Living Through Grief

Words that may help you along your journey

 Below are many articles from people who have shared their thoughts with us.

Always a Parent

I am a bereaved mother. My son never took a breath and I don’t have a living child but I am a mother and love my child as much as any mother. As the days and months pass since I said hello and goodbye, I discover gifts my son’s life gave me but being his mother was the best gift I’ve ever been given and no one can take that away.

If you’ve never experienced the death of a child but are reading this – thank you. Simply by trying to understand you’re making an effort many do not.

If you’re a bereaved parent then you are courageous. You’ve been through the hardest thing any parent can and are holding on. Possibly you’re thriving in honour of the child or children you lost. However you are right now, at this very moment, is ok. It’s ok to not be ok. It’s also ok to have days when the sun shines for you. And it will, but when that happens is different for everyone.

A lot of people don’t want to talk about my son’s death. They find the idea uncomfortable. They fear the truth that pregnancy and infant loss can happen to anyone, including them. They worry that by asking about him they may upset me more than had they said nothing. They say “I can’t imagine” when they mean “I don’t want to imagine”. I get it. It’s hard. But this unwillingness to speak about my son or any baby who dies or even to acknowledge the pain of loss isolates us. It makes us feel alone. That the grief we feel is wrong. If you lost a child I want you to know that your grief isn’t wrong. You aren’t alone. My baby died too. No one could say his name and remind me of him because I think of him every single day. I’ll never stop missing him but I’m learning to live a new life, my new normal, as his mom without his physical presence. It’s not easy and I may or may not have other children but another child will not replace my son. Each day I wake and live with purpose is a tribute to him as your life is a tribute to your children.

It’s difficult to explain the uncertainty a person feels when their child dies. We look the same on the outside but inside we’re different. It’s been nearly ten months since my son died and I’m still learning what life is without him. I mourn his death but also the loss of my hopes and dreams for us as a family. How I feel, react and think are different and I can’t predict it because it’s new for me too. One thing I know for certain is I can’t go back to who I was before and I wouldn’t want to because that would dishonor his memory. Something I will never do. The people who love me will still love me, the people who don’t will fall away, and one day I will realize that there are more happy days than unhappy days. The thing is, there will still be unhappy ones and that’s ok too.

After my son’s death I had the support of caring people. They asked and allowed me to share. They asked me who he looked like, how much he weighed, why we chose the name we gave him. The normal things you’d ask a new parent. Because that’s what we are: new parents. The only difference is that in the same moment of saying hello to him, we also had to say goodbye. It’s a huge difference but we love our son and are proud of him the same way all parents are proud of their children. Allowing us to share the memories we have is part of helping us to celebrate his life and remember him.

If I can stress one thing to baby loss parents it’s not to place expectations. If you need help then ask for help. If you need time then take time. If you need to be alone then be alone. Be gentle to yourself. You don’t need to and cannot be fixed. You aren’t sick, you don’t have a disease, you’re just sad. Nothing anyone says will fix the pain. You will smile again, you will laugh again, but you will also cry because someone will always be missing from your life but they were here and they were loved.

The grief over the death of a child never completely goes away. It changes but a parent never forgets the child they love who died. If you know someone who lost a child, even long ago, I hope you’ll reach out and let them know you haven’t forgotten. It doesn’t have to be a special day. Letting a bereaved parent know their child is remembered may be the single greatest gift you give this year.  

Written by: Amanda Outingdyke


Some Words of Comfort

The streets of Portage la Prairie can sometimes seem full of hustle and bustle. People are busy, the conversations are animated, life appears normal. But from time to time I am reminded that underneath that picture of carefree routine, there are pockets of grief and sorrow. Every day in our community someone carries the dark and quiet and heavy burden of grief. Perhaps today that someone is you.

