Category Archives: Grief and Loss

The Loneliness of Grief

loneliness of grief, sitting alone on a bench under a cloudy skyThis weekend the world was given an image of the loneliness of grief.  On April 17, 2021, many people in the world watched as the British Royal Family said goodbye to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh at his funeral service in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

Through media coverage, we were granted an intimate view of a family in mourning.  No matter our opinion of the monarchy, it’s important to remember that this is a family that is grieving the loss of a husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Prince Philip would have celebrated his 100th birthday this June.

A Common Experience

a very empty funeral parlorWhile we are probably not a member of a royal family, many of us have shared this experience of losing and honouring a loved one during this pandemic.  We can relate to having to limit the number of guests who can attend the service and internment.  We know what it’s like to maintain physical distance from our friends and family members when what we need more than anything is a hug and words of comfort whispered in our ear.

Land Rover
(Steve Parsons / Associated Press)

Part of the original plan for Prince Philip’s funeral was that his coffin would be carried by a custom-built Land Rover hearse (Prince Philip designed it himself) through the streets of London in order for the public to pay their respects and say their farewells.  Understandably this didn’t happen.  We also know the pain of not being able to honour our loved one in the way that they may have pre-arranged themselves or as we would like to do for them.

A Woman Alone

Queen Elizabeth II, alone, for Prince Philip's funeralOne of the most poignant images from the service is that of Queen Elizabeth sitting alone.  Due to Covid-19 restrictions, only thirty people were able to be in the church.  Those in attendance had to sit in their household ‘bubbles’.  This wife is now alone in her bubble.

For a minute, let’s forget the famous identity of this woman and think of her as a fellow human.  Elizabeth met Philip when she was thirteen years old.   Philip was 18.  Apparently, for Elizabeth, it was “love at first sight”.  For eight years they continued their relationship through letters until they were able to marry when Elizabeth was 21.

As a married couple, they set up a household, had children and worked at their careers.  Sadly, a few years into their marriage, Elizabeth’s father died suddenly. This meant that Elizabeth had to take over the family business.  Philip, knowing how important this work was to his wife and her family, had already agreed that he would support her in this endeavour—even if it meant stepping back from his career.

Elizabeth & PhilipWhen Philip died, they had been married for almost 74 years.  Throughout those years, their relationship weathered good times and bad.  They worked together on common goals—supporting each other along the way.  Elizabeth was heard to say soon after her husband’s death, “He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years…”

And now…like many other people who have lost a spouse, Elizabeth is without ‘her person’.

How Can We Help?

Unless we personally know Queen Elizabeth, there isn’t anything we can do for her.  However, I think she represents many grieving people that we do know.

One of the most common things I hear as a therapist is that people mourning the loss of a loved one (no matter the connection to them), is that they are surrounded by care and support immediately following their person’s death.  However, over time, the check-in calls dwindle away, notes and emails stop and offers to spend time together become farther and farther apart.  Others go back to their own lives, and the person in mourning is left sitting alone.  The loneliness of grief is intense.

While being busy can be the way of life for everyone, what the griever experiences is a ‘secondary’ loss.

a raindrop falling in a puddleWe can think of it this way…imagine a still pond of water.  A large rock is dropped into the pond sending large ripples away from where the rock entered.  This rock symbolizes the death of the loved one and the ripples are the major changes that happen in the griever’s life.

As the ripples move away from the initial point of contact, they become less violent—yet they still make waves—upsetting the surface of the pond.  These are the secondary losses.  The difficult thing is that they tend to happen as the bereaved is coming out of the shock phase that follows the death of a loved one, and are experiencing active grief experiences such as grief bursts (sudden crying jags), sleep issues (too much or too little), and grief brain (brain fog).

A Request…

If you know someone who is grieving, please stick around.  I know that life is busy, and it doesn’t take much.  In fact, you often don’t even need to say anything.  One client shared with me that one of the most comforting things a friend did for them was to show up for regularly scheduled walks.  This wise friend let them take the emotional lead.  Sometimes they needed to talk, other times to laugh or cry.  Often, they needed to be quiet together and not feel quite so alone.

And now…here’s a wonderful video from grief therapist, Megan Devine, on How to Help a Grieving Friend.  Enjoy!

Musings on Remembrance Day and Covid-19

Remembrance Day poppy fieldIn Canada, Remembrance Day will be marked this Wednesday, November 11.  Due to Covid-19, ceremonies of remembrance will be different this year–no parades, no gathering at local cenotaphs,  curtailed (if any) events at Legion branches.  And yet, I wonder if the events of past wars are more relevant to us this year than any other as we attempt to adjust to living with the pandemic.  While I recognize that Remembrance Day honours veterans from all the wars, based on my family history,  I’m going to focus on World War 1 (WWI) and World War 2 (WWII).

At no time in this post am I implying that what we are going through with Covid-19 comes close to the horrors experienced during WWI or WWII.  I am only wondering about some similarities.

The Use of Language

As I started to think about the similarities, I couldn’t help but notice the language.  Words are important.  They frame how we look at events.  It’s interesting to note that the language used around the pandemic is ‘battle’ language.  We talk about ‘the war’ against Covid-19.  Nurses, doctors and first responders work on the ‘front line’.  Government and public health officials are creating ‘Covid strategies’.  Just as casualty lists were published during the world wars, we have daily access to Covid-19 statistics by world, country, province, region and city.  The frequent statement of “We’re all in this together.” applies to all of it.

How Long Will This Last?

The thing about history is that we know how the stories end (and when).  The First World War was fought from 1914 to 1918, the Second from 1939 to 1945.  These global military conflicts, the largest in human history, lasted years, not months.

For those living through the two world wars, struggle and sacrifice were a daily occurrence.  Travel was curtailed in order to save precious fuel so it could be used by the military.  Citizens lined up for food and used ration cards–not only to help support troops but also due to food shortages.

Since everything was in short supply, people became experts at making do–whether by reusing materials, making things from scratch, mending, sharing or doing without.  Various governments published information pamphlets with instructions on everything from turning cuffs on shirts (in order to make them last longer) to growing Victory Gardens and canning the resulting produce.

