Grief and How it Grows

It has been 26 years since my grandparents died. They passed away within 3 months of each other and they were the first people in my life to pass away that I was close to and loved dearly. May of this year marked 9 years that we said goodbye to my father, and this November, it will be 3 years that I exist without my mom. Sometimes that is so hard to believe and yet there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about her; my grief for her is profound. I smile when I am reminded of her and a song on the radio can at times bring instant tears.

We often think that grief is a process that we go through and then let go. Rather I would argue that it is an integrative process. Grief must enter all of our cells; it must do the work of reconciliation, incorporating all of our complicated feelings into something that eventually will feel somewhat okay. Grief comes with its own suitcase, it needs to move in.

Grief, as in everything else, exists on a continuum and it tends to be relative to the relationship. Processing the loss is the important work of grief – but it isn’t something we go through and let go. Rather we grow around grief. Knowing this can help with the process – it can remind us that grief doesn’t need to be an unwanted house guest, but instead a lovely inhabitant of the guest house. One that we will need to visit from time to time but we can also take our space from; knowing that by growing around grief, we continue to do our healthy work.

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Pain is in the Driver’s Seat

For anyone living with chronic pain, they are forever challenged by the fact that try as they might – taking medications on time, getting the right amount of sleep and exercise, eating healthy – if pain decides to take over on any given day, they get bumped out of the driver’s seat. The dissonance that gets created as a result, lies not in the fact that you are having a pain day, but rather that you had expectations for the day. If we can’t get done what we had planned, or get less done than we usually would have, we can be quite hard on ourselves; resulting in feelings of discouragement, and we open the door for the blues to set in.

We are much better served to understand that “when I am having a pain day, my tank is full.” Waking up uncomfortable and sore lets you know that your body and mind are allowed to focus on what needs to happen in order to best alleviate the pain. That might include cancelling plans, doing less than you would normally do, going about tasks at a slower pace, taking more breaks. It is acknowledging that you have woken up with a full tank, and its not going to take much to spark a tipping point. If we can give pain its space, we can begin to celebrate  the fact that “anything I get done today is a bonus.”

When we can begin to be kind to ourselves where our expectations are concerned, we begin to feel that we have some control in our pain day. We may have had to let pain take the driver’s seat, but we can darn sure still give it directions! 🙂

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The Deceiving Side of Abuse

I see many women who come to therapy because of domestic violence; and there are two things that consistently form an observable pattern among their stories:

  1. Full clarity only comes after they leave. In Canada, DV charges are now laid by the police and gone are the old days when a spouse could go into the station and drop the charges; an immediate no contact order is put into place, and both parties can be charged with breach if they contact one another.  This is brilliant – this space is often enough for a woman to be able to recognize the full effects of the abuse; it is very often after greater clarity that she will begin to ask the question “Why did I stay?”
  2. Abusers have a nice side. Sometimes it is even a child-like side. It is the side of them that can be quite charming, it is the side of them you feel sorry for, it is the side of them that does nice things for you after the abuse, it is the side of them that makes it easier to forgive them; this is the part of them that lands you into a place of hope that “this time, things will change.”

But they won’t. And for many women, that is where the clarity comes into play.  Leaving is not an easy process, lots of conflicting emotions and a combing through of the damaging effects of mixed messages, but the facts remain – abusers need to feel superior to their partners, they need to own their partners, they need to blame others for their own inadequacy.

It is not always easy to understand why someone stayed and we can be pretty quick to blame ourselves or to perhaps judge others, but we must always be mindful of the deceiving side of abuse.

If you are in an abusive relationship, please ask for help. Some resources include:

In Renfrew County:

Domestic Violence Agency website in Canada:

USA Hotline:

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Being Mindful About Grief

In an article entitled “Mindful Grief: 3 Ways to Manage Your Sorrow” by Ashley Davis Bush and featured on GoodTherapy, we read about how to be more mindful about the grief process. Bush notes that we tend to have a tendency towards avoiding painful feelings which can lead to complications when we are actively grieving. I especially enjoyed reading the three thoughts she had in trying to give grief its due course:

  1. Intention: Set your intention to welcome the feelings, to learn from them, and to be open to finding the wisdom embedded within the process.
  2. Attention: Pay attention to the natural rhythms of grief. Notice the waves that ebb and flow. See grief rising and falling, washing over you and receding.
  3. No tension: Suffering may be minimized to the degree to which you are able to drop your resistance to the feeling that ‘is’.

