404 Grief And Loss | Stephen Garrett

Let Death Stir You Up

If you truly want to honor your deceased loved one let their dying and death stir you up!

Death wasn’t designed to be neat and clean. It wasn’t created to be efficient and medicalized. It wasn’t fashioned to be politically correct or professional. Death was designed to stir us up and get our attention, to bring us present to life so to speak.

In a way death was designed to wake us up, to remind us we are alive, to get us back on purpose. Let me give you several examples that demonstrate what I mean.

My sister Jody’s sudden and unexpected death back in May of 1988 was for sure a great loss to all of us who knew and loved her. I miss her deeply to this very day. That being said I turned my life upside down for the better because of her death! I realized no matter how much wealth I amassed or how many assets I had none of them would get my sister back. I also saw that I was not so happy in my career, it was no longer me. I quit shortly after, moved out west and began a new career in community and social services. My sister death as uncomfortable as it was also a gift – I got to reinvent myself!

My brother Peter’s recent passing in September of 2015 had a similar impact on my life. Watching him die over a six-year time frame particularly in the last five months of his life was really uncomfortable – it was very hard to witness. I wasn’t in denial – I was in discomfort! Peter’s death reminded me loudly that I was alive and he was dead – how extremely lucky I am to BE alive. It shook me up in a very real way. Being with Peter as he was dying my body got a first hand wake up call on a cellular level. If my body could speak this is what it would say; “You too are going to die. Get on with fully living your life. You have no time to waste.” And so I have. Again, a sad and painful loss enlivened my own life.

And finally, as a cremationist I got to witness many families going through end of life of a loved one. I saw first hand their pain and grief – sometimes I witnessed their upset, anger, and confusion as end of life planning was not done or done poorly. Example after example taught me how very important great end of life preparation is. The pain families went through, though difficult and sometimes uncomfortable to witness, inspired me to get all my end of life paperwork in order and further to talk with my immediate family about the contents of my ‘death binder’. Now complete and there to guide my family in the event of my death I feel I have done what a responsible person, husband, and father would do. I have a deeper sense of freedom given all is in place, relief if you will, knowing my family responsibilities have been handled. Now I am getting on with living fully.

So, notice in each of these three examples despite the loss, the sadness, the grief, and the pain there was a ‘gift’. My willingness to be in the discomfort of the loss, to feel it deeply and experience it fully opened the door to me being able to discover the wisdom there was to glean from the death I had witnessed. I let death be my teacher. Had I run from the discomfort, covered up and pulled away from the raw reality of the dying and the death I would not have stumbled into the lessons death provided for me.

Instead of pulling back from dying and death step towards it. Be willing to feel the discomfort, the loss, the missing, and the grief in a real and human way. Doing this opens the door for profound learning and keys to living life even more fully – to live with passionate abandon.

Grief Does Not Have A Roadmap!

In my work with grief and loss I have yet to find a roadmap. Yes, I have found markers, street signs, hiking signs, and highway markers – things to notice along the way. I have not found a formula, a recipe or that one way that many look for to make sure they are grieving ‘properly’.

The two diagrams below show very clearly what I am writing about. The stages of grief picture seems to me to be what folks are looking for. The My Experience, a diagram from my friend Yvonne Heath, is what I have discovered to be much more accurate.

The markers are the same in both diagrams, such issues as fear, disorganization, loneliness, new patterns, and helping others are all reliably there in many cases. When they appear, the pattern we experience and re-experience them in, how long we experience them, and how we express them is all unique and individual. The journey is very personal.

And it is messy! It is chaotic! It is all over the place for most of us though we try desperately to make order and sense out of it. I know we would all prefer a nice neat road map so we can successfully navigate our way through grief, it just isn’t that way. The messiness is part and parcel of grief, its spontaneous nature, and its unwillingness to show up at the ‘right time’.

Click on stages of grief to see what I mean…    Stages of grief

A few helpful hints;

  • Your grief and expression of is not a burden. It is in fact a generous gift we can offer our family and friends. It is simply and expression of the depth of our love for our deceased loved one.
  • Let grief have its way with you, surrender if you will to the uncertainly of the ride knowing that the journey will come to a successful end as you let it run its course.
  • Have several friends you can rely on to receive your expression of grief with out you needing to edit it.
  • Eat good food, pray a little, and love yourself as you walk along the random path of grief.
  • Hugs are great.