Because of the travel restrictions, as well as the reality of loved ones fighting overseas or in different parts of the country, it was impossible (or difficult) to see family and friends.  Sometimes people didn’t see loved ones for months or years.  A baby born near the beginning of the war may not meet one of their parents until they were about to start kindergarten.

Depending on where they lived, individuals dealt with the reality of daily bombings (being forced from their homes on a moment’s notice, spending night after night in underground shelters). Many people living in England urban centres sent their children to live with family members (or strangers) in safer parts of the country.

Our Current Experience

While not to the same extreme, during this pandemic, we are being asked to restrict travel–not to support the war effort, but to make sure that we stay close to home in order to avoid spreading the virus.  Borders have been closed.

During the spring lockdown, there was a resurgence of cooking, baking, DIY projects and making do with what we had on hand.  Remember the shortages of food staples, cleaning products and toilet paper?  We didn’t have ration cards, yet we were limited to how many bottles of hand sanitizer or loaves of bread we could buy (if any were to be had).

We’ve been asked to make sacrifices–restrict our social contacts, stay away from seniors homes, give up organized sports, work from home and home school our kids (often at the same time).  During lockdowns, public playgrounds were closed.

A major thing that we share with our ancestors is that they didn’t know how long the war would last, or what the future looked like.  They coped on a daily basis.  We are being asked to do the same as we await a vaccine and levels of immunity.

The Change in Grief Rituals

A similarity in both the world wars and our current time with COVID-19 is changing in the way we publicly mourn.

It is estimated that 76 million people died during the two world wars.  Another 50 million died as a result of the 1918 pandemic (commonly referred to as the Spanish flu).  With many of the military deaths occurring overseas, fallen soldiers were buried in military cemeteries near where they died.  Due to the circumstances, many of the deceased were buried in mass graves.  After the wars, great attempts were made to identify individuals and give them their own grave and marker.

While some families may have erected a grave marker in the local cemetery, everyone had access to public memorials to mark the deaths of local people killed in battle.  This was a big change from being able to care for the loved one and be an active participant in the funeral process.

During the 1918 pandemic, people were dying so quickly, and in such large numbers, that regular funeral and burial practices were impossible.  Funeral services were banned and funeral personnel of the time (undertakers, coffin makers, grave diggers) were unable to keep up with demand.  Burials had to happen quickly, leaving little or no time for public mourning rituals.

Grief During Covid-19

As I read about the burial practices of the wars and 1918 pandemic, I’m reminded of news footage of mass graves and one-mourner funerals occurring earlier this year in Europe and New York City.

As we’re aware, funeral homes in Canada have been restricted by the number of family and friends allowed to attend a funeral/memorial service.  Physical distancing has prohibited hugging of loved ones when it is needed most.  We haven’t been able to hold the service that we or the deceased wanted to have.

Grief has sometimes taken a back-seat as we struggle to cope with the daily realities of living in a pandemic, leaving mourners to feel guilty that they’re not honouring their ‘person’ as they think they should.

Strangely enough, while lonely, grieving has become even lonelier as we become aware of the weight of everyone’s grief.

Doing Things for the Common Good

One of the common memories that the Great War veterans and civilians share is that there was a sense of purpose and that everyone was working for the same thing–victory.  People did things for the common good–knitting for the troops, saving food scraps, supporting neighbours and strangers.  While this may paint too rosy a picture, when I have spoken to family members and elderly friends who lived through this time, the hard stories are interspersed with stories of great sharing and connection.

Today, the biggest symbol of doing things for the benefit of all is wearing a mask.  We are asked to wear them in order to keep others safe.  We try to wait patiently in line when required and practice kindness for others.  On a good day, we can give others the benefit of the doubt and on hard days, we can try to keep our lips sealed.

There are also many stories of window visits for people who are in isolation, grocery pickups for at-risk neighbours, food drop-offs for healthcare workers, drive-by birthday parties and baby showers…

Life Will Be Different

Life wasn’t the same for those living after WWI and II.  WWI ushered in the beginning of the end of the class system in Britain (Downtown Abbey anyone?).  Both wars led to a global loss of innocence as we learned of the atrocities that humans were capable of doing to other humans and the earth.  In the US, the technology created by WWII led to the creation of chemicals that changed the world forever as well as the exuberance of 1950’s consumerism.

While we don’t yet know how our world will be changed by Covid-19, we have seen some massive changes already.

  • Working from home has become so common that we may never return to offices in the same way.
  • We are on the move.  As our jobs are no longer as tied to a physical location, people are moving in order to be closer to family and away from urban centres.
  • Relationships are shifting as we let some people go and focus more on others.
  • We are becoming more used to spending more time at home and less socializing in person.
  • We are relearning what is important to us and asking big questions about how we want to continue after the pandemic is a memory.
The Big Differences

While I’ve been focusing on the similarities, there are two big differences that I see between these times in history:  a visible enemy and the ability for physical closeness and support.

No matter which side of the war you were on, there was a shared enemy.  Not only was the enemy shared, but the result of the battle was very visible–casualty lists, bombed out buildings, absent loved ones.  Today, we can’t see a microscopic virus.  It’s hard to believe in what we can’t see.  This can make us feel like the threat isn’t as serious as we are told by health and government officials.  It’s hard to keep up the fight and remain vigilant.

We miss human contact.  During the wars, people were able to band together–friends and strangers alike–as they viewed the destruction.  While they may not have been able to hold a burial for a loved one, they were surrounded by those who could hold and comfort them.

When people are sick of this entire thing, dealing with anxiety/depression and wondering when it will be over; it’s the isolation from all of their people that they feel is the hardest.

So in whatever way you mark Remembrance Day, please take a moment to honour those who share similar struggles today.  We are all in this together.

Let’s remember…

The Editing of Address Books

When you edit your address books when dealing with griefAs we continue our practice of physical distancing and social isolation during this time of COVID-19, certain things are obvious…we miss seeing our friends and family members in-person; Zoom parties have lost their novelty, and many of us feel lonely. I noted in a previous post that we are all grieving–and grief changes our relationships.