I used to look through our church’s Burial Register from time to time, which lists every funeral our parish has ever had. Line by line, page by page, are the names, the ages, the dates of hundreds of men and women, young and old. I look at the line that says, “Sylvia, age 1 month,” and I wonder about her and her family. I see Ethel, 99 years old; Clara, 100; Stanley, 102. Every name has a story, a memory, a moment of recognition for someone. And for each name there is a family, a community of friends, who are left to grieve, to cope, to heal. There is a lot of grief in that book, and the grief can be so deep and so dark.

It’s the darkness of grief that threatens to overwhelm so many of us. We don’t like to think about the darkness; we prefer the light, and reason, and smiling faces, with everyone feeling good. But we cannot avoid the darkness when we are faced with our loss. Even the story of Jesus is filled with moments of darkness, moments of feeling lost and forsaken as he faced his own death, when darkness covered the face of the earth from noon until three, when his own body was placed in the dark darkness of a tomb. As you mourn the death of someone you love, you are allowed to be honest about the darkness of our world and the darkness of your grief and pain.

But as you sit with your grief, remember that you are not alone. It was the English poet John Donne who said that no one is an island, and that each death diminishes each of us. You may feel isolated, but you are not. You may feel diminished, but so does everyone who knows you and cares for you. A friend once told me about a trip he took to Los Angeles to visit some of his friends. The day he arrived also happened to be the day of a funeral for a close friend of his host, so he was invited to attend the service at the synagogue, and afterwards was invited to gather with the family at their home. The rabbi was there, offering guidance and support. The rabbi acknowledged that we might be tempted to avoid the darkness and to jump too quickly to the light, and so reminded everyone there what they should not say to the mourners. You cannot say it was God’s will. You cannot say everything will get better. You cannot even say that they have gone to a better place. All you can say, the rabbi said, is you are not alone.

You are not alone. In your grief you are not alone. As you face the prospect of a future without your loved one, you are not alone. As you begin the slow and unpredictable journey of healing, you are not alone. My own faith tells me that the compassion of others for you is real and sincere. My own faith tells me that the one who died on a cross will not abandon you. My own faith tells me that in some mysterious and indefinable way, you are surrounded by all your dead. After darkness, there will be light.

I remember reading once about a woman who was struggling to come to terms with the death of her husband. Her days were filled with sadness, and the hours brought little relief. She decided to seek the advice of a priest who listened to her story and seemed to understand her grief. His response, however, was unusual. He told her that he wanted her to get up at 6:00 a.m. each morning, to go outside, and to lie down on the grass. He asked her to do this for one whole week, and to stay outside until the sun had risen. At first it seemed odd, but after a few days, she settled into the routine of it, and before long, she was captivated by the first glimmers of light that slyly and unremarkably broke into the dark. She watched the fragile light grow stronger, and she could see the night disappear. Day by day for seven days, she watched darkness give way to a new dawn.

You are not alone. Even in the darkness. Together, wait for the light.


Writing by: The Rev. Canon Norman Collier


What It’s Like

My husband, Ramsy, died about a year ago. This is the first time I have lost someone close to me, and like many people do, I had developed some expectations of how I would feel and act if he died. I thought I would feel sad all the time, that I would have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, and that all the emotional work of grieving would be comprised of missing him and dealing with my kids missing him.

My experience has turned out to be very different than what I had envisioned. Yes, I have feelings of sadness and times of inertia; yes, I miss him; yes, it is hard work figuring out how to best help my children; but it seems that grief has dozens of facets to it rather than just one big one, and these different facets take turns showing themselves. I found myself shocked by this, and sometimes fretted over the difference between my expectations and my reality.

Since I am a reader, I went looking for books and articles about grieving. What I found most easily was information on “getting on with your life”, like how to travel as a single woman or how to fully embrace my new dreams. What? I was right in the middle of realizing that all of my dreams for my future had disappeared with the one who was going to live them out with me. Where were the books about just making it through the first year, about living through the period of disorientation, about feeling all the things I was feeling?