As you can see from these tips, we are trying not to avoid our painful feelings, but rather acknowledging their presence. It is okay to give ourselves permission to simply feel the sadness in the moment; have our tears, say our prayers, get an extra squishy hug from a loved one, smile at a memory (even through the tears), write our thoughts down in a journal. It is simply about allowing the active portion of grief to come in so as to go out; when we have given grief some space, we also experience the inherent sense of momentary relief and peace that tends to accompany it. 🙂

To read the full article:

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Removing the Emotional Load

People often come to therapy to work through a trauma; a past or present experience is plaguing them and taking up too much space in themselves. Perhaps they have spent too much time avoiding the after-effects of the negative experience, and it is now creating trouble in their relationships or with the way that they regulate their emotions.

The goal in trying to heal from traumatic experiences is to remove the emotional load. That isn’t to say that recalling the event or being triggered doesn’t bring those emotions up; the emotions that are tied to a negative experience become embedded in our survival brain in order to forewarn us as to a possible re-occurence. What healing from trauma does is allow us to live with it; integrating it into our story, allowing it to co-exist with our strength, resilience and courage.

We can work through our negative experiences by going to therapy, writing about them, thinking about them when we are walking in nature. We can decide to no longer be the secret keeper and tell our trusted loved ones about what happened to us. We can decide that the trauma is no longer going to carry so much weight. By processing the negative experience, we remove its emotional load – leaving more room for seeking joy.

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Chronic Pain; A Function Centered Life

Building on yesterday’s post about how chronic pain can affect someone’s emotional health as well, we can see how chronic pain can often lead someone to living a pain centered life. Prolonged pain can be quite stealthy, invading our system in an insidious way. Often times, we continue to live our life as we always did, ignoring the pain as we plow through our day. This becomes a pain centered way of life, forcing us to eventually face the pain when we have pushed ourselves too far.

So how do we shift it to a more function centered life? One in which we work with our chronic pain and not against it:

  • Get informed. Working with your GP and possible specialists to discover the source of chronic pain is only the first step. Identify with symptoms by researching, join groups online that share similar diagnoses, seek both medical and alternative methods of treatment and look into online resources that can help to understand not only your specific condition but how chronic pain affects you as well.
  • Know your limits. Begin to notice just how much you can do of any activity and re-adjust. This takes some acceptance, but you will be better served by it when you begin to honour your body and just how much it can take. Shorten, tweak, or limit your activities according to your pain.
  • Stay active. Very often, chronic pain can be isolating; even a 10 minute walk around the block is better than staying in bed.
  • Keep your established social connections. Chronic pain can often lead us to say no to activities based on our pain levels; friends are more understanding than we think and keeping them in our life is an important and healthy coping strategy. It just may mean some adjustments – hiking with friends for a day might be out of the question, but how about a spa day instead?
  • Work towards acceptance. Working with our chronic pain is a proactive versus reactive position. You will feel more in the driver’s seat as a result.

A great online course is available from Living Healthy Champlain:

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Three Facts About Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is generally defined as pain that has gone beyond tissue repair, lasting longer than six months, and pain that is not responsive to usual treatment. It can be intermittent, such as migraines, or continuous, such as a back pain. Because chronic pain tends to be insidious, we don’t often realize that chronic pain and mental health disorders tend to go hand in hand.  Three useful facts:

  • Our brain is able to cope with acute pain as it is a part of our survival mechanism. When dealing with chronic pain; however, an emotional component becomes connected to the experience of pain and this leads to suffering and a greater tendency to experience negative emotions.
  • When emotions become intense and sustained over a long period of time, this can lead to mood changes. Over time, this can gradually lead to mental illness; research suggesting that 30 to 50% of people who live with chronic pain also struggle with depression or anxiety.
  • Chronic pain tends to automatically move people into working from a pain centered life. With pain always taking center stage, this can create feelings of helplessness. Moving to a function centered life becomes part of a self-management strategy to working with chronic pain.

Tomorrow’s post will look at how a function centered life can be a healthy approach when living with chronic pain.