Secondary Losses–Our People

Book - It's Ok That You're Not Ok by Megan DevinePeople who have experienced grief after the death of a loved one, often report that they are amazed at the changes in their family/friend group–people they thought would be there for them are ‘nowhere to be found’, while acquaintances step up and provide tremendous support, understanding and enduring care. This isn’t unusual.

Megan Devine, in her book It’s Ok That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand suggests that grief edits our address book. Devine writes:

“And–it’s one of the cruellest aspects of intense loss: at a time when you most need love and support, some friends either behave horribly or they disappear altogether. There are disappointments and disagreements. Old grudges resurface. Small fault lines become impassable distances. People say the weirdest, most dismissive and bizarre things. Grief changes your friendships.”

The author suggests that this happens for a variety of reasons: seeing someone we care about in pain is difficult for us–our pain rubs up against their pain; in our grief-phobic culture, they don’t know what to say; or ‘real’ life takes over and they drift away.

So Now That We’re All Grieving…

A big bugI suggest that our time “of the big bug” is giving us a glimpse into, not only what we care about, but whom. It takes more effort to stay in touch with others, and frankly, some relationships won’t survive. I don’t mean the ones where spending so much uninterrupted time together is stressing already fragile bonds. Instead, I’m thinking about the casual, repetitive relationships that are based on habit. The relationships where one side put in more effort to stay in touch than the other and that pattern wasn’t obvious. Friendships that may have outlived their connection may quietly end.

While this may sound harsh, it’s not meant to be. I see it as a function of the COVID ‘reset’ that some say we are experiencing. And, we will all be on both sides of the keep/lose equation. We will let some people go, and be let go of by others. And it will be painful.

The Levels of Relationship

One way to put this ebb and flow of our relationships into perspective is the concept of the Levels of Relationship. I suggest that there are four levels–each with its own characteristics and levels of intimacy:

  • Level 1: Relationship you may have with the barista at your favourite cafe. Interactions are purely transactional and there is no level of intimacy. If you’re Canadian, maybe you talk about the weather.
  • Level 2: Relationship with a distant co-worker. While more than transactional, little personal information is shared. For example, you may need to let them know that you are going on vacation in order for them to do their job, but you probably won’t share where you are going or who with.
  • Level 3: Friendships. There are many sub-levels in this section, but all include the sharing of personal information and mutual support to varying degrees. If one of these relationships ended, we would feel their loss.
  • Level 4: Our 24/7 people. These relationships are rare and hard to find. These people tend to be our best friends, spouses, and maybe family members. These are the ones that we know have our back 24/7, and we have theirs. 24/7 people are the ones we can call in the middle of the night when things go wonderfully good, or horribly bad; and we know that they will always answer the text.
Moving Up and Down the Levels

Living with grief can be like trying to blend two different thingsThese levels are not carved in stone…they can be fluid. For example, let’s say that you go to your neighbourhood cafe every day on the way to school. You like the barista who usually fills your order, as well as the cafe’s warm environment (Level 1). After a few months, you notice a ‘help wanted’ sign and decide to apply. After starting to work at the cafe, you and Barista Bob become co-workers (Level 2) and this relationship develops into a friendship (Level 3). Over time, you and Bob become best friends–knowing that there is mutual caring, trust, and respect on a deep level (Level 4).

We can also move up the levels from 4 to 1–we move away or change jobs, maybe a close relationship ends due to outside circumstances, perhaps someone we thought had the emotional intelligence to be a 24/7 person didn’t.

If we think about it, we may notice that this has happened a lot in our past, usually at a fairly slow pace. But now, in the time of Zoom meetings and social distancing, the relationship patterns are speeding up.

What Does This Mean Going Forward?

Child using magnifying glass to look at plantHonestly? I’m not sure. I only know that as a therapist I’m seeing this happen and am curious about how it will affect us in the future. Will our relationships become less in number yet emotionally deeper because we have weeded out the ones that really didn’t need to be there? Will we be more choosy about who we let into our lives going forward as we want to give them the time and nurture that they deserve? Will we recognize the importance of being our own best friend? All this remains to be seen.

In the meantime, please be kind…when we let others go, and when we, ourselves, are released. It’s normal.

And now, a hopeful take on where we all may be once this is over…Enjoy!

 

 

I’m Spinning…and So Is Everyone Else

I'm not hurt, I'm playing in the grass!

People who know me, are aware that I’m an avid wool spinner and knitter…but when I’m talking about “I’m Spinning…” in this post’s title, I’m not talking about the wool I’m playing with because of extra time at home, I’m talking about my head. All the rapid changes that are happening are mind-boggling!

Last week, I asked the question “Where is Your Grief?”. Over the past few days I’ve noticed many media sources suggesting that “we’re all grieving”, but for a culture that doesn’t talk about grief, what does this mean?

A Grief Primer

The Dog ate my Homework!For those of us to whom grief is a ‘new-ish’ idea, here are some basic concepts.

  • Grief is a normal response to the loss of something or someone that is important to us. While we usually associate grief with the death of a loved one, we may also grieve when we lose a job, relationship, life role or favourite possession. If it’s something we value, it’s loss is difficult. If we love, we grieve.
  • Contrary to popular belief, there are no five stages of grief. The grief journey is a spiral that we work through. Grief is circular, not linear.
  • Grief is individual. Not only do we each grieve differently, but we also grieve each loss differently. The way that I suffer the loss of a partner, won’t be the same way that I grieve the death of a parent–and it won’t be the way that my sibling will grieve the same parent.
  • Grief not only affects us emotionally, but we are also affected mentally and physically. Common experiences of grief include (and not limited to):
      • extreme tiredness
      • digestive changes
      • fuzzy brain
      • increased anxiety
      • sudden emotional flooding such as crying (grief bursts)
      • sleeplessness or too much sleep
  • Grief irrevocably changes us. We are not the same people at the beginning of the process than at the end.
  • Grief lasts as long as it lasts. There is no rushing the process. The only way out is through.
Applying the Concepts

When we superimpose what we now know about grief to our experiences with a world dealing with COVID-19, the media statement starts to make sense.

