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.

Grieving Through Another Pandemic Holiday Season

Post by Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW

Grieving Through Another Pandemic Holiday Season

This is our second year collectively facing a crisis across the globe that has kept us living with some level of anxiety and feelings of isolation. The COVID-19 pandemic has been very hard on so many people in many ways. It can feel endless and overwhelming. When we are also living with grief after the death of a loved one, it compounds the difficult feelings.

Grief can feel like a heavy blanket that weighs everything down. It can come in waves, relentlessly battering your broken heart, or like a rogue wave it can arrive in an unpredictable burst of sudden pain. Intense grief reflects the deep love we have for the one we have lost.

You are not alone. So many people are facing difficult circumstances and feeling like you are. As you move through these painful times, look for small ways to soothe yourself, even for a moment at a time. It seems endless, but this too will pass, and if you are able to soothe your self for a few moments today, that will help fortify you for the next wave of feelings.

Honour Your Experience

Your thoughts and feelings are perfectly normal for you as navigate grief against the backdrop of a pandemic. You may be surprised at some thoughts and feelings that seem unusual, but they are likely quite natural under the circumstances.

Speak honestly with family and friends about the impact of loss. Together, you can negotiate ways to feel connected while still keeping safe. Spend time with the people who support and respect you in your grief.

It is ok to change your traditions. Decide what feels right to you right now. These times call for changing our routines, so consider activities that may offer a fresh approach to the season that reflects your new reality.

Take care of yourself. Exercise. Eat well. Rest.

Take time to remember and honour your loved one. Holding a private ritual acknowledging your loved one can offer an outlet for adults and children alike to express feelings of loss. Light a candle, play their favourite music, or look at old photos.

Breathe. When it feels very difficult, take a breath. Pause. Then take another. Deep breaths with long slow exhales help to activate the calming centre of our nervous system. As you breathe deeply, you will notice that something shifts.

There is no one “right” way to grieve.

Be gentle with yourself. Trust yourself. Follow your instincts and try different things to soothe yourself as you adjust to your loss.

In time you will adapt, accepting this reality as you find ways to allow the joy and peace of the season and warm memories of your loved one to co-exist with the feelings of grief, gradually helping to ease the pain you feel now.

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.

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.

When Death is a Natural Part of Your Workplace

Post by Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW

When Death is a Natural Part of Your Workplace

Staff and volunteers in hospice, long-term care facilities and hospitals know that death is a part of life. You typically witness death on a regular basis as part of your job. As a result, there are some important steps you can take to engage in self care and look after yourself when loss and grief are a part of the emotional landscape in your workplace.

Consider your personal experience of loss.

Self awareness is helpful as we reflect on events in our life, our personality and our actions. Think about family and friends who have died. Reflect on your grief. How did you feel? What did you do to honour the loss? Was there something that helped you cope with your grief?

Honour your relationships.

When death is part of your work, you become good at dealing with the practical aspects. Loss of life may be business as usual, and your training, skill and experience allows you to do what is necessary and then move to the next tasks. As a result, it can be surprising when a death happens that touches you. Remember that grief is really about relationship. It’s natural to feel more attached to some patients because of a personal connection that develops as you care for them over time or because they remind you of someone you love. When you have some relationship with the person who died, you’re much more likely to need a bit of time to process your grief.

Be aware of the impact of accumulation.

It may be that very few of the workplace deaths you encounter feel personal. As a result, you become very good at moving through the tasks of caring for the dying and coping with death. This is a normal development as you gain experience in the field. However, it may come to pass that you feel the weight of the number of deaths you attend to over time. This is also a normal occurrence. It’s as if each death is a rock you place in the backpack you carry. On it’s own, one rock is not too heavy to carry. Eventually a backpack full of rocks becomes impossible to lift. It’s important to have healthy ways to express your feelings and release these “rocks” now and again throughout your career.

Feel it, then heal it.

When grief comes to you, whether it is in your personal life or due to deaths you experience in the course of your work, take the time you need to mourn. Each death will bring a range of unique feelings. Some will take a long time to mourn and others will be a small diversion on your path. When you honour each loss according to the depth of love reflected in the relationship with the person who died, and take time to heal, it increases your capacity to carry on in your work as an excellent professional caregiver.

Ways to Mourn During the Pandemic

Post by Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW

Ways to Mourn During the Pandemic

The restrictions related to the global pandemic are intended to slow the spread of covid-19. Physical distancing, the declaration of a state of emergency and rules to prevent gathering in groups also impacts our usual ways of coming together in bereavement.
It is customary for immediate family and close friends to attend for final visits if the death is expected. After death, there are many rituals, ceremonies and customs that involve gathering together to remember, honour and celebrate the person who has died. When you can’t gather to comfort one another, there are still many ways you can mark the death of a loved one.

Use Technology

You can schedule on-line video sessions using FaceTime, Skype, Zoom or other platforms to host virtual gatherings at times when the bereaved would normally be offered condolences and comfort in person such as a visitation, a wake, shiva or other mourning traditions. Similarly, it is possible to use livestream technology to invite family and friends to observe any private ceremony or service that is allowed for the immediate family. This technology has been available through funeral officiants in the past, and during the pandemic it has become a much more familiar experience as such technology becomes the only safe way to attend and offer sympathy and support in the immediate aftermath of a death.

Create Personal Ceremony

While it is customary to come together for a public, shared mourning through traditional gatherings, it can be equally meaningful to create private ritual and ceremony to honour your relationship with the person who died. You may choose to light a candle, recite a prayer or poem, listen to music that feels sacred to you in connection with the relationship or create art to express your feelings. You may choose to share images with others through social media, by email or text. You might create an audio-visual presentation to share with other mourners that tells the story of your relationship with the person who died. These personal expressions of grief and love, shared in community, may help create the feeling of connection and comfort that is usually found in traditional in-person gatherings.

Plan For the Future

This is a difficult time, and no one can say how long the restrictions will last. At some time in the future, covid-19 will be managed by the scientific and medical communities and the rules of physical distancing will be eased. While you wait for that time to come, you may find some comfort in planning a more traditional gathering of family and friends to honour and celebrate the life of your loved one once the situation evolves and it is safe to gather once more.