The Expression of Grief – A Burden or A Gift?

In our North American culture it seems expressing our grief is viewed as a bit of a burden for both parties – the ones grieving and the ones witnessing the grief. This emotional burden ‘syndrome’ affects not only those of us surviving the death but also those dying.

Somehow grief has become a burden, one that we all do our best to avoid at all costs, not knowing that the ‘avoidance’ is the true cost. I am not sure how we got here. Was it the British stiff upper lip thing? Was it some sort of Catholic suffer in silence teaching? Was it a result of ongoing wars? Or was it simply a learned behavior?

I am guessing it is a combination of all those issues, and in a way who cares. What is more important is to change our view of grief and to turn from a burden to a gift – yes a gift!

I have noticed often how people, and often the one dying, do not want to burden others with their grief. Those feeling this way often speak like this;

“See you at the funeral and PS don’t make me cry I really don’t like it.”

“ I am doing way better than the fellow down the hall.”

“ Don’t worry about me, I’m just fine.”

“I need to hold it together for the family.”

These phrases, and many more like them, point to the burden many of us believe our grief and emotions represents to others.

From my perspective our grief is actually an outward expression of our love for the one who has died. So how can our love be a burden? How I see it is that our sadness and grief is a genuine gift to others of the love we have for our dear one who has passed. Sharing our grief is truly sharing our love.

So let’s make a change. Let us all be generous with our love – let us share our grief with our larger community! Grief is a gift that can inspire others to love even more fully those they are with, those still alive.

“Since you will come 
and throw kisses 
at my tombstone later


why not give them to me now


this is me 


that same person”

Rumi

My First Christmas Without Peter

The year after a loved one has passed is full of firsts – first time without Peter at Easter, at his birthday, on Grey Cup Day, Thanksgiving this list is never ending. These notable dates for the first year can be daunting and full of pregnant silences if we don’t recognize they are coming. If we don’t prepare and plan for them given our loved one will not be there and it will be painfully obvious by the awkwardness in the home.

Christmas and New Year’s Holiday Season is upon us and this season in particular can be very challenging indeed. In this article we are going to discuss what can be done to include the memory of our loved one, involve their spirit and celebrate the Holiday Season at the same time.

It is all about making space for our celebration of the season, the feelings of missing our deceased family member, and planning the days to include their memory in our celebrating.

So let us begin.

The first point I would like to make is that talking about the days, the meals, the presents, and the gatherings that will be happening without our loved one present is really important.

“Well, the best thing to do as far as I can see is to talk about it as a family – to face it head on especially emotionally. Recognize and honor the fact out loud that our loved one won’t be around the tree, table, or celebration in their customary way. There will be an obvious hole or empty place in the festivities and family traditions. Then simply have an open conversation about how to include them and all of the above issues in this your first Christmas without them.” Stephen Garrett, EmbraceYourDeath.com

The second point is to create some ways you and your family can have your loved one’s memory present symbolically. Here are some questions you could use to encourage your creativity;

Will you buy them a gift?

Will you set a place at the table for them?

Will you have their picture on the mantle?

Will you mention their name and speak of past Christmas memories?

Will you put out a stocking for them? Or,

Will you hold their memory in your heart and do none of the above?

Third point is simple – make a plan! Create the day or days to include the activities you and your family spoke about, actually make it happen. Notice as you go through your day if your plan is working and feel free to change it to meet your needs more fully.

Forth point is once the Holiday Season has come and gone take time to review how your celebrations went and revise them for next year. In other words create some rituals or family practices to involve your deceased love ones in your Holiday Celebrations ongoingly.

Remember this,

“Avoid at all cost not talking about your late loved one, this denial will make your holiday celebrations awkward and tight. No matter what ideas you come up with the important thing is to talk about it, be as open as you can as you chat about what to do and how to remember them. Let the emotions flow if they come up, remember sadness and grief are signs of our enduring love for our deceased love.  Finding ways to include your deceased loved one in this first Christmas holiday celebration without them will serve their memory and your entire family. It could be the best Christmas present ever.” ”  Stephen Garrett, EmbraceYourDeath.com

This year I am taking my Montreal Canadiens ball hat and t-shirt to a Wallace family Christmas Gathering in Vulcan, AB.  In honour of my brother Peter I will have my ball cap and my t-shirt on through out the day (my hat will not be on my head during Christmas dinner though 🙂 ). When asked about my attire I will have the opportunity to share a Peter story for Christmas – My way of honoring Peter’s life and death.

