a birthday cake has fallen alone with it's cake stand. It's broken on the counter. There is a party hat in the shadows on the table behind it.

Birthdays, Anniversaries, and Other Special Days

Rachel Herrington – Social Service Worker Graduate, Third Year Psychology Student, Equal Rights and Community Advocate

It has been 10 years since my grandmother passed away and it never fails, every year leading up to her birthday I spend weeks with a pit of sadness and remorse in my stomach. I spend my days feeling this way and not understanding why then something makes the date catch my eye and it hits – It’s her birthday.

When we are grieving, some days are more difficult than others. Grief comes in waves like the sea and can feel like an intertwining labyrinth of emotions. Birthdays, anniversaries, and special dates that are associated with our loved one who has died can contribute to more emotionally intense days which can be worsened through the anticipation and “what ifs” of the upcoming day. These difficult days can leave us feeling defeated and it can almost feel like we’ve taken two steps backward in our grieving process, but grief does not have a timeline, and these feelings of setbacks are opportunities for healing.

Before the Day:
Communicate and set boundaries with others – think about how you want to approach the day and share your wants, needs, and desires with others. Clearly communicating your wants and needs with others will allow the opportunity for you to set the expectation for the day which can help relieve the intense feelings of anticipation.

Remember there is no right or wrong way to celebrate special days – It is important to remember that there is no right or wrong way to grieve and there is no written code or rule on how these special days are to be approached. However you decide to approach the day is the right way.

On the Day:
Allow yourself the opportunity for space from others – it is important to allow there to be an opportunity for you to step away and have a safe space to feel your emotions if you need to. If you are attending someone else’s home for the occasion plan a way that you can step away or leave with ease if you need to.

Find something that grounds you when intense emotions arise – if intense emotions are arising it can be helpful to find something to help ground you in the moment. This could be a physical item such as a small trinket in your pocket that you can hold, squeeze, and focus on in your hand, or it can be through positive mental imagery, deep breathing, and/or stress relieving acupressure, etc.

Take deep breaths – practicing deep breathing can help reduce stress and can increase resiliency during highly emotional or stressful situations.

If things don’t go as planned, that is okay – grief is a process with no timelines or set of rules, and sometimes things do not always go the way we plan and that is okay. Allow yourself time, patience, and understanding while you adapt to living with your unique grief experience.

a rocky beach with a small, greet prout popping through the rocks. You can see the gentle waves of the lake in the background of the image.

When Death Feels like a Thief

By Amanda Sebastian-Carrier.

Amanda Sebastian-Carrier is a communications professional who writes about her grief journey as a form of healing.

Thief!

Oh, how loudly I’d yell the words, shaking my fist at its back as it ran from me through the crowded bazaar. You would find me, soaked in tears, panting and crying and trying to explain that something very precious had been taken from me by that, that, THAT THIEF!

In the heart of my grief, at my frailest, all I could see was what was no more. I grieved all that was stolen from me by death; love, security and even my very self. Had I known the value of having every pocket of who I was, picked bare by grief, I would not have fought so hard to hold onto it all. I’d have let that cutpurse have it all without raising an alarm. That egg, it could take the golden globs of joy, the silvery wisps of laughter and the precious stones of delight that once filled my world and sell them all to the highest bidder. How could I have seen the faceless bidder, behind their paddle, was me. Grief, that panderer, was only taking from me what I could not currently carry and would sell it back, piece by piece, as the currency of healing was paid.

If only I’d had a clue that the larceny committed by grief was not the crime I was reporting, I’d have stopped much earlier. Before death, I had no idea that the theft of all you knew and love and the process of reclaiming your sense of security and self were a process that had the ability to change your life forever, but not how you might think. Grief and mourning can lead to healing if you do the work. If you don’t waste time filing reports to the universe about the misappropriation of your loved one. If you immerse yourself in the process of mourning, instead of decrying the looting of your life. If you truly, honestly, and mindfully, say goodbye instead of trying to hold on. If you can do all that, the only thing that grief is able to steal is your pain. You just have to be willing to give it up, let it be taken.

