Category Archives: Grief and Loss

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 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!

 

 

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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 the 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 on-line.  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!

 

 

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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 a 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!

 

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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 knowIn 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!

 

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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!

 

 

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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 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 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!

 

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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!

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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!

 

 

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The Grief of Saying Goodbye…to our stuff

 

The recent Spring-like weather may have some of us thinking about Spring Cleaning!  If this is you, here is a post from the archives that may be helpful.  Enjoy! 

We often think of grief and loss as relating to life events such as the death of a loved one or being let go from a job…but what about, through financial difficulties, divorce or aging, we lose our stuff.

There’s help for the physical process.

I recently met with Susan Kemp of 4 Life’s Transitions (www.4lifes.ca).  Susan and her team help families and older adults deal with the issues and challenges of dissolving a lifetime of residential  accumulation.  A large part of Susan’s work is supporting individuals to sort through their belongings with the goal of moving their treasures on to new owners.

As we talked, it became clear that often the most difficult part of this process for people isn’t the physical moving of the items, but the act of letting go.  A table isn’t only a table; it’s the location of countless family dinners and the associated memories.  Even simple items such as a collection of sewing fabric is a reminder of when each piece was purchased, or was left over from making a child’s cherished prom dress.

There are ways to cope with the emotional process.

Some people have no problem saying goodbye to their things as they choose to move them on to others.  In fact, individuals practicing minimalism or simplicity report that the act of downsizing their possessions is emotionally freeing.  The important word here is “choose”.  How do we cope when we are forced to say goodbye to our treasurers or possessions by events beyond our control?

Recognize that the process is difficult.

The process of letting go is hard, so be gentle with yourself.  You know the healthy things that make you happy and help you relax, so make sure you have easy access to these things.  Have  trusted people ‘on call’ who are aware of what you’re doing and can offer support.

Be sure to take frequent breaks–nothing can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed than being tired or hungry.  I often encourage my clients to create a ‘self-care box’ that houses items that they can use to help with calming.  While the contents are individual, some people include a favourite movie, tea, bubble bath, journal, list of phone numbers of supportive friends/family members, etc.

Share the task with a friend or family member.  Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus of “The Minimalists”  describe hosting ‘packing parties’, where they enlisted friends with task of boxing up Ryan’s possessions.  In this way, many people are there to help, and it was a party.

It’s not just about stuff—some items are emotionally loaded.

It’s easy to get blind-sided by the memories of our possessions as we sort through them.  Not only can this add a lot of time to the process, it can also leave us emotionally drained. Besides tapping into the self-care ideas/box mentioned above,  what are your other healthy coping strategies?

Have a ritual for saying goodbye.  Some people take pictures of their possessions before putting them in a box.  This way, they can visit their ‘things’ whenever they want.  Other people will write a farewell note to items that hold special memories.

Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up:  The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, encourages her readers to imagine the new life that their possessions will have when they meet their new owners.  When I chose to donate many of my children’s toys when I downsized my home, it helped to think about the children who would be able to enjoy them.  Especially since my adult children had outgrown the Fischer Price castle!

Control who receives your items.

I recognize that choosing who is to receive your possessions can be tricky.   In some families there is little argument about who is to take home Dad’s stamp collection or Grandma’s favourite china cup.  In others, disagreements about who takes possession of possessions can cause permanent cut-offs between family members.  If you think that your family may fall into the second camp, it’s a good idea to work with a therapist to help sort out the underlying feelings that are leading to these arguments.  Often, the fights are not about the family china, but deeper, undisclosed issues.

On a more positive note, when my grandmother decided to move into a senior’s home and pass on her possessions, she chose who was to receive each item and then spent many years visiting her ‘things’.  Nana reported feeling great joy at seeing how her belongings took on new lives in her grandchildren’s homes.

Tap into your values by supporting a charity.

Donating our items can be a wonderful way to say goodbye.  For some people it gives the process of letting go a sense of meaning.  If your favourite charity doesn’t accept physical items, selling your belongings and donating the money is an alternative.  Some agencies, such as the Mennonite Central Committee will even pick up large items such as furniture.

