us who are grieving the death of a mother figure, a mother grieving their child, or those of us grieving the loss of not being able to become mothers ourselves. The ads, commercials, and displays at the store, designed to be appealing and inviting become a painful grief trigger as we go about our day, our minds and hearts going to the person we’re grieving who isn’t alive to receive their flowers or gifts. Feeling as if our grief is heightened on holidays or times of celebration is a natural reaction to have. Often around these times of the year we gather with our loved ones, and our special person’s absence feels amplified.
Over the years, my grief reactions around mother’s day continue to change. At first, it was like a black looming cloud and I would avoid anything to do with Mother’s Day. Over time, I still have had hard Mother’s Days but the day looks much different. I may write to my mother, choose to ignore the day and do things unrelated to Mother’s Day, make a comforting meal from my childhood, or participate in a memorial event on Mother’s Day. Regardless of what I choose to do, or not do on Mother’s Day I make sure to give myself the space and compassion to rest and recover – grief can be exhausting.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve, nor how to go through Mother’s Day. Our relationship as mothers and children is unique, so too will be our grief. The following ideas may be how you’d like to take time to honour the person you’re remembering and grieving on Mother’s Day:
-Unsubscribing from Mother’s Day emails (some companies have a special opt-out message for folks to unsubscribe from these types of emails)
– Ignoring Mother’s Day altogether and doing something that fills you up (it could be going to a movie your person may have never wanted to go to or taking a long hike)
– Creating an altar with photos, keepsakes, and favourite things of your person
– Lighting a candle in their honour
– Writing them a card, updating them on your life and reflecting on your relationship
– Creating a new tradition or ritual to replace Mother’s Day
– Packing your day with connection and activities with trusted others who support you in your grief
– Having a day of nothing: allowing yourself to do what your heart is telling you (a bath, a nap, a cry)
Sometimes our grief may feel heaviest in anticipation of Mother’s Day or on Mother’s Day itself. As we enter May and Mother’s Day approaches, I wish for you to be compassionate towards yourself and move through the day in the way that fits your heart and relationship best.
Kristal – Grieving the Whole Person
Kristal discusses the importance of recognizing and grieving the entire person who was lost – not just who they were before they had been using drugs.
Kristal – Harm Reduction
Kristal speaks to the importance of harm reduction and how it can save lives. She discusses how accessing harm reduction leads to the creation of connections with community support. It allows community outreach members to connect with community members and get to know them, and to know to look for them if they don’t see them when they usually do.
Kristal – Lack of Memorials During Pandemic
Kristal talks about how memorials can offer closure to people who are grieving, find a community, and share stories. With the absence of this during the pandemic, many people turned inward to grieve or isolated, which can create safety issues and have an impact on mental health. She speaks to how this leads to depression, physical pain, and it compounds upon itself.
By Jessica Milette, MSW, RSW
A parent sits across from me, anxiously wringing their hands. They will be returning to work after the sudden death of their child. “What if they ask? Do I tell them that they died of an overdose?” Terror flashes across their face. “What if they judge me? My child? What if they think I’m a terrible parent?” We take a moment to reflect on their child and I ask them to tell me about them. They pause, but then I notice their hands aren’t as tense as they cross them over their shoulders. “They were so thoughtful and gave the best hugs. Their smile would light up any room.”
Sister, father, son, niece, best friend – some of these words might be how you would describe your loved one who has died of an overdose or drug poisoning. People Who Use Drugs (PWUD) are not defined by their substance use – they are a million other things to those who love and miss them dearly. Drug poisoning and overdose deaths are stigmatized in our society. The focus is on how the person died, not who they are. Society still holds onto old notions and beliefs about drugs which come with a value judgment about people who use drugs, which further contributes to stigma. Not everyone who uses drugs is an addict and not all drug use is inherently problematic. People who use drugs deserve dignity and respect when we are remembering and honouring those who have died by overdose or drug poisoning.
More stigma means less support for people using drugs and those that support them. Much work has been done and continues to be done to dispel myths and stigma about addiction, drug use, and those who use drugs. Addiction is an illness: something that someone lives with, not something that defines them. These same values and judgments society has about drug use aren’t attached to folks who die of other illnesses. Society tends to view drug use and those who use them as a black and white issue. However, those who love someone who uses drugs weave a rich, colourful tapestry made of stories, reminders, and feelings about their loved one.
In my years as a grief therapist, those left behind want to share a special moment or memory about their loved one with a trusted other. When one is grieving a drug-poisoning death, this trust and sacredness without judgment offers the freedom to sit in the entirety of their grief—the grief they felt when their loved one was alive and when they died. Taking the time to use a loved one’s name in conversation, and asking the griever to share something about their loved one is a powerful tool for us on our grief journey. By initiating these types of conversations, we let the griever know that if they wish to, they can talk about their loved one. Sharing our stories are some of the most powerful ways one finds connection and healing through grief. It helps us feel less alone in our grief by sharing about what makes our person special. Those we love and grieve aren’t just a person who uses drugs – they are so much more. May each of us continue to share stories about our loved ones and the many facets their lives hold.
*DISCLAIMER* The scenario described in the article is a general reflection upon themes the author has witnessed through their grief counselling work and does not represent a specific individual in order to protect the confidentiality of service users.
Nicole – Power of Speaking About Lost Ones
Nicole discusses the importance of sharing memories of those lost to drug poisoning and speaking their names.