It’s only now, after I have made my peace with the plundering pirates of grief that I can see what I saw as theft, was actually a gift. The thief that is grief was not stealing all that was happy and good in my life, it was stealing my pain. Grief sat on me, taking all the things I didn’t know how to process, and filtered them through different lenses. It sat with me, taking from me each tear that fell, each shaky breath and each battered heartbeat. Grief took all I had, each story, each memory, and each emotion from me until I began to have room to process life again. Grief took, not a life in the way death had, but death; out of the way of life. Death stole life and grief; grief gave it back.

A close-up shot of small, open flowers. There are red ones behind yellow ones and the sunlight peeks through.

Tending to My Garden of Grief

By Taylor Bourassa, RP & Professional Art Therapist.

Losing a loved one –whether through death or the end of a relationship, brings up complex emotions, some of which are hard to process. The first major loss I can remember experiencing was when I was quite young and my grandfather died. I barely knew the man, but to this day we still share stories of his impact on my father, his son, my mother, his daughter-in-law, and us, his grandchildren. The memories bubble up slowly and play in my mind like a distorted movie playing on the television screen. It is part of my life I can’t quite recollect without the input of others. Then in my middle teen years I attended a funeral for my grandmother’s sister, and I remember watching the grief flood my grandmother’s face as she dissolved into tears and I wondered: how can I, or any one else hold this grief in the “right” way? How can any of us help ease that pain?

When I was 16 or 17, my cat, who I still recognize as my earliest best friend, developed cancer and needed to be put down. This was the hardest thing I had had to face at that point in my young life. I was faced with what seemed to be inconsolable grief. That same thought bubbled up: how can anyone ease this unbearable pain?

A few years ago I was faced again with the reality of our mortality on this planet Earth when my dog, Roxy, had to be put down due to ailing health and decline. That same question flitted through my mind. Now, at 29, and having faced multiple losses and deaths I finally have some semblance of an answer to that question. It isn’t straightforward, and it probably isn’t universal. But it feels appropriate for me: remember, honour and celebrate. The pain of these losses will more than likely be with me my entire life, until the day I die and pass the pain onto my loved ones left behind. So long as I remember the lives of those I have lost, honour their presence and impact on me and celebrate their spirit, they will continue to live with me and the pain will feel bearable. It will no longer stop me in my tracks. Instead, it will encourage me and propel me forward through the transmutation of that grief into something different, something more nuanced and fluid. I’d like to share a practice for processing grief which I have found to be especially helpful.

Reflect on person or pet that has passed on and write a letter to them. Use recycled, bio-degradable paper to write this letter, so that when you get to the end of this invitation and you plant your letter it will be taken back into the earth and soil.

Imagine the things you appreciate about this person, the memories you two share, the impact they have had on you, and anything you feel has been left unsaid or unexpressed while they were still living. Before you close and seal the letter, read it back to yourself and sit with whatever memories, feelings and thoughts come up. Allow the energy of this person to show up and sit with that felt sense of who they were. When you are ready, fill the envelope with your letter and the seeds of your choice: flowers, fruits or vegetables. Use the seeds which you feel best honours the person. Find a location that is both accessible to you and reflects a space of honouring and celebration. This may be a favourite shared space between the two of you, or a new spot you would like to crop out as a way to honour and remember them. Once you have found your spot, take your letter and your seeds and bury them in this spot. Eventually, the seeds you have planted will sprout and grow, changing the spot into a new gravesite garden. Soon, the biodegradable letter will also be gone, subsumed back into the womb of the earth and soil, feeding the land for the growth and propagation of the flowers you have planted. Maybe these flowers will remain only in the space you created, or, what is more likely, they will be spread on the wind and the legs of bees, and the beaks of birds until the grass beneath is forever changed, peppered with new and continuing growth.

What a beautiful way to honour the deceased: recognizing their continued impact on you and the world around you as they and their memory connects with and returns to the earth. I find this to be a helpful way to process my own grief because it allows me an embodied, tangible and somatic way of addressing, honouring and processing the grief held inside my body. The grief will always be there in some capacity, and now there is a space which I can visit and reflect. The heaviness and weight of the grief is no longer mine alone – the whole earth helps me to carry it. Grief is such a unique, yet universal experience. My own experiencing of grief is all I know for certain, and so I keep searching for answers. I hope that as you navigate your own grief, you can alleviate some of the weight by sharing the load with the natural world around you.

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.

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.