At the end of the day, it is only ‘stuff’.  As Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff says in the 1938 Academy award winning movie “You Can’t Take It With You”; “As near as I can see, the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends”.

If you’re in the middle of packing up your stuff, here’s the link to the radio version of the movie.  Enjoy!

 

 

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Grief is a Genesis, Not a Finale

Often the greatest wisdom comes from someone who is, or has lived through, a certain experience. When I discovered this “Point of View” article  entitled “Grief is a Genesis, Not a Finale” in the May/June 2017 issue of Psychology Today, I knew that I wanted to share it on this site.  Below is Ms. Sabbage’s article in its entirety. 
 
The author, Sophie Sabbage, continues her journey, and is the author of the book and PT blog The Cancer Whisperer.
Before I was diagnosed with incurable cancer at the age of 48, I had passed grief by like a stranger on the street. I had reserved it for death and heartbreak, the shattering losses that bend us double—but not for the regrets, disappointments, and failures that also ask us to grieve. I thought it brought closure, but now I know that grief gives life.

The news of my condition unfolded over a six-week period, one tumor at a time. First my lungs; then the lymph nodes in my throat and chest; then my bones—ribs, shoulders, spine. And finally, multiple lesions in my brain. My options seemed extremely limited, but I soon heard about a pioneering oncologist in Mexico who was reversing late-stage cancer and didn’t turn patients down. After emailing him my scan results we clung to this whisper of possibility, waiting for it to mature into certainty.

The call didn’t come for two weeks. My husband, John, took it while I was putting our 4-year-old daughter, Gabriella, to bed. I could hear the sound of his voice downstairs, but the words were muffled so I focused on her bedtime story and helping her fall asleep. This involved lying next to her while she snuggled into my armpit and kneed me in the ribs a dozen times before her perpetually moving legs finally gave up the ghost. When she looked up at me and said, “Mummy, my legs won’t let me sleep,” I wondered where they would carry her in the future and if I would be there to see it. I wondered. I yearned. I prayed.

John said walking up the stairs that evening was the steepest climb of his life. He had to tell me that the oncologist who doesn’t turn patients down had turned me down; that I was that far gone.

Grief didn’t burst its banks when he told me. There was no wailing or gnashing of teeth. Instead it visited us like a living entity and enfolded my whole family in its blanket. John was desolate. It had taken us so many years to find each other and he loves me so much. But his pain distracted me from mine. I could attend to it instead of cratering inside. I could kiss the top of Gabriella’s head, pull my husband onto the bed with us and take what this moment had to offer: the great love we had found, the scale of which could only be matched by the sorrow we felt at the prospect of leaving each other after too short an embrace on Earth; and our high-voltage daughter, who wears her father’s smile as she explodes toward tomorrow and whose legs have a life of their own.

Grief became my guest and an almost constant companion. I was letting go of what I had achieved in life (like conceiving Gabriella after being told I couldn’t have children) while lamenting what I hadn’t achieved and wouldn’t: buying a forever home for my family when I could finally afford it; withering with my husband into beneficent old age while our daughter rises into her purpose like a blood-red sun on a black-and-silver sea; writing books. Each day brought another letting go. The vision in my left eye faded. I forgot how to spell simple words and sometimes forgot the words themselves. I closed the consulting business I had spent 20 years building. I stopped driving my car. The large tumor on my vertebra, at the midpoint of my neck, pressed against my spinal column and truncated my countryside walks until I could only putter around the garden. And the day came when I couldn’t pick up my daughter from a standing position—which was almost more than I could bear.

With each loss I turned toward grief instead of away from it, and began to discover its true nature. This was partly prompted by discovering that, according to Chinese medicine, grief is held in the lungs. Since I had lung cancer, this begged the question, “What have I not been grieving and why?” I was convinced that cancer is as much an emotional and psychological disease as it is a physical one, so this line of inquiry seemed as essential to my healing as the medical treatments that slowly began to turn things around. My cancer needed me to grieve and I needed cancer to discover my grief.