Grief is a normal response.

On a grand scale, we are grieving the globe as we knew it. We watch as different countries cope with the virus in different ways, with different levels of success. Suddenly we may be more aware of daily fluctuations in global financial markets or supply lines than ever before. Our world-view is shifting.

On a national and local scale, my country appears to be coping, though long-term care facilities and front-line supports appear to be bearing the brunt of the number of COVID cases.

On an individual scale, we miss seeing our friends and families in the same way. For some of us who have family and friends living in different countries, there is the realization that we can’t reach them if they experience an emergency. If we have lost our jobs, paying bills may be a concern. If we are working from home, there is an adjustment to new ways of being productive.

We are all grieving social contact–even if it means smiling at someone in the grocery store. No one knows if you’re smiling when you’re wearing a mask.

Grief is a non-linear spiral.

When we think of a linear process, we move through the stages and then we’re done. The reality is that we cycle through the same behaviours (high-levels of emotions, sleep issues, increased anxiety, etc.) and the context will be different. We’re not failing at grief, we are growing. We may have a day or two when we start to feel normal, and then a few difficult days. This is normal as we adjust to changes.

Grief is individual.

You may have noticed as you speak to others that we are all coping (or not coping) in different ways. What may be a trigger for one person doesn’t affect another. Part of this process is determining our own healthy ways to get through this time.

Grief not only affects us emotionally, but we are also affected mentally and physically.

Based on our experiences, it’s important to recognize that what we are feeling is normal given these extraordinary circumstances. We only have so much ‘bandwidth’ to deal with life, and when so much of it is taken up with having to adjust to a fast-changing world, it makes sense that our entire systems are going to be affected.

Like a caterpillar into a butterfly, we will changeGrief irrevocably changes us.

Pundits are saying that the world will no longer be the same after COVID-19. We won’t be either. Hopefully, we will have a new respect for the resiliency of ourselves and others.

Grief lasts as long as it lasts. There is no rushing the process. The only way out is through.

Depending on the loss and our relationship to it, grief becomes a part of us for the rest of our lives–though it changes over time. I suggest that, just as historical events affected our ancestors, we too will be altered. I remember speaking with grandparents about their experiences during WWII. Their losses were as poignant then as when they had occurred, and they were able to place them in the context of the rest of their lives. They had integrated their experiences.

So, We’re Grieving, Now What?
The Need for Self-care

Two hands holding, reading You Are and Not AloneSelf-care is always important, and never more so than in times of stress and uncertainty–such as when we are grieving. While activities that feed us are individual, here are some basics.

  • Eat well. Follow the 80/20 rule – if 80 percent of your diet is healthy, the rest can be “fun” food.
  • Drink lots of water. When we are under pressure, our bodies move into fight or flight mode. The hormones rushing through our systems at that time need to be flushed out.
  • Limit caffeine and sugar. These substances mimic the stress hormones which we’re trying to get rid of.
  • Exercise. Something as simple as going for a regular walk is helpful.
  • Give your brain a break. If you have a meditation practice, try to find time to fit it in. If not, find a simple mindfulness practice online. Even 10 minutes a day is beneficial.
  • Find or revisit a hobby. Even 15 minutes doing something that you enjoy will help you to relax.
  • Spend time with loved ones–in ways that are safely possible.

We are all grieving together. So, let’s be kind…to ourselves and others.

And now…this clip was sent to me by a friend about what’s happening in Nova Scotia. It definitely brightened my day, and was in my head all day! Enjoy!

 

 

Where’s Your Grief?

As we continue to navigate through these strange times, a consistent thing that I’m hearing from people I speak with is that their grief seems to have gone into hiding. It’s not that it’s completely gone, or that they don’t think about their loved one on a regular basis, but that grief feels less ‘sharp’. We’re trying to adjust to everything else, and also having to get used to this change in grief.

Feelings of Guilt

When we are grieving, especially once the shock wears off after the first few weeks or months, grief becomes our primary focus. Physically, we may not be able to sleep, eat (or eat more than before) or have difficulty focusing on basic tasks. Our ability to remember simple things may be compromised. Emotionally, we may cry a lot–sometimes out of the blue (grief bursts). We may experience flashbacks to the time when the death occurred as our brains try to come to terms with what happened. However, we may not be having feelings of guilt.

Now guilt seems to be a common feeling. Guilt that we’re not feeling as ‘sad’ as we were before we were forced to deal with the repercussions of COVID-19. Guilt that we’re not thinking about our loved one as much. Guilt that maybe we’re not honouring our ‘person’ anymore.

While these thoughts and feelings are understandable, there is a reason for this change to our grief behaviours.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who proposed his Hierarchy of Needs in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - managing grief is part of thisThere are five levels in the hierarchy: physiological (i.e. those needed by our physical body), safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

The original hierarchy states that a lower level must be completely satisfied and fulfilled before moving onto a higher pursuit. However, today scholars prefer to think of these levels as continuously overlapping each other. This means that the lower levels may take precedence back over the other levels at any point in time.

Where Grief and Maslow Meet

When grief can feel like the sudden drop off of the oceanRight now we are adjusting to a ‘new normal’. For many of us, much of our time and energy is going into figuring out how to meet our basic physiological and safety needs. How do I get groceries and basic supplies? Watching social media, and the constant updates on ways to protect ourselves and loved ones from the virus, safety becomes a primary concern. These two areas overlap when a trip to the store feels as if we’re putting our health at risk.

I suggest that grief is a higher-level activity. Grieving takes up a lot of mental, physical and emotional energy–energy that we don’t have at this point. Trauma will trump grief every time–and for some of us, these are traumatic times. That is why grief appears to be hiding.

Where Did Grief Go?

While the grief process is really hard and not something that we would choose to experience, from a guilt perspective, it may be comforting to know that our grief is still there waiting for us. Once we have mastered our current reality, or life has returned to normal, grief will resurface. At this point, it’s not clear if we will take it up where we left off or us/it will have changed into something else. This is new territory.

