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.
Craig – How men process grief
Craig talks about his personal story of grief and how he learned to process his emotions in a healthy way. He discusses the challenges that men face when grieving, and offers advice on how to find healthy ways to cope with loss.Craig lost his wife, his mother, his job, and his home in a short period of time. He describes how he felt pressured to be stoic and strong for others, and how this made it difficult for him to grieve. He eventually realized that it was important to allow himself to feel his emotions, even the difficult ones.Craig shares some of the things that helped him to process his grief, such as talking to a therapist, writing in a journal, and spending time in nature. He also emphasizes the importance of finding support from friends and family. This video is a powerful and moving story of how one man found healing after experiencing a series of devastating losses. It is an important reminder that grief is a normal and healthy emotion, and that there are healthy ways to cope with it.
Craig – There is No Right Way to Grieve
Craig talks about his experience with grief and how there is no right or wrong way to grieve. He shares his thoughts on how to allow yourself to do what you need to do to heal, even if it doesn’t seem like “self-care.” This video is a reminder that everyone grieves differently and that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to healing.
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 – Poetry, Comedy, & Art for Grieving
Kristal discusses using poetry and other forms of creative expression as a distraction from her grief and to disassociate in a safe and productive way. She discusses grief being love with nowhere to go, so she puts it into art.
Kristal – Attending Memorials as a Support Worker
Kristal discusses the importance of finding ways to honour people that have been lost and how they have impacted you. She speaks to how she often chooses not to attend public memorials for those she has lost as a support worker as they are often very overwhelming. Instead, she has her own personal rituals or ways of honouring those she has lost personally including opening a window. She discusses how this practice was used when she worked in palliative care.
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 – Using Art and Creativity to Express Grief
Nicole discusses the work she does to allow access to creative outlets such as art hives and gardening.
By Mike Bonikowsky
Grief is the great leveller, and the great divider. Everyone grieves, sooner or later, but no two people will experience it in the same way. No two bereavements are the same, and neither are any two consolations.
This is only more poignantly the case for people with developmental disabilities. Not only is their grief completely unique, but they are often unable to express it in traditional ways. How are we to support someone through the grieving process when they cannot, or will not, tell us what they are thinking and feeling about their loss? The answer is simple, and difficult.
In Christian theology, there is a concept called “the Holy Spirit”. This is the invisible piece of God that is everywhere all the time, with and within all people. The name given to this in the original ancient Greek is the “Paraclete”, literally, “The one who comes alongside.”
That is also our best, and only role, when supporting a person with a developmental disability to grieve. We must be the one that comes alongside. There is no closer place we can get to. We must be present, be with, perhaps not understanding or comprehending what the person we support is experiencing, but alongside them nonetheless. We must be there, ready to provide whatever we can discover of their unique need in grief.
But that coming alongside must begin before the bereavement. We must already have been there through the happier seasons of the person’s life, if we are to know them well enough to read the language of their grieving, and hope to know in what little ways we may support them. Supporting a person with a developmental disability to grieve is not a matter of coming alongside, but of remaining where we already were. It is a matter of knowing and being known by them, of being trusted. It is not so much a matter of doing anything for the person, but of being something for them: A safe place, a consistent and reliable presence. It is to be a fixed point in a confusing, chaotic world, someone of whom they can say: “When that person is here, I can expect things to be like this.” Only when this relationship is present and well-established in the ordinary times can we come alongside in the darkest, loneliest season on the person’s life, and hope to meet their unspoken needs.
And usually the answer to those needs is what it has always been: To simply be there with them, to prepare a meal for them and do the dishes afterward, to help them wash body and find clean clothes to wear. To open the curtains in the morning, so that when they emerge from the dark cave of their unique grief, for however short a time, they are greeted by a world that has not ended, and a face that they know, and that knows them.
By John (Lewis) Clark, Author of upcoming book (Cook Away Your Grief).