Grief the Consummate Trickster

I have been around dying, death, and loss formally since the mid 1990’s and I have always said there is no formula for it – no one way to express it. Well, given my very personal experience with my brother Peter’s death I can say I was most profoundly right.

Grief seems to have a mind of its own. It shows up when it shows up and usually it is not concerned with where I am, whom I am with, what time of day it is, or what I am doing. As a matter of fact it seems to show up when I am most relaxed, busy with life, and not at all expecting it.

I could be at brunch with friends, in a meeting, giving a talk, out in the garden, driving the car, putting the garbage out, or playing cribbage.   Not to dismiss notable dates, they are worth keeping in mind, but any date seems to be a good day for grief.

Here is a recent example;

I was out for brunch with two dear friends of ours, Amber and Jesse, having a wonderful time reconnecting, enjoying the food and company, and just catching up. Well, when it was my turn to share I started to tell them of my adventures with Peter in Creston and up popped grief most unexpectedly, and the trickster didn’t mind at all that the restaurant, El Camino, was packed, and that the server was at our table checking in to see how the meal was.

What’s a fella’ to do?

Well, I simply let the grief that was there express itself. Basically did my best not to resist its expression, nor did I force it. I just let grief do its thing. Everyone got it, no one tried to make me feel better or make the grief go away. We all let it fill our space and in a way enjoy it. The natural way it came out seemed to draw us all closer in life, in relationship, and in reality. It was lovely.

The art of it seems to be to just let it flow, not to make sense of it or the timing of it but simply to express what’s there. In a way to be generous with the emotions and let others feel what is real for me in my own unique walk with grief. After all it really is an expression of how deeply I loved my dear brother Peter and what a wonderful gift that is to share.

Ah, the trickster what a fine friend grief can be. Comfort can be found in sharing it generously – after all how can love be a burden?

The Makings of a Good Death

Peter died on Thursday September 17, 2015 at 8:32 pm PST – it was a good death. Yes, I hear the question, “How can any death be a good death?” Let me explain.

We had a few things in our favor, time, open communication, faced the hard conversations, a willingness to share our experience of Peter’s ride with cancer, and strong spiritual beliefs.

Time

As the old saying goes, time was on our side. Peter’s ride with cancer was 6 years long so we had ample time to prepare. The first cancer prognosis was a hard one for all of us to hear, especially Peter. Here is an excerpt from a piece Peter wrote for my book When Death Speaks;

“I arrived the Sunday before the treatments were to start and checked into the cancer care lodge immediately adjacent to the cancer clinic. The lodge was a godsend as hotels in the Okanagan in the middle of summer can be pricey. The lodge was not only affordably priced—it also included all meals and had a nurse on staff. In addition, there was an incredible group of volunteers without whom the lodge could not function.

I checked in and got unpacked in my half of the room (turns out I was to have a roommate) and then went down to the cafeteria for dinner. I grabbed a tray and headed towards the line-up and stopped halfway there, frozen in place.

It finally hit me that my cancer was real.

I was going to get my first radiation treatment the next morning. All this time, I thought that I had been handling things well—more likely I had been at least somewhat in denial. I could not move. I felt overwhelmed, terrified, and alone.”

The rest of us were shocked too, though all were optimistic and hopeful. After all catching cancer early was a good thing and we do have chemo and radiation therapies to treat this. Secretly though I had the thought, “Shit this could be it. Peter could die.” I wasn’t the only one I am certain.

And so began the pre-grieving, Peter was no longer immortal and we all began consciously or unconsciously to prepare for the end. Each treatment failure, each new prognosis gave each of us time to let go a little more of Peter. The spring of 2015 brought along the final chance to pre-grieve – a trip to Vancouver General Hospital for stem cell treatment, hopeful indeed, yet reality was settling in. Family showed up to support Peter during the two months he was in town. Pre-grieving was an obvious reality to us all, including Peter.

So you see time gave us all an advantage – we got to let go of Peter a little bit at a time.

Open Communication

We spoke to each other it is that simple, we kept each other on the same page. Yes we had our differences, and we each had our own way of approaching the challenges Peter faced. And to be sure we all chipped in, sometimes passionately because we all cared deeply. What saved our collective bacon though was this realization:

We realized early on in the goings that we all had input – Peter had final say.