What I do know is that we are not dishonouring our loved ones because grief has changed or is on a hiatus. We still love and miss our person. We continue to remember them. We may even be striving to incorporate lessons they have taught us as we learn new ways to be in the world.

So, with everything else to cope with, please let yourself off the grief hook and be kind to yourself.

And now for a timely lesson from MASH…Enjoy!

 

Two hands holding, reading You Are and Not Alone

The Ground Beneath Our Feet: Coping with Grief and Loss

Grief and Loss

Fault Line
By Robert R. Walsh, from Noisy Stones: A Meditation Manual
Skinner House Books, 1992

Did you ever think there might be a fault line
passing underneath your living room:
A place in which your life is lived in meeting
and in separating, wondering
and telling, unaware that just beneath
you is the unseen seam of great plates
that strain through time? And that your life, already
spilling over the brim, could be invaded,
sent off in a new direction, turned
aside by forces you were warned about
but not prepared for? Shelves could be spilled out,
the level floor set at an angle in
some seconds? shaking. You would have to take
your losses, do whatever must be done next.

When the great plates slip
and the earth shivers and the flaw is seen
to lie in what you trusted most, look not
to more solidity, to weighty slabs
of concrete poured or strength of cantilevered
beam to save the fractured order. Trust
more the tensile strands of love that bend
and stretch to hold you in the web of life
that’s often torn but always healing. There’s
your strength. The shifting plates, the restive earth,
your room, your precious life, they all proceed
from love, the ground on which we walk together.

A fieldOne of the great illusions that we hang on to as humans is that the earth beneath our feet is solid. However, science, and our awareness of earthquakes, and erupting volcanoes, tells us that this isn’t true. Yet, we trust in the illusion because of personal experience–we can’t feel the ground moving, so it must be stable.

A second illusion that we cling to is that the circumstances of our lives are as solid as the ground under our feet. We may nod our heads in agreement when someone says “change is the only constant”, but what we cling to is the comfort of the phrase “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. Change that isn’t self-initiated is frightening!

Loss:? The Earthquake That Comes to Us All

When I heard Walsh’s poem for the first time, I needed to sit with his words and let them sink in. As I pictured his images, I was reminded of the experience of grief and loss.

An aisle in an office that's completely messyAccording to Walsh, we’re living our lives–unaware of the earth moving beneath us. We assume that ‘what is’, will continue ‘to be’. Even when know that a job loss may be coming, a relationship is in trouble, or the death of a loved one is imminent; we don’t really know. Then the pink slip arrives, the suitcases are waiting at the door, or the late-night call comes from the hospital; and we know. In our gut, we know. As Walsh describes, our shelves and floors are never the same.

The Grief Journey

When we experience a loss, our world is turned upside down. Much of what we depended upon no longer feels trustworthy. For a while, the world stops feeling safe. We actively know that bad things do happen–even to good people.

In Walsh’s words, “You would have to take your losses, do whatever must be done next.” This is often what we do when a loss occurs–we plan the funeral, we edit our resume, we divide assets. Because of the natural shock that our bodies and minds experience at the beginning of the journey, we are able to take the next necessary steps.

While details of the grief journey are beyond the scope of this particular post, video content about the journey is available here on the Blaikie Psychotherapy Facebook page.

My Wish for You…

Two hands holding saying You are and Not aloneWhile grief and loss come to us all, Walsh’s imagery of the “tensile strands of love that bend and stretch to hold you in the web of life” describes the circle of care that ideally surrounds us during those times.

My wish for you is that you are enveloped in the love that takes away the precariousness of the ground.

And now…an amazing video of Anderson Cooper and Stephen Colbert talking about their grief experiences. Please note that during their discussion Stephen Colbert does share about his personal religious beliefs. Enjoy!

 

Comings and Goings…The Circle of Life

People come and go in our lives for a variety of reasons.? Sometimes it’s because we meet a new friend, or a relationship ends.? Maybe we’re the one coming and going as we change jobs or move to a new city.? At some point, our entrances and exits are more substantial…we are born and we die.? That’s the circle of life.

In the Not So Distant Past

While both birth and death are an unavoidable part of the human experience, I suggest that as a modern culture, we treat each of them very differently.? However, this hasn’t always been the case.

As a big fan of Call the Midwife, I never tire of watching the sanitized TV version of babies being born. The series takes place in an East-London neighbourhood, during the 1950’s and early 1960’s.? Among other things, it chronicles the progression from the norm of home births to hospital births; and the resulting changes in the expectations of everyone involved.? I’m not advocating one birth experience over another, just noting the shift of birth taking place at home vs. taking place in a medical setting.

Like birth, death has also moved locations. In the past, the common practice was that we died at home–circumstances allowing. Ideally, the dying person was surrounded by family and/or friends who were there to offer comfort to the individual and each other.? Family members shared the final tasks of preparing their loved-one for burial. Visitation was held in the family home. Birth and death were very personal, yet community, experiences. Now, most of us can expect to die in a hospital, and prepared for our final resting place by funeral home staff.

A Semi-Current Picture

According to Statistics Canada, in 2014 approximately 259,000 Canadians died. The Fact Sheet published about Hospice and Palliative Care in Canada reported that 70% of those deaths occurred in hospitals.

On the flip side, 2014 saw approximately 384,000 Canadian births?(142,000 in Ontario). A December 2015 Toronto Star article outlined a three-year McMaster University study that noted midwives attended 10% of all births in Ontario (2014 is included in their data).? Of this 10%, 20% of these births occurred at home.

The bottom line…most of us will come and go in a hospital.? However, the picture may be changing.

Thoughts on Current Practices of Life…?

Midwifery, was regulated in Ontario in 1994, as a publicly funded service. Currently there are more than 700?registered midwives in Ontario who provide neonatal care to pregnant women, attend their deliveries and look after the mother and baby following birth.? With the 1994 law, midwives have hospital privileges (including access to hospital staff and resources). The blending of the two options gives expectant parents more choice of where to deliver their babies.? It is no longer a binary decision of at home with a midwife vs in hospital with a obstetrician (most family doctors no longer deliver babies).