I kept trying new books and articles and discovered something: the pieces that helped me were the ones where the authors simply described what it was like for them when they lost their spouse. Something about hearing their stories, even though they were not identical to mine, helped me recognize what I was going through myself and see that there was nothing wrong with me.

I’d like to share with you, then, some of the ways that I’ve described this crazy journey to myself. Maybe you will see something that you recognize and know: you are not the only one. So what is it like to be grieving my husband?

It's like being in labour. As the onset of contractions is unpredictable, and the length and intensity of them, so is the onset of a wave of sadness. Sometimes it's a quick stab of pain, and sometimes it's a long, deep searing that requires me to actually stand still and hold on to the doorpost and clench my teeth and breathe. It's an actual physical sensation. And then it's gone, and who knows when or how the next one will wave through?

It's like having a headache. I don't know if everybody is like this, but I sometimes have a headache for a couple of hours before I realize it, and then I know what has been bothering me all that time. A lot of days I will be going about my business but feeling in the back of my mind that something is wrong, that I am uncomfortable and maybe in some pain, and finally I become aware that the thing that is wrong is that Ramsy is not here. Ah.

It's like being restless. Sometimes I have trouble concentrating, or finding anything to settle down to. I feel like there's something nagging at the back of my mind that I've forgotten, or like I'm looking for something. Then all of a sudden it clicks that I'm actually looking for Ramsy. A few days ago I caught myself wanting the kids to get off the computer so I could see if he'd sent me an email. Another case of "I didn't forget he's dead, my mind just entered a time warp."

It's like being at the other end of a tunnel from everything else, maybe like being on Demerol. I am sometimes dizzy, as I get when I have been up far too long- squinting at things, taking a long time to register incoming information, concentrating to formulate a response and send it back down the tunnel to whoever is on the other end.

It’s like being a toddler, staggering from place to place, flopping over, getting up again. Sometimes I run smoothly for a few steps and then hit another snag. I fall and want to quit, I go back to crawling again or just creep along the furniture where it’s safe and familiar until I have the courage to try a few steps again. I need someone to reach out and beckon to me, encourage me to give it a shot. I need something to reach toward.

It’s like entering cold water. When I sense the sadness hovering but don’t have the time or energy or courage to take it on, it feels like those sharp shocks of wading into a chilly lake slowly with starts and stops. When I meet the sadness and discomfort by choice, head-on, it somehow doesn’t hurt so sharply after the first minute, it just feels like where I need to be at the moment.

It's like a long-distance relationship. For most of the time that Ramsy and I were dating, we lived 2 1/2 hours apart and saw each other once or maybe twice a month during the school year, and much less often when he was touring with school groups. There was no texting, no email, not even any decent long-distance phone plans, for Pete's sake, and he was kind of a crappy letter-writer. (That is, the letters he wrote were wonderful, it's just that there weren't that many of them over the year and a half.) So, as my journals from those days remind me, I missed him all the time. He was constantly on my mind; everything reminded me of something he/we had done or said, or made me wish I could share it with him or tell him; nothing I did felt in any way interesting or exciting or engaging or meaningful; basically, I was suspended in a permanent state of waiting to see him or talk to him again. Well, guess what? I’m right back there again.

It's like looking at the Grand Canyon. In 2009 I saw the Grand Canyon for the first time. I thought I would be immediately overwhelmed by, well, the grandeur of the place. As it turned out in reality, my eyes and mind were kind of boggled by the scope of it, which prevented me from taking in the grandeur. The Grand Canyon, seen in person, looks at first like a painted movie backdrop of itself. It was extremely difficult to get a grasp on the size and distances because my eyes are simply not used to processing anything that big. I had to look for something smaller, something that I commonly see, like a person or a tree or a car, which I could use as a standard for comparison. Same with this loss: it's just too monumental to be absorbed at first, and my mind has to keep finding small experiences to measure it against, and so...