Once Peter had made a treatment choice we all fell in line behind his choice and supported him.

Hard Conversations

We didn’t shy away from the hard conversations, those chats that that were about impending death. Those discussions about end of life preparation, those talks about life without Peter.

We all faced them with Peter and with each other.

So we had time, we talked openly, and we faced the difficult conversations. The topper that I personally feel made a huge difference in our process was this;

Willingness to Share Our Experience

Each of us, Peter included, shared our experience of Peter’s ride with cancer publicly, Peter’s piece for my book was really helpful for readers and for him. Personally, I felt strongly that others could learn from our experience, that our sharing so openly might help at least one other person facing death – doing my best to make conversations about dying and death normal in our death denying culture.

This public sharing actually helped each of us express what was real as opposed to stuffing it all down and holding on to our emotional response to Peter’s adventures with cancer – a kind of public catharsis. I think our generosity in this way somehow soothed the pain we were feeling.

Strong Spiritual Beliefs

Each of my family members has a strong spiritual or religious belief, some Anglican, some a type of First Nations belief, some a type of Buddhist approach and other just kinda’ Spiritual. Each though had faith in their belief that there was something more than just the human being and that something more existed in some way, some how. This was all that was needed spiritually was this ‘faith’.

So this is what made Peter’s death a good death, we used the time we had to let go gradually, we talked to each other and stayed current and had the difficult conversations, and we had a faith in something larger than human life, and we shared our dying, death and loss experiences generously and publicly.

It worked for us, I might just work for you.

Warmly and with gratitude

Stephen

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Cure to Comfort in One Simple Sentence

At some point in time some of you or some one you know may hear words like these, stunning, sometimes shocking, and always sobering.

“I am sorry to say the illness you have is terminal there is nothing more we can do treatment wise. We are treating you now as a palliative patient.” said the doctor.

My brother heard these words last week and passed it on to me via email this way.

Test results are in and not good. Mainstream medicine is washing its hands of me as far as treatment goes and shifting completely to palliative. Will be calling Mom et al to let them know verbally.” He typed.

Bang! Just like that from hope to the end is coming, from there is a slim chance to I am dying, all in one simple sentence of only 29 words. Sometimes this is all the patient gets before the doctor leaves the room.

Even though the thought may have crossed the patients’ mind before, in this case Peter’s, it was a fleeting moment – the uninvited guest, death, being ushered away by either hope the butler or denial the maid. Now, the guest invited or not wasn’t going to be ushered away, hope and denial had been replaced by stark truth ushered in by the messenger reality.

I sent a text off to my brother’s wife April that went like this.  “Thinking of coming your way in mid-September… how are you doing?” I querried.

Her reply relayed the blunt news from the medical system had an immediate impact.

“Good day today. Darren is here. Leaving Monday. We r going to plan a short Winnipeg trip. Shud b back by mid September. Will let u know when things r sorted. Peter has good pain control now, sleeping & in good spirits for real, no more denial. Things r pretty organized for care etc.” April responded.

Peter’s son Darren in Creston for a visit. Peter heading back to Winnipeg to see his sons living there. Me heading to Creston to visit Peter. My mom and sisters planning another trip west. This time, these texts, telephone calls, trips, and visits take on deeper meaning – they could be and some time soon will be the last one.

Reality has finally set in and I am thankful for that. Personally, I would rather deal with the raw reality of it all than mess with the hammerhead of hope and denial. Yes it is a rough go, and at last we are all on the same page now and that is way easier to work with.

Now is time now for fun, memories, appreciation, bad family jokes, gratitude, and meaning – forget the charts, the numbers, the treatments, and the prognosis, these days are about living as fully as we all can given the end is nearing.

Warmly and with deep gratitude

Stephen

 

 

 

 

Life Goes On – So Does the Dying

There is that old expression that pops up often when we have lost a loved one to death, it goes something likes this:

“Life goes on.”

Short and sweet for sure and there is a piece missing –  so does the dying.

“Life goes on”, is the rally call back to action, back to life, back to normal.   Let’s move on, enough already and yes life does go on so let’s get back to it.  So does the dying though.

Each day, each week, each month and each year we are reminded that our loved one has died and is no longer with us physically. We see a restaurant we used to frequent. An old friend calls to chat with our deceased loved one not knowing they have passed. Sunday at church. Monday at work. September and doing the canning.