According to the McMaster study, for women with low-risk pregnancies, babies delivered at home were at no greater risk than those in hospitals. We can have the best of both worlds.

…and Death

The same choice has begun around end of life decisions as well. The number of hospice centers and palliative care support is growing steadily.? According to an Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-term Care position paper:

“Ontario is working to provide patients with more choices for palliative and end-of-life care.

This includes investing in more hospice care across the province and expanding caregiver supports that help families and loved ones support palliative patients at home and in their communities. Ontario will also support more public education about advanced care planning so that patients’ wishes for end-of-life care are understood. The province is establishing clear oversight and accountability for Ontario’s palliative care services, to further advance patient-centred care.”

It will be interesting to see the effects of assisted death legislation on end-of-life location options.

Speaking of options, there are now death doula’s or midwives who spiritually help individuals and their families through the death process.? Training programs to become a death doula are now available throughout Canada and the US.? Both MacLeans magazine and Global News have covered this subject.

Death is Making an Appearance

While our culture tends to hide death–even in the language we use to describe death (“passed away” or “passed on”);? I have started to notice some changes.? Besides the increased visibility of hospice and palliative care and debates on assisted death, end-of-life has started to take up space in our current frame of reference.

At first it was something I glimpsed out of the corner of my eye.? A colleague had mentioned that he had attended a weekend workshop on “home funerals”.? The event took place in a private home, and included information about the rules and some basic skills for taking care of your deceased loved from death until burial. While not for everyone, this is a fascinating alternative to the current practice.

Next, over the six-month period, numerous articles appeared in the local paper:

  • A story about a Romanian cemetery (called the Merry Cemetery) where the crosses are etched with colourful epitaphs and drawings describing the deceased’s life and/or personality;
  • A helpful article about “tying up the loose ends of life”;
  • Another article assuring readers that “death doesn’t have be so frightening”;
  • A commentary of the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead–a family celebration that sees family members and friends having parties in local cemeteries as they visit their loved ones;
  • And finally, a review of the book??”The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to free yourself and your family from a lifetime of clutter.”? A new reason to declutter.

I came across information about the Good Green Death Forum (an event organized by the Green Burial Society of Canada) and DeathCafe.com (a social event where people talk about death with the goal of increasing their awareness of life).

Ideas about death appear to be popping up in popular culture.

Why Does This Matter?

As a therapist, I tend to look at things through the lens of mental health.? While birth is usually a happy event (no matter where it takes place), I have concerns about how we deal with the end of life. With the movement of death from plain sight over the past decades, it has become scary.? Combined with our culture’s fixation on youth, this fear has escalated.? As with most things in life that we don’t understand, when we push them away they become something mysterious, and to be feared.

But do we have to continue to treat death this way?? Instead can we use a familiarity with death as a tool to help us live more aware and fulfilling lives?

Another Way to Look at Death

In many Buddhist traditions, a purposeful contemplation of death is one practice that is used to help individuals become aware of the constancy of change and life’s fragility.? The concept is that when we realize that nothing in life is permanent and everything is easily broken, we look at events in our lives differently.? We may appreciate to a greater level not only what we have (including health, relationships, and things), but also the people we love.? From this perspective, while we may grief loss (from the breaking of a favourite cup to the loss of something greater), we understand it to be part of a greater whole.? As well, to quote a best-selling book title, we “Don’t sweat the small stuff…and it’s all small stuff”.

Death as an Exercise

I’ve come across a few books over the years (The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People and She Means Business?(to name a few) that advise readers to become comfortable with their own death as a way to add focus to their lives.

These authors lead a guided exercise in which the reader imagines, in detail, their own funeral or memorial service–paying particular attention to what their family and friends are saying about them.? These imaginary statements become nuggets to be mined as you set life goals.? I’m not sure if it works, but could be an interesting exercise.

Finally…

We can’t hide from the comings and goings in our lives…whether it’s us or someone else.? However, we can become less fearful and more mindful.

And now…somewhat predictably, but none the less still moving after all these years (movie came out in 1994)…The Lion King – Circle of Life.? Enjoy!

 

 

7 Ways to Cope With Grief From the Loss of a Pet

We encounter loss in all sorts of ways…the death of a loved one, the end of a friendship, the loss of a job… One that we often experience is the loss of a pet, either through death or the end of a relationship–and the grief that comes from this. This special, and often unrecognized loss, is not easy. So, how do we cope?

Our Culture’s Ideas About Pet Loss–Disenfranchised Grief

When a person dies, we usually know what to do. We plan/attend some kind of service. Perhaps we bring food to the grieving family. Often, we send a sympathy card or donation to the requested charity. However, there are types of losses when there aren’t clear-cut norms on how to behave. Pet loss fits into this type of loss. We are grieving, but others don’t understand why we are feeling so bad. This is disenfranchised grief.

After telling a friend or co-worker that your pet is no longer in your life, you may receive the following remarks:

  • “Why are you still upset? It’s only a dog/cat/bird/snake, ferret….”
  • “Why don’t you go and get another one?”
  • “He/she was really old/sick, so you had no choice but to ‘put him down.'”

The problem with these types of comments is that they don’t recognize the essential loss of our loved one and the grief that you are feeling. While people don’t often know what to say after a human dies (often due to lack of knowledge and discomfort); I can’t imagine telling someone to get a new partner right after the death of the love of your life!

Why We Grieve the Loss of our Pets

We grieve the objects, relationships and living things that mean something to us. Our pets fit into a special category. They provide unconditional love and companionship. For some of us, they fill the role of children or best friend. We fit our lives and routines around theirs. When they are gone, that means a lot of change.

It can become even more complicated when the loss occurs because of the end of the relationship. Our ex-partner has ‘custody’ of our pet. We’re grieving not only the loss of our pet but also the loss of the human relationship. It’s one thing to recognize that our animal family member is no longer on this earth, but to know that he/she is alive and inaccessible to us is another.

Grief is Grief…No Matter What We Have Lost

While everyone has different ways of grieving, J. William Worden in his book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, suggests that the following four tasks are part of the grieving process.