...it is like learning the longest, hardest lesson ever. Maybe I'll go through a good day or two, just be minding my own business and then- whap! I didn't know that losing him meant that particular thing! Like: I see the breakfast sausages in Sobeys and there he is standing at our stove cooking them up; there the five of us are at our table, eating the sausages as part of the Sunday morning tradition he started. And then I have to learn that him dying means him not being here to cook breakfast ever again, him never coming up with one of his many, many ideas for ritual or fun or adventure. It means that I never get to bring him a treat from Starbucks again when I have spent the day in Winnipeg. It means him not putting his feet in my lap while we watch a Miss Marple movie on the couch. It means me never being irritated again by him telling me it was time to get up (hey, you're not the boss of me, was always my super-mature inner response), and realizing that being irritated occasionally is one of the privileges of living together intimately. His death means literally thousands of big and small things, and I have to learn them one by one.

I guess the underlying theme that I have discovered is: expect the unexpected. I can’t lead my feelings around and tell them what I want them to do; I can’t jump off the path if it has taken a twist I don’t like. The only thing to do is just to keep walking, and to stick close to the people who love me. May you find the courage to do your walking, and companions to walk with you.


Writing by: Shannon Unruh


Mourning

I've never lost anyone really close to me until my husband died last year. I don't know that getting acquainted with grief by losing a spouse is what I'd recommend, but we don't have much say in this, it seems. Experiencing the death of my husband and the aftermath of that has been a steep learning curve. I've found out that there are all kinds of things I didn't know about grieving. For one thing, I never really realized how few mourning rituals our culture has. There's the bringing of food to the bereaved family; there's the funeral and burial or scattering of ashes; there might be the wearing of black, or, in the event of a tragic death, people may bring notes and flowers and stuffed animals to the site of the death. And really, that's about it. Those are the main ones, and they are over and done with before the family even realizes what it means that this person is gone.

Well, that's not enough- at least, not for me. I feel the loss of my sweetheart so profoundly that I cannot bear not to show it somehow. At times I want people to know by looking that I am grieving; at times I want to mark a significant event or day for myself as a tribute to this person I shared my whole life with. It's been vastly important and helpful to me to think up ways to do this. I'd like to share some of them with you for you to use as a springboard for creating your own ways of saluting the person you have lost.

Wedding rings| What do you do with them? I wear Ramsy’s ring on a chain around my neck, a chain that he gave me as a surprise gift. I don’t wear other necklaces right now, just this one. Some day I may feel ready to put his ring away, or give it to one of our children, or have it resized to fit my hand. Or I might not. I still wear my own wedding rings on my left ring finger, because I still identify myself mentally as “Ramsy’s wife”; other people I know have felt that the best way of expressing their loss of that relationship was to remove their wedding rings.

Clothes| In the first few months after Ramsy’s death, I chose to routinely wear something black when I attended our church. He had worked there for seven years, and this community came to be a family to us. I don’t know if anyone noticed that I wore black every Sunday, as I sometimes also wore a bright colour in the same outfit. But I wanted to know that I was expressing outwardly how sad I was to be without him in the place we were always together.

Possessions| Some of the things in our house and garage that Ramsy used but no longer needs are a puzzlement to me, and some are easy to deal with. Our kids and I like to wear his sweaters and pyjama pants and socks around the house, so we keep those and use them ourselves. Same with his jackets, many of his books, his guitar, his tools. But we don’t need all of his stuff, and sometimes there is a certain object that just belongs with another person who loved him; sometimes there are things that he would be so happy to know are now great bargains at a thrift store for strangers to discover.

Food| We have developed a few tributes to Ramsy in the way of special foods. He loved coffee and for about 20 years he tried to convince me to like it, too. Now that he is not here, there are many times when I choose to drink coffee because it reminds me of him or because I’m in a setting I associate with him. (It’s still not my favourite, but I like it a lot better now than I ever did. I like to think that he finds this funny.) He also loved chips of any kind, and so in our family we buy two bags of chips every Sunday and enjoy them at home or take them along if we are visiting somewhere. I don’t buy chips other days, and so they have become a special way of saluting him.