(Photo courtesy of Sophie Sabbage)

The biggest breakthrough came when I visited a small herd of horses in a field just a few minutes’ walk from my house. I had grown up with horses in the lush green valleys of South Wales, where galloping into the wind over the vaulted hills was the best way I knew how to silence the incessant inner self-criticism that marked my teenage years. I continued riding as an adult, usually on vacation, and it had remained one of my greatest joys in life. That day, just a few weeks after the Mexican doctor turned me down, the horses walked up and encircled me, like the standing stones of Stonehenge. Initially, I was delighted, but as I stroked their soft necks I realized I would never ride again because my tumor-clad spine couldn’t tolerate any jarring. And thus, in a wet field on a cold winter day, my heart broke like a levee with grief.

Far from dragging me down, however, grief raised me up. As it rolled through my cells I felt lighter, freer and literally more able to breathe. My body continued to break down for a while, but my heart’s locked-in hurts began to heal. I was able to forgive those I hadn’t forgiven, from the girl who bullied me in the playground as an 8-year-old to the various sexual assaults I had discounted because I didn’t want to make a fuss. Perhaps more important, I was able to forgive myself. I knew the part I had played in my disease, the ways I had mistreated my body through my youth, the relentless bending my life into an apology for my blessings as well as my flaws. Physically, I could barely turn my head from side to side, but emotionally I was beginning to lift it without shame.

There is a “break” in the word breakthrough—something must break for something new to grow. This is what grief does. It broke my denial, restoring me to the stark naked reality of what I was facing and thus to the natural order of things. It offered a bridge from the life I had planned to the life I was actually living. Where fear closed my heart, grief opened it. It drew back the curtain on what I have loved and do love. Because its purpose is to keep love alive.

When some of the long-standing friends I had assumed would show up with vegetable casseroles retreated from my imminent demise in awkward silence, I felt hurt and angry. Among these was my best friend for nearly 20 years. We had fallen out nine months before my diagnosis over some differences that had been brewing for some time, but I felt confident that we would resolve them. We had been business partners as well as friends and often taught conflict resolution to our clients. We needed time to lick our mutually inflicted wounds, but we also knew how to heal them. It was what we did.

On hearing I had cancer she emailed me to “find solace in one another again,” but I was wary. I was extremely vulnerable at that time and death was stalking me like a permanent shadow. My condition didn’t heal the hurt or diminish the depth of our differences. Nor did I want cancer to become a get-out-of-jail-free clause for the things we both needed to apologize for and forgive. Instead, it called for a deep dialogue and heartfelt reconciliation—or so I thought.

She wasn’t up for it. I asked for a meeting to talk through what had happened between us instead of brushing it under the carpet. I said things that were better saved for face-to-face, or  not said at all. I was raw as sushi at the time and regret how I handled it, but I don’t regret refusing to gloss over undercurrents of animosity when I most needed to feel safe. She requested that there be “no further communication between us.” And that was that.

At the time I didn’t know that this decision would free me to move into a completely new sphere of friendship, vocation, and service—or that gratitude would supersede the pain. I have not forgotten who she was to me and still miss her acutely some days. But I remember her with love, not rancor, because I gave our friendship to the river of grief that has merged with my bloodstream and now flows like oxygen through my beckoning life.

Grief released friends who backed away as gratefully as it received the friends I had long since alienated or lost touch with. They reappeared with gentle eyes and ready hands as if the years between were merely parentheses in an unfinished sentence. All of it liberated me to love more honestly. And thanks to grief, the authentic intimacies of my life prevailed.

Within three months of medical treatments and emotional healing my life force returned along with my vision and ability to spell. I can pick up my now 6-year-old daughter. I even galloped a dappled grey horse along a Moroccan beach. I wrote a book. I am still living with the death sentence I was given over two years ago, but it keeps the channels of grief open, which rise and fall like a tide, but always deliver me back to the shores of what I cherish most. My greatest wish is for cancer to leave me so I can raise my darling girl until she is self-assured enough to run headlong into her destiny. But I hope grief remains. My love is less without it. Not entirely itself.

Grief is the most unlikely gift cancer has conferred on me. It walked me through the fog of my despair into a vast landscape where I could see the heavens overhead and feel the mercies underfoot. Grief freed my spirit before it left my body and, in a very real sense, it raised me from the dead.

 

 

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