  1. Accept the reality of the loss.
  2. Process the pain of grief.
  3. Adjust to the world without what we have lost.
  4. Maintain a connection with what we’ve lost, while at the same time starting a new life.

These tasks apply whatever loss we have suffered, and in working through them we find ways to cope.

7 Things You Can Do When You Lose a Pet
  1. Take the time you need to recognize what has happened. You have suffered a loss, and that can be an emotional shock. Even if your pet’s loss was anticipated, the reality is the same. Taking time may mean booking some quiet time for yourself away from work or outside activities.
  2. If possible, think about what you want to do with your pet’s belongings before your pet’s death happens. A big grief trigger can be coming home to see your pet’s leash or bowl. Maybe your pet’s possessions can stay with a friend until you are able to decide what to do with them.
  3. Recognize that there may be big emotions. Sadness, anger, guilt, loneliness can be part of the grief process. What you are experiencing is normal. One way to cope with them is to let them flow through you–they will pass. If you find that the emotions are overwhelming, physical activity (such as going for a walk or run) can help.
  4. Talk to friends or family members who understand what you are going through. Other’s who have lost a beloved pet tend to get it and may be willing to walk with you on your journey.
  5. Increase your self-care. When we are grieving we tend to stop taking care of ourselves. Make sure that you are eating healthy food, and getting enough rest and exercise.
  6. Create new routines. Our pets influence our routines as we plan our days around feeding times, walks and play time. Think about how you can find ways to put new (and healthy) activities in those times in your day. For example, go for a walk at the usual time, and change your route or ask a friend or family member to go with you.
  7. Find a way to honour your pet. Some people create a ritual as a way to say goodbye. Others keep their pet’s ashes or send the ashes to an artist so they can be included in a piece of artwork, glass or pottery.

In time, you will recover from the grief of losing your pet. However, it may take time and the journey is an individual one. If you find that you are getting stuck in this process, please reach out for support–either from friends, family or a therapist.

And now…since we’re talking about pets…what’s not to like about kittens and laser pointers? Enjoy!

 

The Caregiver’s Journey–Part 3

In Part One of this three-part series, we explored the specific parts of the Caregiver’s Journey–the beginning, middle and end stages–what can be expected at each stage and ways to cope.? Last week, in Part Two, we looked at caregiver burnout–the risk factors and warning signs.? Today, we’ll look at what happens when the caregiver journey is over.??This is the last in a three-part series on care-giving.

A Review of the Journey

If you have reached the end of the caregiver journey, you have gone through some difficult terrain.? You and your loved one have moved from an initial diagnosis and all the thoughts and emotions that this entailed.? As their illness became more severe you have adjusted your lifestyle to take this into account.

You have learned to ride the ebbs and flows of medical, community and family/friend support.

Along the way you may have experienced burnout, loneliness and the possible adjustment of adding ‘caregiver’ to your identity of spouse, partner, child, sibling or friend.? You have navigated the decision of either keeping your loved one at home, moving them into a hospital or made other arrangements for their care.

Now, with the death of your loved-one, the caregiver journey is over and you are embarking on a new path–grief.

The Grief Journey

Grief is hard.?It’s messy, unpredictable and exhausting.? Grief is never experienced the same way twice.? It’s one of the most difficult things you will ever do.? And…grief is an opportunity for growth, a chance to develop resilience and discover strengths that you didn’t know that you had.? While grief may feel like depression, it isn’t…it’s grief.

When working with a client who is on the grief journey, I’m often asked “How long does this last?”? “When will I be done?”.

Grief is as individual as those who are experiencing it.? We all grieve in different ways, and there is no set time frame.? Just like a hike down an unknown trail, we’re not completely sure how long it will take to reach the end or what we’ll encounter along the way.? One thing is certain…we’re not the same people starting the journey as we are when we finish.

The Tasks of Grief

While everyone has different ways of grieving, J. William Worden in his book?Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, suggests that the following four tasks are part of the grieving process.

  1. We need to accept the reality of our loss.? Whether the loss is a person, place or thing; we need to accept the fact that the loss has occurred, and what was lost, is not returning.
  2. We need to process the pain of grief. Sometimes people experience grief as physical pain or develop anxiety/panic attacks.
  3. We need to adjust to the world without our loved one. Externally, this may mean adjusting to living alone, or developing a new routine.? Internally:?? developing a new sense of self??Who am I know if I?m not ?.??? Spiritually:? looking for meaning in the loss and determining the nature of the world (Is it kind or harsh?).
  4. We need to maintain a connection with who we?ve lost, while at the same time starting a new life. How do we remember, when we?re moving on?

While these are the ‘standard’ tasks of grieving, is there something specific to the grief journey if we have been a caregiver?

A Caregiver’s Grief

We come to the grieving process in different ways.? Sometimes the person we are grieving? has died suddenly, sometimes unexpectedly and sometimes with anticipation.? As a caregiver, all three can apply, and usually we know that death is coming.

When much of our life has been taken up with taking care of someone, even if they have moved into a care facility, their loss can leave a large hole in our life.? Our schedule may have revolved around our person.? Perhaps we visit the care facility on a daily basis, spending many hours each time.? The other residents and staff have started to feel like family, and visiting has given us a sense of purpose.? With death, we have not only lost someone, but also the opportunity to see the new friends that we have made.? This may be why some caregivers become volunteers at the care facility once the initial upheaval of grief has subsided.

There may be some ambivalence around the loss of our loved one.? On one hand, we may feel relief that they are no longer suffering.? If we are experiencing exhaustion or burnout from our care-giving role, we may also feel relief .? On the other hand, guilt may be our companion because of our relief.? “How can I feel such relief because my loved one is no longer here?”? “I am being so selfish!”? “How can I miss them so much and still be happy that I have ‘my’ life back?”

Grief can be a roller coaster,? cycling through the ups and downs of various emotions.? It’s all normal.? According to Buddhist thought, you are not your emotions or your thoughts.? Just like a roller coaster, the key is to hang on and ride through the highs and lows…without judging yourself.? ?Easier said than done!