Special days| Ramsy’s 50th birthday was about two weeks after his funeral. I didn’t think it was going to be a difficult day for me since he never made a big deal of his own birthday, even though he loved celebrating others’ birthdays. I was wrong about the difficult part (which is one of the main features of grieving, I’ve found- it’s almost never like I expect it to be.) and I really wanted to mark his birthday somehow, and I hated the fact that I “didn’t have to” buy him a gift. That led me to the idea of giving a gift to someone else for his birthday. He loved giving things away, so I had our kids choose new mitts, hats and scarves to buy and we gave them to a local men’s shelter. At Christmas, I felt the same sadness over not being able to choose a gift for him, so we decided to do something else with that money that he would have liked us to do.

The first anniversary without him also felt very significant to me, especially as it was our 20th anniversary and we had always intended to go to England for that one. I certainly didn’t want to go there now without him. After a lot of thought (literally months) I decided to go instead to the city where we met and visit with some old friends who knew us before we were a couple. There were some really hard things about that trip, but I’m still glad I went.

Photos| I spent a lot of time in the months after Ramsy’s death looking at old photos, developing negatives that I found in the bottom of a box, and watching videos I had of him. We propped up pictures of him all around the house, and I carried a selection of photos in an envelope in my purse and showed them around to just about anyone I ran into. I bought special photo albums for myself and each of the kids which are just for photos of him. (And here I will just mention one of the weird parts of this experience: part of me wanted to have all his photos and letters and business cards and stuff assembled together in one spot that I could easily access all at once. The other part of me wanted all this stuff to stay where it was- interspersed with all the rest of our household things, in the middle, still part of our everyday life. I’ve never settled on one or the other, and sometimes I move things from place to place depending on how I feel that day.)

Words| Words have been a huge part of my mourning rituals. I have spent weeks reading through the letters and journals I kept from the beginning of our relationship; I have journaled every day for the past year in the form of letters to Ramsy; I have read books and poetry and articles that talk about grief and living; I have written poetry for the first time in many years and many letters and thank you cards; I have written blog posts because it seemed so essential to me to share this experience with the wider world; and I have talked and talked and talked and talked. By writing and talking I learn what I really think, I shape my attitude, I process my decisions, I allow myself to feel the full range of emotions involved in this ridiculous journey.

Art| I don’t consider myself to be a skilled visual artist. I’ve had more experience (and success!) in music and literary efforts. But as helpful as those were to me in the first months, they did not allow for the depth and variety and detail of expression that I desired, so I began to experiment a little bit with what is known as art journaling. It’s when you use both words and drawing or painting or stamping or collage or photo altering (or all of these and more) on the same page to say what you want to say. It’s a form that encourages dabbling and experimenting and is as concerned- or more concerned- with the process as with the finished product. That makes it pretty safe for me, a person who feels very self-conscious about my lack of ability to translate what’s in my head and heart into images. I also made a decorated journal to keep in a waterproof box at the cemetery as a bit of a guestbook or journal for me and for visitors.

A lesson| I learned a valuable lesson the week after the funeral. As it had become apparent that Ramsy was declining, I had identified a couple of items of his that did not have personal significance to me and also took up quite a lot of space. I decided that if he did die, I would want to give away these items immediately. After he died, I contacted people who I thought might like to have these things, and they said yes. And then I panicked. How could I give these things away? What if I regretted it later? Was I somehow saying that these parts of his life were not important to me, or that I wanted him out of the way? So I put off delivering these things for a couple of weeks and left them sitting in my kitchen, and an interesting thing happened. As I walked around these objects day after day, saw them in the middle of our life but saw that they were not being useful, I eventually came to the spot where I was ready to take them to their new homes. And I did, and I have not regretted it.