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Trauma and Attachment

I have worked with many clients over the years who have suffered traumatic childhoods; ones in which they were thrust into survivor mode from a very young age, often experiencing abuse and/or neglect while having to take on adult roles in the family. In this article, I was impressed with the writer’s words in explaining attachment in the face of trauma.

“Attachment and C-PTSD: How Complex Trauma Gets in the Way” by Fabiana Franco and featured on GoodTherapy, Franco had this to say: “Like all human traits, the ability to form attachment bonds is not purely innate; it is learned behavior. And as with most human learning, attachment is learned by doing. From the moment they exit the womb, babies are learning attachment. This, and not only the need to materially provide for the child, is the basis of the family, a universal component of human society.”

“Survivors of complex trauma typically emerge with gaps in their ability to form attachment bonds with others. This is not to say their desire for attachment is any less—far from it. The unfulfilled desire for connection and pervasive feeling of loneliness in survivors of complex trauma is a major contributing factor to the symptoms they experience, including depression, inability to regulate emotion, and engagement in risky or self-destructive behaviors.”

Successful treatment of trauma often requires long term therapy, but the ability to attach is an innate process and one that can move towards the formation of  safe and secure relationships. A person’s trauma does not have to define them.

To read the full article (it goes into so much more detail):

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11 Months of Covid-19

11 months into Covid-19; in many ways time has passed by quickly and yet in other ways the past seems far away. Coming into the year mark, it feels as though there is a different quality to our movement within this global pandemic.

In Ontario, we are coming out of a lockdown that was instituted on Boxing Day. When I think back to the initial emergency order back in March of 2020, there was a great deal of emphasis placed on ‘getting through this together’ – there was a feeling of unity, of gathering our strength and resources to do what was necessary, of hope. Naivety also helped – we found solace in believing  that perhaps by the summer we would be able to travel, get back to work, things would be normal once more.

Now that we are turning the corner at a year mark, we are more resigned. The tensions of this lockdown were felt by many, as the messages were less about banding together and more about the trouble ahead if we didn’t comply. The vaccines are here, but slow to roll out. Thoughts of travelling this summer have fizzled away. We can feel the weight of Covid-19.

Recognizing the heaviness is the first step in saying “Okay, how do we deal with it?” 

  • Be okay with the gray. The pandemic brings with it uncertainty and a subsequent fear of the unknown. Let that not be our focus. We won’t have black and white on this one and that is okay. “It is what it is.”
  • Focus on today. Taking it farther than focusing on the present moment (which can sometimes feel impossible in the midst of building anxiety), we can ask ourselves when we wake up “How do I want today to look? To feel? What are the things I can do today that will bring me a renewed feeling of being grounded?”
  • Gratitude. Look for your blessings and jot them down. It is one of the most effective ways to feel lighter.
  • Continue to seek connection. Renew commitment to reaching out through phone and video chats. Write letters. Suggest outdoor visits or walks.

Although it often feels as though this pandemic is in the driver’s seat, we can remind ourselves that we are still in this together. Collectively, we can work together to drive the bus to our chosen destination, albeit dealing with the unruly passenger wreaking havoc at the back of the bus 🙂

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Honouring Your Own Story; A Response to Grief

I have been working with a client who is going through her “year of firsts” after losing her grandmother. This time is one of process; one in which we go through the first year, weaving through the stages of grief and learning how to live without our loved one. It is also a time to honour our family member at each “first;” birthdays, holidays, special events so as to both recognize their missed presence and acknowledge the valued place they held in our lives.

This particular young woman is struggling with looking at pictures of her grandmother as it brings her such sadness; yet a dissonance is created, as she so desperately wants to see her grandmother’s smile. She further shared that hearing “your grandmother would not want you to feel so sad all of the time,” is both comforting (as she knows it to be true), yet uneasy as she feels as though somehow it is a catch all phrase when others don’t know how to handle her grief.

In our exploration, we went big picture; we traveled down the path of her grandmother’s story and I was privileged to hear what made this woman so remarkable to her family. When we came back around to the phrase she was struggling with, I asked her “What would your grandmother say right now to you about your own story?” And without hesitation, she stated “She’d want me to live it.” 

We bring our loved ones with us; through our challenges and our triumphs, through the graduations, weddings, births of our children, laughter, tears and treasured moments. Giving ourselves permission to live our own story pays honour and respect to theirs; a lovely gift for those we have had to say goodbye to.

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