Ways to Cope

If you are a caregiver, grieving the loss of the loved one you cared for, here are some ways that may help you to cope.

  • Take time to rest and adjust.? Chances are that you have been spending more time with your person during their dying process.? This can be overwhelming and exhausting–especially if you are already tired from long-term care-giving.
  • If you find that you are having trouble with physical issues, consult your doctor for support.? Sometimes at the beginning of the grief journey you may have?trouble sleeping, or have an increase in the severity of your own medical issues.? Your doctor may provide short-term medication or at least put your mind at ease about what you are experiencing.
  • It’s ok at this point to be ‘selfish’ and take care of yourself.? When we have been taking care of someone for any length of time, we often put their needs before our own.? Now is time for you.
  • Ask for help.? There may be tasks that need to be done…some can wait and others need to be done as soon as possible.? If you don’t feel that you are able to complete these on your own, see if friends or family members can help.? Consult with care providers, financial and legal supports or funeral home staff to determine what can wait, and how to proceed.
  • Speak to someone that you trust about your emotions.? If you are having trouble dealing with feelings of guilt, anger, sadness, etc. talk to a close friend or family member.? If you don’t feel comfortable with this, or feel that it is appropriate, you can speak to a therapist to help you to sort out these difficult feelings.

And now…a caregiver’s tale… Enjoy!

Once We’re Gone…

Unless we are presented with an opportunity to think about our own death (a diagnosis, loss of a loved one, serious car accident), it isn’t something that most of us want to spend time doing.? If left to our own devices, we tend to imagine that we’ll live, if not forever, at least for a very long time.? However, once in a while, we are given a non-traumatic invitation to think about what will happen once we die.

A while ago I discovered Magareta Magnusson’s book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning:? How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter in my local bookstore.? Having been somewhat captivated by the Marie Kondo phenomenon that swept North America after the publication of her book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I wondered if Magnusson’s book was going to be more of the same.? However, I was sold enough on the title to make the purchase. What followed was a trip I hadn’t expected.

Down the Rabbit Hole

This is a deceptively simple book.? It can be read in an evening.? Rather than finding directions on the correct way to fold socks and organize my closet, “Death Cleaning” took me down an existential rabbit hole.? It wasn’t only a matter of doing family members the favour of paring down my possessions so that they would not have to take on this task once I am gone–I’m somewhat of a minimalist, so the job should be fairly easy.? Instead, it forced me to look at the items that I have held on to from the perspective of those I have left behind.? Would they know the story of a cherished mug or why I kept a moth-eaten sweater?? What is the ‘value’ of my stuff?? Does it really matter?

As I pondered these questions, I was reminded of a scene from Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel.? Late in life, the main character, Hagar Shipley had her first manicure.? She was so astounded by the positive feelings she experienced during the treatment that, once her nails had grown, she kept the nail clippings in a match box as a reminder of being cared for.? After Hagar’s death, when her children find the box, they can’t understand why their mother would keep such a thing, and put it down to dementia.? Hmmm….

Not Everything Is the Same

Imagine that you are looking at your things through the perspective of your loved ones, after your death.? Some things we leave behind will spark feelings of humour (I can’t believe that Mom kept every card I ever sent!), confusion (a box of nail clippings?? Really?) or neutrality (the contents in the bathroom cupboard).? Unfortunately, some possessions are emotionally charged, and it is these items that require more thought and action.

A Story…

After their mother’s death, Sylvia and her older sibling Paul had the task of cleaning out the family home in preparation for sale.? Their father had died two years before.? As the siblings started working through the house, they were astounded by the amount of things that their parents had collected.? Neither parent had wanted to discard anything, and the house was a museum of their lives together and as a family.

Over time, many car loads of items were taken to charity shops. Family members and friends were invited to choose an item to remember the couple by.? A dumpster was placed in the driveway to get rid of decades of newspapers, magazines and assorted other ‘junk’.

On most weekends, the siblings worked together on this project.? It was going well…until…they found…THE BOX.? Hidden in the back of a closet was a box of journals written by their father.? They covered the years from being newly married until Paul’s birth.? Sylvia and Paul were excited to discover a record of their beloved father’s thoughts and feelings and looked forward to learning more about him–in his own words.? Unfortunately, as they read, their excitement turned to hurt and confusion as they realized that their father had never wanted to have children, but did so as a concession to their mother–whom he had loved deeply.

Suddenly their relationship with their father came under the microscope.? Did he change his mind?? Did he ever love them?? Was the time he spent with them only to please his wife?Since they already had one child, was Sylvia planned?? Because both parents were dead, all these questions were left unanswered.? The siblings could be trying to come to terms with this information for the rest of their lives.

When We’re Ready the Teacher Will Come

As I continued to look at my possessions from the perspective of not being able to explain them to those I leave behind, asking myself what (if anything) I should get rid of now in order to spare them any future pain or misunderstanding; I met Jill Sadler.

Jill is the owner and principal consultant of Parosol.? She describes her company as “estate planning redefined”.? Parosol’s promotion material explains:

“We work with you to document and create a complete care, legacy, health and aging plan that you can share with the important people in your life–making sure your wishes are known and you are in control of your future.”

I wasn’t looking for Jill. Yet she came across my path as I was asking myself difficult questions about how to make decisions easier for my family if I was no longer able to provide direction or explanations.? As I learned more about Jill and her company, I realized that she would be a valuable resource as I move along this path.

Your Mission, If You Choose to Accept It

While the story of Paul and Sylvia is fiction, unfortunately their experience isn’t uncommon.? I have worked with many clients who struggle with information learned after the death of a family member or with having to make decisions without knowing a loved one’s wishes.? And, as I learned from Jill, we don’t have to be dead to be unable to communicate what we want–an incapacitating illness will do it!

I encourage you, no matter your age or life situation, please take some time to look at your ‘personal’ belongings from the perspective of those you leave behind.? It may be a bigger bequest than anything you leave in your will.

And now…for those of you too young to recognize the last heading…some vintage Mission Impossible (before Tom Cruise)!? Enjoy!