When my wife of 18 years died in 2016, I became a single father missing the love of my life, and also had to learn how to raise two girls (13-17 at the time) on my own. I remember a conversation I had with my mother-in-law and oldest daughter that began as reminiscing over a person who became a lost love to all of us. We all talked about different aspects of my wife but shortly, it transformed into a “who meant more to her” fest.
All our points of view were out of love, but each of us had a different angle for different reasons. My mother-in-law saw my wife’s death as the loss of her baby girl, my daughter, as the loss of her mother and me, as the loss of my love. The conversation became elevated because not only was it a sensitive topic, but it became a comparison.
I dubbed this the “Umbrella Effect” because it felt like an umbrella that fit three but caused each of us to become wet on one side. When my mother-in-law made a comment that got me thinking, I had to back off my somewhat defensive position. She talked about how she felt when my wife was born. It soon made me think about how my wife felt when our babies were born, and I realized that I was solely the contributor in each case. The connections that my mother-in-law and my daughter had trumped my 18 years automatically. These two ladies had true connections with my wife. Love based on biology beats loves based on time and experiences, any day.
We all had a relevant case, but mine was getting weaker with every statement made. I had to understand that biological connections give a different justification for reminiscing. As a husband, I was torn between defending my love for my wife and understanding my mother-in-law and my daughter’s points of view. Although it hurt, I had to realize the source of the pain. I no longer wanted to be an unconscious contributor to their hurt. I had to realize that everybody mourns loss differently, and comparing only brought more hurt to an already sensitive situation.
To alleviate the tension, I grabbed three bowls from my mother-in-law’s cupboard, got the scooper, and three spoons. I pulled out the cookie dough ice cream, which prompted a truce. Peace is always achievable over ice cream. I now know that although people can be subjected to the same grief, they all process and see it differently. What is good is that everybody remembers her for the beauty she brought to our family. Although our conversation got contentious at times, it was clear that although we lost her, no one lost the love we have for her.
By Alyssa Warmland
The holidays can bring up a lot of feelings, especially when you’re grieving the loss of a loved one. Whether it’s the first holiday season without someone, the holidays mark a time where someone you love died, or it’s just hard to be around celebration when you’re not feeling celebratory, December can feel heavy.
These are a few tips for grieving during the holidays:
Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel however you feel.
Feeling sad or mad? Feeling happy- and guilty for not feeling worse? Whatever comes up for you is normal. It’s okay to sit with your feelings, to give them some space when it feels right, and also to compartmentalize them if you feel like that’s best in the moment. You can acknowledge your feelings, put them in your pocket, and hold on to them during the family dinner if you want to. You can take them out of your pocket and spend time with them later. Grief is unique, and can show up in unexpected ways. It’s okay to feel however you feel.
Reach out for connection.
Sometimes we worry that we’ll make someone else upset if we mention our grief, or if we show up in a way that isn’t particularly festive. The truth is, the people who care about us want to hold space for us, even when we’re grieving. Connection can help us feel better.
Find ways to incorporate your loved one(s) into celebrations.
Did your dad have a favourite side dish your family always served at dinner? Did Oma make sugar cookies every year? Did your sister always compliment you when you wore red? Consider serving dad’s dish, or baking Oma’s cookies, or wearing red.
Share stories about your loved ones.
Sometimes it can be tempting to pretend the people we love haven’t died. As if, by not talking about them, we can pretend they’re still around. In fact, sharing stories about them can help honour them and to feel their presence. Remembering our loved ones out loud in connection with other people can feel healing.
Watch/listen/read other peoples’ stories and insights about grief.
At griefstories.org , we host stories and insights from people with lived experience in grief, as well as healthcare professionals’ insights on grief. These videos, podcasts, and blog posts are available for free 24/7, anywhere you can access the internet. Our hope is that this content may help you feel less alone.
Listen to how your body feels. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. You are safe and you are worthy of operating with integrity toward yourself. Grief can be hard, and it’s okay to be gentle with yourself as you move in and through it – even during the holidays. Set whatever boundaries feel right for you. There are no rules here. You’ve got this.