Mary E. Schulz is a Social Worker and writer who loves dogs, opera and stories that take her
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,
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.
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.
Mary – Taking songwriting classes
Mary explains two reasons why people take songwriting classes
Mary – What I would say to my younger self
Mary talks about what she has learned about grief
Murray – Giving space for grief in song writing class
Murray talks about song writing, death and making space
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.