All these events of life remind us of our loss, the dying goes on too.

October and the beginning of hockey season, thanks giving in Canada. November and the first snow, unless of course you live in Calgary, and thanks giving in the United States. December and the holiday season, Christmas week and Christmas day. Followed all to quickly by New Year’s Eve and the month of January and all the new it brings.

No New Year resolution for your late loved one though, the dying begins anew too.

The days are getting longer, spring is in the air and the birth of new buds and plants. The birds come back. The lawn needs cutting and all of a sudden its May. Plant the garden. Bring out the lawn furniture – all alone. Renew the car insurance, the home insurance too. Do your taxes without the help of your loved one who died last year and you are still feeling the dying even today. A birthday goes by uncelebrated.

The dying goes on too.

Knowing all this it would be good to plan for these obvious notable dates and be prepared to celebrate all the memories you shared with your loved one at these times as well as your feelings of sadness and missing. As life does go on the intensity of the dying will begin to diminish though with a little effort the sweetness and missing will always remind you of how much you loved.

Warmly and with gratitude

Stephen

Ascending or Transcending Who Cares – We Are Humans – Being.

I was reminded again at a recent Death Café that New Aged Spiritual beliefs can be a real avoidance or bypass around our very human life.   It doesn’t matter whether these beliefs are right or wrong, what matters is their usefulness in the moment – their artful application.

Here is the story.

A woman was relating the story of the loss of her 5-year old son who was killed by a motorist in a hit and run accident. The motorist was never charged. The woman was deeply angry, hurt, and guilty. The accident happened many years ago and yet in the story telling it felt as if it were yesterday.

It was raw, real, and uncomfortable. It was a powerful share others were moved by. The discomfort was actually instructive and was helping people learn some very human lessons. At the same time this very discomfort was shaking people up to the point they felt they had to do something other than feel it all, be thankful for it all, and let it be so.

Yep out came the new age ‘stuff’. “Well I know he is in a free and safe place and that he is happy.” “We are more than just our body, we are a spirit that experiences many lives.” And so on. All well intended no doubt and each person that was speaking these notions really believes in them and believed their sharing them would be helpful. “Practice peaceful acceptance and you will feel better tomorrow.”

What these well-intentioned folks didn’t see or didn’t get was their words of encouragement – their beliefs – were not being helpful in the least. The woman sharing was in a deeply human place of pain and loss and all this talk of her son being in a better place whether true or not, was not of any help to her in this very raw human moment. Truth seemed to me to be that those folks trying their best to be helpful were subconsciously avoiding the discomfort of this deeply human loss.

These beliefs or tools may well be valid, this is not the issue at hand. What is the issue is welcoming, allowing, accepting, this very healthy, natural, raw, personal human expression of grief and loss as the uncomfortable gift is truly is. The individual sharing was not broken and did not need to be fixed or made to feel better which is what we do when we don’t want to feel the intensity of emotions.

Better approach – breath, receive the emotional share, stay as open as you can, and relax into your own feelings of discomfort. Using new age spirituality to avoid your own discomfort in an odd way is abusive of the raw human emotional experience being shared.

There is a time and place for all beliefs.  The artistry is to know when to share them.

The Two Faces of Grief

It seems to me that there are two distinct pieces or faces of the journey with grief. There is absolutely the piece of missing a loved one, the sadness and sorrow that accompanies the death of a family member or friend. That kind of gut wrenching, heartfelt knowingness that you will never get to be with them physically, mentally, or emotionally again. That space they filled in your life is now and forever more empty.

Then there is that piece of I wish I hads and I wish I hadn’ts. This for me is the tough spot, the knot in grief that seems undoable. Your friend or family member is dead and you can not make it up to them – time ran out on the two of you before you could make the amends. Before you could apologizes for things you did in your own estimation that you think you should not have done. And then there are those things you thought of doing that you failed to do and you think in your estimation you should have done them.

What to do?

A suggestion…

Fess up! Write a note to your loved one and express through the letter what you did and did not do in your relationship with them that you feel badly about. Read it over several times, make sure you are complete as you can be. Then head out in nature somewhere special for you, take a friend if you wish, and do a simple burning ritual and as your note of confession goes up in flames and smoke let go as deeply as you can of those very regrets setting both you and you loved one free.

Warmly and with love
Stephen