So here’s the lesson that has been helpful to me dozens of times in the past year, and will continue to help me: you will know. If there’s a task I’m mulling over, wondering if it’s time to do this or that, I take comfort in the fact that I will know when I am ready. If I feel alarm or pressure when I consider taking a certain action, it’s not time yet. Some things I might not be ready to do for weeks or months, or even years. Now, I am very aware that there are necessary tasks in life, like dealing with legal documents and paperwork, or caring for my family’s health and my own, that must not be put off. For those things I need to just put my head down and push through with whatever help and support is available to me. But lots of things are optional, and I can wait until I am truly ready to do them.

And one more thing: just because you try out a certain way of expressing your grief, or a new tradition in your new family format, it doesn’t mean that you are committed to that forever. Realizing that last year as we approached our first Christmas without Ramsy took the pressure off me. We didn’t suddenly have to establish The New Way of doing things all at once or for all eternity. I have found that I might need a certain action on one occasion but not the next. It’s okay to be flexible with that.

Peace to you as you discover your own ways to honour the memory of this person you shared your life with.


Writing by: Shannon Unruh


From Owen:

As the third anniversary of my daughter's death from a car accident approaches, I still find myself to be less driven generally and with reduced energy and not as connected to all the community projects and issues, as before her death. I still have a passion for life, growth and learning - in part to honour her and to not die with her. On less frequent occasions and for a briefer time than I felt in the first months, I experience flashbacks. As there are few grieving models especially addressed to middle-aged males, definitions of strength and coping are self-learned. I have become more aware of my emotions and see them as genuine means to recovery. Safe sharing with and learning from others, whose situations are different from mine yet connected, are a resource to me. Reading what others have written sometimes makes a connection for me. By saying out loud what I'm feeling to someone or even just to myself, helps take away the negative and death-like cloud prevading my world. (which comes at less frequent stretches of time now than initially.) This grieving, although isolating, is mine and mine alone and I claim it as part of who I am now. It is like as though I lost a specific capacity (ie good hearing) I previously took for granted and now learn to adjust and compensate. My respect of others' right to cope in the means and timing of their choice has grown, especially with the love of my life. The depth of our relationship has grown and as has my desire to be beside her. Our other two children, I sense, are finding their way back to confidence and choosing to pursue their dreams, yet profoundly affected by their sister's death. From the familiar scripture Psalm 23 "although I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil", I've chosen to cling to the word "through". As dark and overwhelming as the grieving can be at times, I believe I will find my way through. The evil that I could fear is myself and those self-destructive or self-defeative behaviors. My strength to press on and thrive comes from the Higher Power of my understanding and a means of treasuring the value my daughter brought to my world. I choose to embrace the pain of this catastrophe as a means of bringing more to the living relationships in my life, while holding fast what time I did have with my daughter. Every morning as I awaken, I confront my reality choosing to seek life (which is more challenging some days than others). The power that isolation could have, I confront and decide to accept what the next day will provide as a means of verifying I'm still alive and learning and part of a family and a community.

Owen



Hmm, "I think I feel "normal"! I function well at work and at home with laundry, meals, yardwork etc. I keep in touch with my husband, my children and my extended family. Life seems "normal". And then June arrives with remembrances of ".com", graduation, excitement of hopes and dreams. I acknowledge that my "new normal" is good and more comfortable for me now but there still is an ache for my "old normal".

"You may think you cannot get through this. You can and you will... over time and with the love and support of others, your grief will soften and you will find ways to be happy again. There will come a day when the death is not the first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning". 

From: Healing Your Traumatized Heart, by Alan D.Wolfelt, PhD.


"In every heart there is an inner room, where we can hold our greatest treasures and our deepest pain." 

Marianne Williamson found in "Understanding your Grief" by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

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